A Most Important Cheat

Daniella G. Ellingson

What is the most important thing we can teach our students? I had to ask my students because I did not have a straightforward answer. This is surely the result of having been a middle school teacher for only two years at the time of this writing. In fact, why am I writing this?

While teaching undergraduate college students, it was clear that the most important thing I could teach them was how to write for a science class: How to write an essay, a paragraph, a sentence. It was also clear that the most important thing I could teach college students was the difference between evidence and opinion. “‘Because everyone knows that doesn’t count as evidence” is something I said often. It was also clear that the most important thing I could teach college students was that the sciences do not happen in isolation; that science is a human enterprise affected by the human condition, as are all other human endeavours. Not all scientists wear lab coats, and lab coats are not a barrier to humanity (or a guarantee of one). I had a few ‘most important thing’ moments.

In my credentialing program, we were told that the most important thing you can teach students is that you care. The underlying sentiment in credentialing programs for urban populations is that students will not care about learning if they assume you will give up on them.1 We armed ourselves with social justice theory,2 and off we went. While deeply important, I learned that one size does not fit all. The most important thing I can teach differs considerably from student to student.

I currently have a students reading several grades below their level. The most important thing I can teach them is to read.3 I have a student who reads at college level. The most important thing I can teach her is to find ways to challenge herself. I have a student who says science is too hard and shuts down. The most important thing I can teach him is that struggle is a good thing. I have a student who thinks himself a superstar and finishes everything first. The most important thing I can teach him is to slow down, so he can do superstar work. I have a student who says daily, “I don’t know what to do.” The most important thing I can teach him is to be self-reliant.

I have too many students who Google a question and copy/paste an answer instead of reading a text for evidence they can explain. The most important thing I can teach these students is critical thinking.

But what is the most important of all the important things? I thought I was being to pragmatic. I needed help, so I turned to my students. I thought their answers would help me narrow down my own, as I was contemplating several ideas. I anticipated they would be confused by the broad scope of the question, so I tried to help them narrow down their thoughts. I gave them a Google form asking them the following four questions:

  1. What is the most important thing you can learn in science?
  2. What is the most important thing you can learn in school?
  3. What is the most important thing Ms. Perry can teach you?
  4. What is the most important thing you can learn from a teacher?

I gave subject-dependent options to choose from for questions one and two. I left blank fields for questions three and four. There are, of course, limitations with this survey, including sample size, demographic, student expectations, one inappropriate answer, etc. The results were interesting nonetheless. This was a voluntary survey, for which the students were told their answers would be shared. I received 129 responses out of 149 students (86.58 percent return).

I was hoping most of them would say the most important thing to learn from a teacher is to be a better person. (Two students, 1.34 percent, said this; three students, if you count, “How life works and how to do things the right way.”) I also was hoping most of them would choose the most important thing to learn in science is human impact on the environment (indeed, nearly 30 chose this). I was also anxious about their answers because does this not mean I have to deliver? I better invoke Team Bring It. (Please note, this video involves The Rock and is mildly NSFW).

I received many different answers. Some were narrow in scope (“dinosaurs”); some were nebulous (“everything!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Note the 17 exclamation points); some were nihilistic (“nothing”); and some were poetic (“how to ball like Lebron James”). Many chose “science” as the most important thing to learn in school (about 20.3 percent), with “how to learn” taking second place (around 17 percent). A response that stood out to me because of the community in which I work was this: “I think the most important thing you can learn from a teacher is how to keep your stress level down during school and how to keep on doing your work when people are bothering u.”4 The most chosen was “Other” at nearly 23 percent, but no one typed what “other” may be.


You can see a spreadsheet of all the answers here and a summary here. As much as I wanted the most important thing to be was for students to know and understand human impact, or to learn to be kind to one another, the reality in my classroom is that priorities are different depending on many things: reading level, comprehension, attention span, living conditions, economic status, social-emotional capacity, stress, passions, wants, needs … What was evident is that, in practice, the most important thing is necessarily subjective and varied. It is a cheat, but I decided “the most important thing” for me is “the most important things.”


1. There are numerous academic articles on this. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center has a concise summary “how-to” with links to a few journal articles here.

2. I attended Loyola Marymount University’s School of Education in Los Angeles. You can see their theoretical framework, “Respect, Educate, Advocate, Lead (REAL),” here.

3. Most students enter our middle school anywhere from 1 to 6 grade levels behind in reading. The actual number of students who need to learn how to read at grade level is very high. Our entire faculty and staff are dedicated to increasing literacy and comprehension in our students.

4. On top of middle-school hormonal concerns, our students deal with substantial external struggles. I work in East Los Angeles, where only 3.7% of residents hold a college degree, and the median income is $38,621 (2008 dollars). There are at least 34 gangs in the greater East LA area, some having a lengthy history. Many of our students’ families are involved in this.

Daniella Ellingson is an integrated science teacher at Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy #8 in Los Angeles, CA. Ellingson has spent a few years teaching college students both science and history while working on a doctorate in History of Science at the University of California - Los Angeles. She is taking a break from dissertation while learning how to be a teacher. Ellingson has been teaching middle school science for only two years, so welcomes All The Learning. She has a husband, a dog, and a pet moss ball, and wants to be an astronaut, writer, and presidential library archivist when she grows up.