3 Who are Today’s Students?

Jennifer Beasley and Myra Haulmark

Who Are Today’s Students?

We have all spent time as students, and our teachers had their opinions of us. Some of those opinions may have been based in fact and some of them may have been based in their own prejudice and bias. We have to accept students for who they are, where they come from, and the circumstances of their life. We have to keep our personal bias and prejudice out of the classroom. If we do not we will, even if we don’t realizestudent group it, treat them in a way that may have a negative impact on the learning environment and their learning.

It is known that in order to learn, we have to take a risk. According to Erikson’s “Stages of Social Development,” if the circumstances are positive, we develop a sense of autonomy during our toddler years. Autonomy is the feeling/belief that we can do things, we can take care of ourselves, and we can do for ourselves. The next stage which we enter around three years old is where we develop the initiative. We try new things, explore, and experiment. It is during both of these stages that we take many risks.  Autonomy and initiative are major foundations for the learning process.

Erikson's Eight Stages*Google Images

Who are today’s students? We understand that we all come from different family structures and socio-cultural backgrounds.  Understanding these differences helps an educator to better meet the needs of the classroom.

Objectives and Key Terms

In this chapter, readers will…

  • Discuss the predominant issues and societal trends confronting contemporary education.
  • Identify diversity and how it impacts education
  • Explain how the role of the teacher both is impacted and impacts how children are served in the school

Key terms in the chapter are…

  • Diversity
  • Multiculturalism
  • Socioeconomic status
  • IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act)
  • Child abuse
  • Bullying


In order for us to feel confident and secure in taking risks, we have to feel safe. We have to be both physically and psychologically safe. Our students have to be relatively sure that their physical being is not in danger. Equally important is being psychologically safe. Students have to feel they will not be laughed at, made fun of, ridiculed, or humiliated for their learning endeavors. Do you remember teachers who used some of these techniques in their teaching or allowed classmates to engage in these behaviors? If you look at Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” you will see that safety needs are the next level above basic food and shelter.

Maslow's Hierarchy

Educators play an important role in helping students feel safe.  If a student does not feel psychologically safe, he/she may stop engaging in class because it is  “safer” that way, especially if it is a student who struggles with academic endeavors.   When this happens, learning fails to take place.

A major factor in feeling safe, and being willing to take risks lies in the relationship between teacher and student.  Teachers have to work to develop a respectful, trusting relationship with students.  The lack of this relationship is the cause of many difficulties in the classroom between teacher and student, as well as the lack of motivation and willingness to take learning risks.    Part of treating students respectfully is listening to their ideas, concerns, and thoughts and being willing to compromise with them.

Students are Different

Students are different.  They each come with special academic, social, cultural, and emotional needs.  This section will highlight some differences found in classrooms today and how educators help connect with their students.

Academic Needs

While human growth and development follow predictable patterns and stages, every human goes through the stages at a different rate. A teacher may be teaching a room full of eighth-graders who are at various levels of development. This is particularly challenging for teachers in the elementary years. It is not uncommon to teach in a classroom with four or five different reading levels. It is only with this knowledge that teachers can truly understand students and provide the best possible learning environment for them.

Student wearing glasses and reading a book
Student reading CC0 from pixabay.com

Our current knowledge of a subject forms the base for future learning. Educators take students where they are at and build on their current knowledge. This perspective will change what educators do with students and it will make a difference in how the student perceives themselves. If they have a more positive perception of their skills and abilities, you will find they are more willing to take risks.  For example, if an educator tells a student, “Your paragraphing skills are poor and we need to work on improving them”, the conversation starts with a negative and the student feels inadequate and this impacts self-esteem, and confidence, as well as motivation.  However, if educators tell the same student, “Your writing contains new insights and ideas that are not often considered by others.  One way we can improve on the understanding of those ideas, however, is to work on improving your paragraphing skills.  We can work on that together.”  Educators set a more positive tone and greater confidence in the student.  Try not to get into the mindset of trying to “fix” what’s not working and work from the idea of “This is where the student is strong, and this is where I want to take them.”  It will make a big difference in the student’s willingness to work hard, and in their success.

Areas of Diversity

While our students will be at different levels of learning, they will have different learning needs and possess a variety of learning styles as well. They will also differ in many other ways. A few of these are:

  • Gender
  • Family Structure
  • Family’s beliefs on education
  • How family values education
  • Socioeconomic Status
  • Culture
  • Language
  • Background Knowledge/Experience
  • Religion
  • Students receiving Special Education Services
  • Students who are working above grade level in one or more area

Classrooms are diverse in many ways, but one thing is almost certain, you will have students in your class who are receiving special education services. Prior to 1975, special education students were segregated into their own classrooms, or not even included in our neighborhood schools. In 1975, Public Law 94-142 created provisions for special needs students to be included in our schools. In 1990, it was amended and renamed the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” (IDEA) The law mandates that services be provided for students.  Review the information on IDEA in the chapter, “School Laws and Organization”.

Child coloring with colored pencils
Child coloring CC0 from pixabay.com

Teachers may also have students in your classroom who are working above grade level in one subject area or more. Some, but not all, may be identified as gifted and/or talented by their school. When you have children you know need an additional challenge, work with parents and other professionals to provide the necessary experiences for them.

Family: A Partner in Education

One of the biggest influences on a student is the family. There are a wide variety of family structures in our society today. The current state of our economy has placed a financial burden on many families. The structure of a family, the expectations they have for their children, the economic and social climate that they live under and the overall well-being of the family will influence a child’s performance in school. It is our responsibility to be aware of situations and help students work and deal with them, not ridicule or punish because of circumstances. We have to respect families for what they are, accept and tolerate their ideas, values, and circumstances even if we don’t agree. Here is another place where we have to push our biases and prejudices aside and look at what’s best for the student. For example, a child goes to daycare every day after school and in the evening he/she is cared for by grandparents because one or more parents work. We would want to look closely at any homework we might consider sending home. Chances are this child is not going to have the opportunity, or the support, to get it done. Sending it anyway sets the student up for failure from the start. We might have to modify our practices to accommodate this child. Being a teacher is not easy! If you think it is, I suggest you look for another career. I don’t want you to be disappointed later. In order to do the best for our students, we often have to go the extra mile, change many of our practices, and look for ways to accommodate students and their situations.

What do you think?

Cartoon owl sitting on a book is licensed under CC0.


Who are today’s students?

To address the opening question, “Why do teachers teach?”, the answer is simple; “They teach for the love of children and to contribute to the well-being of all of us” (Teachers are Important, 1998, para. 4).  It is something inside them. It is a drive, a force, a passion, a talent that motivates to teach his or her students in order to watch them succeed.  Choosing to be a teacher is not for the money, as a teacher’s monetary compensation is hardly adequate given all that they give to their students.  Becoming a teacher is almost like heeding a calling.  It is not for the light at heart, but rather, for those who love children and people, who have a passion for education, and who love to share in that passion.


Dig Deeper

The following resources are provided when “digging deeper” into the chapter:

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004)


Modified from “Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment”, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


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Introduction to Education Copyright © 2021 by Jennifer Beasley and Myra Haulmark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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