This 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.
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.