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Gradient Learning

Because reading, writing, and arithmetic just scratch the surface

8.21.2023

Jemimah Kim doesn’t hesitate when speaking about the impact of teaching the whole student.

“Molding students into becoming good people has never been more important,” Kim said. “It’s not just about getting them to know how to add or subtract, or scoring well on a test. We have to make sure we’re seeing each student as a whole student and that they feel valued.”

Kim, an eighth-grade teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Chicago, said it’s imperative for educators to understand how small modifications in their teaching routines can provide students a stronger sense of self and a greater ability to learn.

“It’s so rewarding to know that we’re making a real difference in our kids’ lives,” Kim said. “But you can’t do that if you don’t find time to get to know them. We’re making sure all of our students are being seen, heard, and cared for.”

Kim’s views on the importance of a whole student approach to education is shared by educators across the country, as evidenced by the results of a Gradient Learning Poll about “Educating the Whole Student.” In partnership with Project Tomorrow, Gradient Learning surveyed nearly 1,500 teachers nationwide to better understand their views on the state of education.

Ninety-one percent of teachers agreed that when schools prioritized whole student learning, students perform better inside and outside of the classroom. The survey also found that 88% of teachers are calling for schools to adopt a broader definition of student success to include both academic and non-academic skills.

‘Vitally important to their future’

Tammy Stephens, a teacher at Bear Lake High School in Idaho, has heard “way too many buzzwords” come and go throughout her 40-plus years of teaching. But Stephens makes it clear that “whole student” encompasses far more than another fashionable phrase. It’s a powerful way of teaching that has helped Stephens’ students thrive as teenagers and later as adults.

“Find out what your students enjoy, what makes them tick, and then you’ll learn how you can reach them best,” Stephens said. “Even those students you may interact with only occasionally, try to find out a little bit more about them. I really feel like what we do in the classroom is vitally important to their future, no matter what their future is.

“It’s so important for our students to figure out what they want to do and be able to take those lifelong skills with them away from high school.”

A whole student approach to education ensures that each student is engaged, supported, and challenged. Hilary Downs, the Director of Summit Learning at Aspen Public Schools in Fresno, California, said the key to their schools’ success is their collective commitment and focus on student engagement, meaningful learning, and fostering strong relationships between teachers and students.

“We stay upbeat here because we’ve seen the fruit of our work,” Downs said. “We’ve seen how pivotal it is for student success to have that adult relationship to help guide them through different challenges that they may have.”

‘Navigate a world of possibilities’

In the Gradient Learning Poll, nearly two-thirds of teachers shared that a whole-student approach to education made students become more comfortable asking for help and also take more ownership of their learning.

Kim said she’s seen her students develop confidence that shows up in how they interact with their classmates and how they speak about their goals for their future.

“We’re making sure all of our students are being seen, heard, and cared for.”

“We want our students to chase their dreams,” Kim said. “The unknown can be scary, but that’s okay, because we are here to help them along the way. As we say every day in our morning announcements, ‘Everything is possible. Nothing is unimaginable.’” 

Sarah Arellano, principal at King Elementary in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said the past few unpredictable years have reinforced her belief that her school’s top priority is to ensure that all of their students gain the skills, knowledge, and habits to lead fulfilled lives for years to come. 

“We look beyond academics,” Arellano said of her project-based learning school that serves K-5 students. “When we’re focusing on the whole student, we need to look at them socially, look at what’s going to make them a good human, and look at what’s going to get them ready to navigate a world of possibilities that haven’t been developed yet.”

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