A colleague shared the “I wish my teacher knew” phenomenon with me this year. She’d tried it with her class, and I was anxious to try it with my own. When I did, I was amazed and humbled. I wished I had done this from the beginning.
What is this “I wish my teacher knew” thing?
The whole movement was started by Kyle Schwartz, a third grade teacher in Colorado. She asked her kids to finish the sentence “I wish my teacher knew …” on an index card. Her students opened up to her and shared some very personal and surprising facts that you can find on her website. She later published a book about her experience. (I haven’t read it yet, but it looks fascinating.)
The whole point of the exercise, of course, is to get to know your kids. To find out what they’re like: what they love, what scares them, what they need help with. Anything really. They hold so much in those little heads, and it’s rare for anyone to ask them to bare their souls.
Implementing “I wish my teacher knew”
Setting the stage
I wrote my own fourth grade version of a letter to introduce the lesson to my class. I included three things I wanted my teacher to know about me, being vulnerable but also having fun with it so that they could see the possibilities of what they might include in their own letter. Here is the letter I shared with them on the projector:
There is a lot to me, so it’s hard to narrow it down to three things. You’ll get to know me as the year goes on, but there are three main things I think you should know about me now. First, I had an accident to my eye, and I’m really uncomfortable when people stare at me. Second, I really love horses. And finally, I am pretty shy and have trouble speaking up.
My accident happened early this year. I accidentally cut my eye with a knife. To answer the usual questions, yes it hurt, no I can’t see much, and no it doesn’t hurt anymore. But the important thing I want you to know is that it really bothers me when people stare at me. This happens a lot. When I go with my Mom to the supermarket, or to CVS, or anywhere, people will either stop and stare, or will look at me and then give me an embarrassed smile. I know they don’t mean to be impolite, but it makes me really uncomfortable and I wish I could walk somewhere and not have people gaping all the time. It’s actually really annoying. I know you can’t do anything about this, but it’s just something about me that I feel is really important.
On a less serious note, I love horses. You could say I’m obsessed. My next door neighbors have a horse, and I visit it every day and feed him bits of grass from my yard. His name is Patches, and he’s a real sweetie and he follows me around when I go over to his fence. I’ve taken out all the books in our library on horses, both fiction and non-fiction. I can’t seem to get enough. I’d love to get riding lessons, but Mom says we can’t afford that right now. I hope to get a horse someday, though. My Dad says they are a lot of work and money, but I think I could do it. I love animals and I think I’d do a really good job of taking care of a horse. I’ve learned how to comb them, and where to stand so you don’t get accidentally kicked. If you know of any horse books around that I haven’t discovered yet, I’d love to see them!
The last thing you should know about me is that I’m really shy. I feel like every year in school, the teachers are always telling me to speak up and repeat things. They say I mumble and talk too soft. I’ve tried speaking as loud as I can, but it doesn’t seem to help. I have lots of ideas, but I’ve kind of stopped sharing them, because I always end up having to say stuff over and over so they can hear me. With this shyness, I don’t feel comfortable just walking up to people and starting conversations. I have a best friend, Mary, and I can talk to her about anything, but she’s not in my class this year. I tend to only have a couple of friends, rather than a whole bunch, but I kind of like that better. Anyway, if I don’t talk a lot in class, it’s not because I don’t know the answer all the time. It’s usually just the shyness.
As any teacher knows, when you get real with kids, there’s an energy shift in the room. Nobody goofs off. All eyes are on you. Writing your own fourth-grade version letter is one of the most powerful things you’ll do all year. Don’t be afraid to to show your warts – if it’s all rainbows and lollipops, that pretty much all you’ll get in return. If it’s all deep stuff, it will scare some kids away. But if you have a good balance, they’ll feel more comfortable with their options.
We told our kids to write about three things they wanted us to know. These wouldn’t be corrected. We weren’t worried about spelling or sentence structure. It could be one big paragraph or, if they knew how, they could divide it up into smaller paragraphs. We left the whole thing pretty loose on purpose.
We also said that these letters were just for us teachers. They would not be shared with other students.
Plain lined paper works great, but you can Download this pdf if you like a little more flair. If you have a very resistant writer, you can try index cards instead so they won’t get overwhelmed by a large blank page. (And if they use up one, just keep handing them index cards. Those bite-sized pieces will embolden them to write more. Index card templates are included in the free download.)
Writing the “What I wish my teacher knew” letters
Let your kiddos know how much time they’ll have (we did 45 min – 1 hour). Make sure they have what they need. And then let them go at it.
If you have private work space dividers, you can use those. You can also scatter your kids about the room in different areas, so they have space to think and write without worry someone might read their work.
And if it helps, you can put on some unobtrusive wordless music in the background.
While I can’t share individual letters here, as they were very special and private, I can say that the kids took this very seriously. Topics that came up included bullying and even a presidential election. They shared what made them feel good — gymnastics, reading, video games — and what they struggled with either at home or in school. New babies in the family. Recent deaths. It ran the gamut.
Most important, it gave us a more three-dimensional view of our new charges. It was a delightful shortcut in getting to know them. And as any teacher worth her salt knows, with a solid relationship in place, students can make incredible academic and personal growth.
If you try this, you will learn things about your kiddos that you never suspected.
Download this pdf and try this out with your own classroom!
And/or tell us in the comments below …
- Have you tried the “I wish my teacher knew” letters in your classroom? What happened?
- What do you wish your fourth grade teacher had known about you?
- What do you wish other people today knew about you?
If you found this valuable or if you know someone who would love trying this out in their room, please share it on social media below.
Have a great week!
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