I started the 2016-2017 school year with high hopes. 2016 ended well, lots of momentum and great possibilities abounded. Then 2017 hit.
I stood in my kitchen last night talking with my wife Kristin about how disappointing 2017 has been for me. I have had two interviews for admin positions that did not result in jobs, and a couple other times I did not even get an interview. We put our house on the market in College Station, where houses sell in days or weeks at the most- ours went on the market almost a month ago with no offers anywhere in sight. Then, as I was expressing my frustration, I pulled out some cling wrap to cover the cake we had just made and there just wasn't enough to cover it.
I just can't catch a break.
This year, you will have students who just can't catch a break. They will enter your room with hopes for the year- or they will enter with desperation that it will be just another year of the same. How do we connect with them, how do we meet them where their need is?
If my struggle through 2017 has any value, it is in learning how to empathize with students in three areas:
High Achievers Not Achieving
I want to be an admin. I have worked hard over a short time in education. I have had success in and out of the classroom, but I have not yet achieved a goal I set for myself. Well meaning people tell me that I am talented, but the timing is not right, or to keep in mind that I have only been an educator for five years, or that there are a lot of talented people out there as well looking for jobs.
Now imagine an AP student expresses frustration with not getting the score they hoped for, or another student out-performing them. Would you tell them that there are a lot of talented kids that are just better than them? Would you tell them they are just juniors and they have plenty of time to be a high achiever?
I sure hope not.
Understand this- high achieving students are driven, focused, competitive, impatient, and hungry. When they struggle, they do not want to be told how close they are, they want to know how to get there. They want to solve the issues that are keeping them from success. They take defeat personally. So, we need to recognize that they are in fact grieving for low performance outcomes. It is emotional and personal when they do not achieve as they hoped they would. They do not need platitudes and patience, they need practical steps on how to move forward. What can they do to improve? So begin a dialogue, ask them questions to get them thinking, and provide them opportunities to practice their practical steps.
Low Achievers Not Achieving
Our house has been on the market for almost a month. It is forty years old, but the bones are good and there is updated decor throughout the interior. It is in an established neighborhood with lots of mature trees and big lot sizes. It has a lot going for it, but no one wants to buy it. It just cannot seem to please anyone.
Some students come to you with baggage. They have something to offer, but no one seems to see it. They try- they take criticism and make efforts to fix those concerns, but it just does not produce results. So they start to give up. They let the negative comments get to them. They get weary. Telling them to try harder becomes an insult, because they already are trying harder than many students around them, they just struggle.
So, tell them positives. Always start with positives. And any negatives must be addressed as actionable suggestions, not definitive descriptions. Like with the high achievers, ask them questions to get them thinking, help them to own their learning. Find out what instructional strategie works for them. Help them find a success, even if it is a small one, because success can breed confidence, which breeds more success.
Students Who Just Have No More to Give
As I stretched the cling wrap out, desperately hoping it would cover the cake to keep it fresh, the telltale sound of the plastic pulling completely away from the cardboard tube rang in my ears. I tried to stretch it, , unfold it, rearrange the position- there was just nothing left to give.
You will have students enter your room this fall who have nothing left to give. No amount of stretching, unfolding, or rearranging will change the fact they are stretched too thin between home, school, work, and extra-curriculars. They are being the parent to younger siblings because the parents work two jobs or are otherwise engaged. They have to devote extra time to their sport because that scholarship shot is the only way they get to go to college. They are in all upper level classes and the workload has become more than they can bear.
These students have two options that you can be a part of. First, they can quit something. Maybe that is the need from an academic standpoint, but what if that second job they work is how thier family eats? Maybe the student can afford to cut back on something, we can help them through that tough choice. And it will be tough, for them and you.
The second option is make the best of what they have to offer. Find a way to help them be successful. Coach them, tutor them, help them sort out a schedule that maximizes their opportunities.
Both of these require you to be present for the students who have nothing left to give. That way, you can give to them.
We learn from life. Sometimes it relates to the content, sometimes it relates to the skill of learning our students are discovering. We must use our experiences to connect with students where they are- and when we can relate and empathize, we create a safe and trust filled place to engage education.