Student Engagement

Talking With Students – The Best Part of My Week

February 19, 2015

As a principal of a medium sized high school in Northern California, it's pretty easy to get wrapped up in Common Core dilemmas, discipline matters, parent issues, teacher contracts, and the latest shift and wiggle from our district office. This week, I had a pleasant epiphany...

Yesterday, I had a brief conversation with one of our terrific science teachers. She is a superb instructor, a state nominee for teacher of the year. She had been scratching her head for weeks wondering about her 6th period class. "They are smart enough but I can't get this group going." Would I be willing to talk to the class? Absolutely.

So today, I went in. They were attentive, on task by most measures, but then the teacher began asking specific questions about the content she had on screen. The answers were vague and meandering. There was a real vacancy of effort from all appearances. No behavior problems, just apathy. The teacher had a short list of students she hoped I could talk to in a side room.

First was Student L. I had spoken with him before and made some progress, but things had not really improved. His goal is to escape the comprehensive high school and enter a small necessary school in our district that offers credit for seat time (no homework). It is a different route to a diploma but might be the best bet for this student. Except he isn't doing seat time work now, and the principal at the small school demands proof of effort. So that was my encourgement to him - prove yourself in the short term to practice for the small school.

I brought Student L back in to class. The other students were engaged in an active lab. and he slipped right in to work. I asked the next student (Student E) to join me. This time, I pulled up AERIES and looked through grades. He had a .38 academic GPA during his first semester of 9th grade. 20 credits behind already. Here in February, he was doing slightly better (passing all but one class) but not the potential signalled by two proficient standardized scores back in 7th grade. So we talked about a few things, his home life, his mom and dad (not together), his homework policy ("I don't do homework"), his grade on the Solar System test (38%), his lack of concern, a wonder about what his mom thinks. And let me tell you, this kid is awesome. He speaks with calm assurance. He could be anything, do anything. He needs encouragement and monitoring, but this guy can do it. I am sure of it! I think I make a connection, but I won't know for weeks or months.

The next boy is a similar revelation. Student P has a .46 GPA as a freshmen. His mother works "7 days a week." His older brother (10th grade) is doing "much better" (a 2.1 GPA). No father at home, no mother to come home to, no one to say " do you have homework?" And then, in such a beautiful, loving way, he said, "She tries but she doesn't understand what I have, what I need to do Algebra. She asks and I tell her I'm good."

So we talk about moms and dads and how they feel. He tells me he lived in LA and then his parents split up. He had planned on doing well in high school and had a college he wanted to go to. But then, his mother and brother "moved up here with me, and that stuff was out." There are all these elements circling around this student, like the planets he hasn't learned yet. He is a complex mess. But, I am sure, I think, that at the end of our talk, I have him. I think he might. I won't know, but I think it might be possible. He wants college, and though it might not be four year college at this point, I think he is dreaming again.

The last student is a sophomore repeating Physical Science (and failing again). He is more acute because he is down 60 credits. He has already failed significant numbers of classes. He is Special Ed. He is the poster child for a school not serving a Latino boy. And again, here is this great kid! He speaks with polish and care; he wants me to know that he is trying harder; he did better on the last quiz, he says. At home, mother has taken away "all his things." Why do you think, I ask. "Because I'm not doing enough. I know it. She is not wrong." Wow, I think, a recent EL student using this beautiful, poetic construction to describe. Hmm.

The bell goes and I thank him, and shake his hand. He might be a changer too. 

I'm not a fool to think anyone can just amble in, say a few words, and fix years of trouble. But I can guarantee that what we did today was a few thousand times better than sitting around waiting to react to a parent complaint or a student acting out. Being proactive rather than reactive. More days like today will create more time in the future for more days like today. A good day.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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