“Teacher didn’t care, principal didn’t care… I told my counselor and a couple teachers, but I didn’t want to because they didn’t care…you know from the way they come at me on a regular basis… they don’t try to talk to me.” – Antonio, a student interviewed in Don’t Call Them Dropouts by GradNation
But students aren’t looking for another lecture. When they approach adults outside of the classroom, they want us to listen to them, care about them, and encourage them when their lives are overwhelming. School counselors are known for being great listeners, but it doesn’t take a degree in counseling to build a relationship with a child. Instead, it takes a genuine effort to hear them, understand and validate their experiences, and encourage them to push forward. If educators aim to understand our students’ experiences, it means we must check our own frustrations and assumptions about students’ behavior and their lives. Kids are excellent at reading when we judge them, stereotype them, or genuinely care about them. They’ll take cues from our behavior and discern if we can be trusted to support them in their times of crisis.
According to the report, students prioritize relationships with adults, including school staff, as a critical factor in their academic success. How adults value relationships with students can “lead young people toward or away from school,” the report states, noting that 41 percent of non-graduates who re-engaged in school did so because someone encouraged them. If meaningful relationships can bring students back to school, imagine how many students would stay if we showed an interest in their lives before they walked out of those school doors?
Community mentors, particularly those who remain in children’s lives for the long term, can also keep students connected to school. President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, which aims to close opportunity gaps for young men of color, recently released a Blueprint for Action, calling for a public-private campaign to recruit high-quality, sustained mentors and mentoring programs that will help young people navigate the difficult times that can lead them to disengage in school. The Task Force says that mentoring is especially key for young men of color, who have disproportionately higher suspension rates and imprisonment rates and significantly higher high school non-graduation rates compared with their white peers. In general, having a mentor increases the likelihood that students will engage in positive behaviors.
We, as educators, open ourselves — and our students — to relationship-building when we hear and validate their experiences. As more adults take responsibility for youth in our communities, we can close these persistent gaps and ensure students stay on a path toward high school graduation, college, and career success.
Connie Ward is a school counselor in DC. Reach her via email or Twitter.