By Lauren Hudson (she/her), TTOC and K–12 Education Co-ordinator with Ocean Networks Canada, Comox and Monika Pelz (she/her), TTOC and K–12 Education Co-ordinator with Ocean Networks Canada, Victoria
A familiar email appears in your inbox: it’s an invitation to have a guest speaker join your class. You see a few of these opportunities each year and wonder if it’s worth it. Maybe the students will learn something new, or maybe it will just be more work to prepare them to have a guest. Logistically, will the guest speaker be able to fit their presentation into your class time? Does the topic align with what you’re currently working on? Does that matter? Will the guest speaker be able to connect with your students and share their expertise in an age-appropriate manner? With the extra effort required to bring guest speakers into the classroom, you wonder if there is any value in inviting a guest speaker into yours.
With over 20 years of combined experience interacting with students as classroom teachers and as guest speakers, we decided to investigate these questions for our master’s program. Our research review of academic literature, and our own personal experiences, overwhelmingly point to guest speakers as being a benefit to student learning. Based on our experience and learning, we suggest the following four practical benefits when considering inviting a guest speaker into your classroom. In addition, consider the eight before/during/after suggestions (under “Making it meaningful”) to help you make your next guest speaker experience a success.
1. Expertise shared with students and teachers
It is undeniable that guest speakers share their content expertise with students during classroom presentations. Although teachers are dedicated to being informed and knowledgeable, it’s not realistic to know it all. Guests are often sought out because they can share in-depth knowledge on specific topics, taking considerable pressure off of teachers. Indeed, guest speakers may introduce students and teachers to important topics that would otherwise be omitted from the classroom experience. Sharing topic-specific knowledge is the top reason in the academic literature explaining why guest speakers are invited into the classroom. This expertise is not just a benefit to students, but teachers also have the opportunity to learn from guest speakers.
2. Career exposure
Guest speakers may share their background education, career path, and personal stories of how they got to where they are today. In the words of Cheska Robinson, “Teachers can motivate students to start thinking about and planning for their future by bringing in real-life experts and pairing these presentations with hands-on learning.”1 Guests with diverse backgrounds and careers may be a source of inspiration and help students envision their futures.
3. An experience to remember
Although it may sound simplistic that guests provide students with experiences, this statement holds an incredibly rich and multifaceted array of meanings. On the surface, guest speakers are an opportunity to change the daily routine and give students a chance to interact with a new educator. Some guests may even tell stories, share a demonstration, or facilitate a hands-on activity. A recent study highlights that even videoed guest presentations elicit empathy and connection.2 Guest speakers often have access to unique tools or manipulatives that enhance student learning and stimulate interest in new subjects and experiences.
Guest speakers often explicitly share or implicitly represent their lived experience. The unique personal, emotional, and cultural acumen held by guest speakers often cannot be replicated by classroom teachers. In this regard particularly, Indigenous guests offer unique and authentic experiences for students. Inviting Indigenous guest speakers can be an important step in addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s call to include Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in our education system.3
Making it meaningful
Sourcing: Guest speakers are everywhere, and sometimes the simplest and best connections are to go where you think experts might be. Ask parents and friends, or expand out to post-secondary institutions, museums, special interest groups, and outreach organizations. Experts often don’t call themselves as such—instead, just think about who might be able to share knowledge with students.
Relevance: Seek opportunities that are connected to the curriculum and the core competencies. Be sure to communicate with the guest speaker what your students are working on and invite them to share their expertise on that subject. For example, the ocean is a huge topic, but sharing that your class is learning about biodiversity can focus an expert’s discussion on the unique adaptations of marine life.
Inclusion: Ensure that your guest speaker is aware of your students’ interests and needs. If your potential guest does not have a background in teaching, share with them your students’ developmental milestones. Sharing what grade you teach may not be sufficient in preparing the guest to use age-appropriate language. For example, instead of saying that your students are in Grade 2, let your guest know that the students are still working on formulating questions and that sometimes they need reminders to ask questions and not share stories.
Inquiry: Let your students know who you are inviting in and share some background information about the guest speaker and/or the organization they represent. Help students generate questions they want to ask your guest, and let the guest know that you are doing this.
Set the stage: Ensure the guest speaker knows how much time they have, and ask them how and when they would like to take questions from the class. Doing this right at the beginning with the students present will help set expectations.
Connection: Don’t be afraid to ask your speaker leading questions to help guide the discussion or focus on a particular area. For example, “We are studying ocean ecosystems, what ecosystems have you observed? Can you tell us more about that?”
Impact: After the guest speaker concludes, ask your students to demonstrate their learning. For example, students could include fun facts that they learned in a thank you letter to the guest speaker, or they could comment on aspects of the guest speaker’s presentation that shifted their thinking.
Extension: Students may have additional questions after the experience, so ask the guest speaker if they would be willing to be emailed or contacted with follow-up questions.
Guest speakers do more than fill content knowledge gaps for students; they open the school to the community and the world beyond the classroom. When you expose your students to individuals from the community, you share with them expertise, experience, and examples of what the future could hold for them.
1 Cheska Robinson, “Guest speakers and mentors for career exploration in the science classroom,” Science Scope, Vol. 41, No. 8, 2018, p. 18-21.
2 Justine Grogan et al., “Using videoed stories to convey Indigenous ‘Voices’ in Indigenous Studies,” The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, Vol. 50, 2019, p. 38–46: www.doi.org/10.1017/jie.2019.15
3 “Calls to Action,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015: www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf