What the Kids Think
A couple of weeks back I wrote about “The Unknown Students" and outlined a simple process for discovering which students are flying under the radar and are unknown by adults at the school. In discussing solutions such as having adults linked to students as mentors to get to know them, it was made clear that the key factor is that the students believe that their teachers and other adults at the school know them. It’s not enough that we may think we know them—it has to be from the students' perspective. In this situation, the students' perception is their reality.
But, this doesn't automatically mean that teachers need to do more, engage more, or try more. For some teachers, it means that they should actually keep doing what they are doing, but be more aware of what they are doing and why it is being done.
Of course there are cases where the teacher believes he or she "knows" a student, but the student thinks the teacher is being superficial or tokenistic. Maybe the teacher talks to the students as a group and leads the conversation without asking questions. Maybe the teacher knows one thing about a student, like a nickname, favorite sports team, or if she has a sibling. Often knowing this can be a great start to "knowing" a student better, but there are teachers and adults who may be going through the motions of knowing their students.
However the opposite can be true as well. There are many teachers—frequently the ones who have been teaching for a while—for whom the process of good teaching has become so automatic that they don't realize what they are doing. They assume that if they are not doing something extraordinary, then they are not making connections.
Two examples that I've used in talks around the country highlight this.
The first concerns the story of a high school principal and a girl who tragically committed suicide. A couple of days after the incident, the parents of the girl contacted the principal. They wanted him to know that the girl had left a note that, in part, thanked the principal for his kind words and support. The problem was that the principal could not remember the girl. "How could I have made an impact when I can't even recall who she was?" thought the principal for days after receiving the information.
Then he remembered her. When the principal got to school at 7 a.m. each school day, the girl was the first person he saw. She would be sitting by herself alone—the only student in the school yard—waiting for the building to open. And what was his interaction with her? He would say, "Good morning. How are you?"
From the principal's perspective—someone who engages with many students daily and regularly and who probably also has a strong support and friendship network—this didn't equate to a meaningful engagement. This wasn't anything extraordinary; in fact, from his perspective this was superficial and a little tokenistic. It was a brief "good morning" and nothing more.
However from the girl's perspective, this daily interaction was meaningful enough to create a bond. Maybe the principal was the only adult to talk to her during the school day, maybe he was the only adult who—even superficially—asked, "how are you?" While this brief interaction didn't stop the tragic events from unfolding, it did strike a chord with the girl.
We can't judge the importance of interactions from just our own perspective—we must try to view it from the students' point of view.
The second example involves a San Francisco Bay Area elementary school principal. My colleagues and I had contacted the school because a recent youth development/school climate survey had indicated that this school had one of the most engaging and supportive environments of any K–5 school in the area.
When I met the principal, he was puzzled. Why was his school rated so highly? "I've got no idea what we are doing," he said. "We're not doing any climate programs or new curriculum geared around relationships or the like. We're just doing what we've always done."
On the walk from the parking lot to his office, I heard, felt, and saw what made his school exemplary. Every teacher greeted me as I walked through the school, smiling and saying hello. There were examples of the students art work covering the walls. Each classroom was filled with projects hanging from the ceiling. This wasn't a quiet, silent school: the classrooms were noisy, not with shouting or arguing, but with dialogue, joking, and laughter. On the wall outside the gymnasium was a huge sign telling everyone that this Sunday was the Friends of the School Picnic. When I met the principal, he was chatting with a student. As we walked through the school, he greeted and was greeted back by every student, all on a first-name basis.
Sometimes when we've done something for so long, we lose sight of what we actually do. We become oblivious to the things that we do each day, in each classroom, with each student. In short, we can't see the forest for the trees.
There are two sides to every story. Our interpretation of the importance of our interactions and relationships with students is one half of a whole. We must know our students and see our interactions from their perspectives. Their perception of us is their reality—the side of the story that matters to them.