Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Focus on Teachers: Barry Saide on the importance of knowing who students are

November 30, 2015

It’s an understatement to say that 15-year veteran teacher Barry Saide is committed to education.  Barry teaches elementary and serves on multiple committees and boards in his district. He designs curriculum for the New Jersey Department of Education, facilitates professional development on the Common Core Standards, leads the New Jersey/Pennsylvania ECET2  convenings and ECET2 twitter chats on Sunday evenings and actively writes about teaching for ASCD and others.


Barry is eager to talk curriculum, instructional strategies and teacher leadership.  A New Jersey native, Barry is animated when he discusses anything school-related but he really lights up when he talks about his students.


“You can’t replicate relationships,” says Barry.  “It’s why students want to come to school every day. It’s about understanding the needs of students and crafting a learning environment that identifies their strengths, lets students see their strengths themselves and supports and lifts them from there. We need to tell the student narrative with data, not regard students as data points.”


According to Barry, “differentiation” is about knowing who students are, not just knowing what they can do.  “I tell parents and my administration team that we have to take each kid individually.  If I know them as people, I can reach them as learners,” Barry emphasizes. “You need to get to know your students each day.”


For Barry, this starts with greeting them at the door in the morning and seeing how each student is doing as they walk into his class. It also means determining what students need in order to be ready to learn.  For example, Barry realized that one of his students was much more prepared to do her work once she spent five minutes in the morning talking with him.  “If she got her thoughts out and vented, she was ready to roll and the rest of her day went great,” Barry explains.


Another student who was very tactile folded paper in his desk all day.  While it sounds disruptive, Barry explains that allowing him to do this small action actually helped the boy to focus and complete all of his work while not interfering with others.  Another student who was kinetic often finished his work early and needed to move around.  Barry created an agreement with his administrator to allow the student to take five-minute walks.  The boy would return to class ready to work and willing to focus on the next task.    


“A lot of times, in our desire to create an academic environment that challenges students, we fluff off the SEL [social-emotional learning] piece.  But if someone isn’t comfortable, it doesn’t matter how rigorous the curriculum is,” Barry tells us our team. “Recently, I asked students to draw a picture of how they see themselves and a picture of how they want me to see them. What do I need to give students so that these reconcile? To make them feel comfortable? Feel successful?  Feel whole?  If I do those things, they can do anything.”


Part of Barry’s teaching strategy is to help students become leaders and to learn by making mistakes.  They create their own mission statement and personal goals that Barry uses to drive his instruction.  He structures his class as a facilitator:  he introduces students to concepts, sets parameters, and then circulates as students work, providing feedback, monitoring and adjusting based on individual learning needs as he goes.


“I want to see kids struggle with content and see why,” Barry says. “I tailor from there and scale down so students can see with help anything is possible.  Kids need to see that it is okay to put themselves out there, fail, ask questions, take risks.  That’s the behavior we want to evoke so you need to know and understand your kids first.  Kids need to see little increments of success that will give them long-term success. If you don’t celebrate the little successes, you miss out on the big ones.”


Barry accentuates his perspective with a story about a student he taught a few years ago.  By the time the boy reached 5th grade, he had a reputation and his family did also.  He was the last student in his grade to be placed in a class.  And, within the first few days of the school year, he was inattentive and distracted; he had already checked out. 


On a particularly bad day, Barry sat on the floor in the hallway with the student and asked him what was going on.  The boy unloaded:  his brother was bothering him, he wasn’t sleeping well, his parents put a ton of pressure on him to get As, his best friend moved away and he had no other friends.  As Barry says, “The smarter a student is, the more he realizes these other things are going on.  And, as an adult, any one of these alone could derail us.”


Barry designed a plan.  Every Wednesday, the boy could choose 2-3 kids in class to eat and play UNO in Barry’s room during lunchtime.  As Barry tells the story, “All of sudden, he has a best friend in class.  He was starting to do his work.  He was no longer falling asleep in class.  He had a reason to come to school.”


In a recent blog post on teacher Caroline Corcoran, I talked about the power of “both/and” – and how good educators build bridges between seemingly disparate approaches, such as policy and practice; accountability and support; innovation and staying the course.  Here, Barry reminds of us of probably the most important “both/and”:  relationships and rigor.  Students need both.  And Barry Saide clearly makes sure both are a priority in his teaching.

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