Speaking from Experience: The Importance of Relationships


Photo on 8-18-13 at 5.46 PMThis post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

As the coordinator of an alternative special education graduation program in a large rural high school, I serve the students who are at highest risk for dropping out of school or leaving school without meeting Tennessee’s diploma requirements. My experience supports the research evidence, for example here and here, that one of the most important components of successful drop-out prevention is cultivating relationships with students.

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Many of my students have families who have had bad experiences with school and don’t send their children to school with an attitude of trust. An alarming number report that school is a place where they don’t belong and are not truly wanted, although our system forces them to attend until they turn 18. I have had students who have told me that the purpose of school is to police young people rather than to prepare them for their futures. One of my hardest jobs is to convince them that we care about them and are here to help them achieve their goals.

Forging relationships takes time. It includes time to conference with students individually to find out what’s important to them and what kinds of lives they hope to live. It includes casual conversations to find out how they are feeling about their schoolwork and what’s going on that might distract them from learning. It also includes flexibility within the school day to respond when they are in crisis or when they just need someone to talk with.

I have written about the frantic pace of today’s schools and the toll it has taken on my own daughter, who is a strong student. The pace takes an even greater toll on struggling students. Any down time in the school day is swallowed up by remediation to catch them up. Their relationships with school personnel are often limited to disciplinary meetings and parent conferences to address failing grades. No more are there homeroom periods, study halls, or any free time in our high schools for teachers to forge relationships that support and guide young people.

Someday, I hope our schools will focus less on the quantity of instruction and more on the quality of the learning experience we are providing. I hope that someday the phrase “student outcomes” won’t refer to test scores, but rather, to how well we have helped students achieve their goals for the future. These hopes rest on schools that prioritize supportive relationships between adults and young people, and time to build a community together.

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4 thoughts on “Speaking from Experience: The Importance of Relationships

  1. I don’t know how to agree with everything at once without sounding like a groupie, which I guess I am. Intervention and small reading groups create almost the only time I can really connect with students… And, even then, I have to pack skill and strategy instruction into every one of those minutes, because our data needs to show how much they are progressing. Sing it loud, Sister. We need major changes. And maybe your words – and now mine – will be heard. Thanks for “speaking.”

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    • “Packing it in” is a good expression for how our school days feel. And students feel the pressures we teachers are under to get it all packed in at the expense of really knowing them. Thanks for the comment, Nancy.

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  2. It is kind of a two-way street though, since a lot of students won’t make an effort to have relationships with teachers/administrators. A lot of my friends in college get frustrated when they need a reference from college staff or faculty for a job or extracurricular program because they don’t feel like they know their professors, but they’ve never made an effort to go to office hours, email them, or chat with them after class. I had one friend say, “I’m only a sophomore, I don’t have relationships with professors yet,” but he’s been here for four semesters–half of his time–and believes that his age is the only reason he doesn’t know the people who are teaching him. At large research universities I could understand that, but our school is on the smaller size of medium and VERY undergrad-focused.

    Of course, students won’t reach out to teachers if they feel undervalued or like their teachers are too busy, ignorant of their situation, or prejudiced against their status in the special education program/their socioeconomic class/any other factors, but if students don’t make the effort either then relationships are impossible.

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  3. It’s a good point that developing relationships with teachers is an important skill for college readiness, and even necessary for getting recommendations to get into college in the first place. That makes it all the more important that we create a school culture that values time for developing relationships.

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