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The littlest teacher

Eleven-year-old gives pre-service Werklund teachers an insider's view of what elementary school kids think

March 02,2017

EYES OPEN, EYES HIGH: Inspiring Visions in the Midst of Difficult Teaching and Learning

The littlest teacher Eleven-year-old gives pre-service Werklund teachers an insider's view of what elementary school kids think

EYES OPEN, EYES HIGH: Inspiring Visions in the Midst of Difficult Teaching and Learning

Lena Shulyakovskaya looks on as 11-year-old Grade 6 student Safaa discusses assessment practices with Werklund School undergraduate students.

EYES OPEN, EYES HIGH: Inspiring Visions in the Midst of Difficult Teaching and Learning

Lena Shulyakovskaya says guest speaker Safaa helped bust the myth that students try harder when they get bad grades.

It’s early on a Wednesday afternoon as 30 undergraduate students in the Werklund School of Education file into a classroom on the third floor of the Education Classroom Block. 

Since the beginning of the semester, they’ve been coming together four days a week to learn about and discuss various assessment practices in elementary schools in Alberta. By now, they've headed out for their final practicum assignments.

Lena Shulyakovskaya is the teacher; the MA student in the Werklund School’s program in Educational Research works as a sessional instructor for the Bachelor of Education (BEd) program. Today, however, Shulyakovskaya is not at the front of the class. In her place is Safaa, an 11-year-old Grade 6 student — a little smaller and a little younger than most lecturers on a university campus, yet speaking with just as much authority on the subject at hand.

Student's voice narrows pre-service teachers' knowledge gap

“I chose to bring in an elementary school student as a guest speaker because the student voice is largely underrepresented in decision-making, policy, and research when it comes to assessment,” explains Shulyakovskaya. She believes students can offer input that needs to be heard.

“The lack of student voice creates a knowledge gap between what children think and what adults think. That knowledge gap is a big problem, and by asking Safaa to talk to the class, I was hoping to make the gap a little bit smaller for the pre-service teachers in my class.” 

Safaa says she was both excited and nervous, “but not in a bad way. I feel good because I get to teach them something instead of them teaching me. It’s a good opportunity.”

Connecting classroom to real-life experience provides meaningful lesson

Shulyakovskaya’s goal was for her students to learn more about what elementary school students believe is useful feedback, what they think about good and bad grades, and how students interpret rubrics and various assessment tasks. “It is great to connect class discussions and class readings to real-life experiences of someone who is an insider of the elementary school system,” she says.

Long after Safaa's visit, the undergraduate students continued to reflect back on the meaningful lessons learned from their little lecturer. "Safaa told the class bad grades don't mean anything to her and don't encourage her to try better in the future, if the knowledge and skills she received bad grades on are disconnected from life outside of school," says Shulyakovskaya. "That moment demonstrated the importance of connecting lesson content to students' lives outside of the classroom and making learning relevant. It also negated the popular myth that bad grades motivate students to try harder in the future."

As for the young instructor, Safaa says she hopes teaching university students from her own perspective reminded them what it feels like to be an elementary school student. And she says she’s one who has the experience to do just that. 

“I have also been through all of elementary system, so I have the most experience to talk about this.” Important words, and an important lesson from an insider’s perspective.