Reaching At-Risk Students by Establishing Strong Connections
By Paul Hernandez
I grew up within the gang culture of Los Angeles, California. While children raised in other environments enjoyed life and found ways to succeed, I was trying to survive in a world of constant threat and turmoil. School was a punishment; a place to be unfairly judged and demeaned by teachers and administrators. It is difficult for people to understand how some students detest school and choose to drop out. But for me and my homeboys, these sentiments were normal. School was an obstacle rather than a source of empowerment. We were a burden to teachers who felt hopeless trying to teach us.
There are at-risk students all over the country, and they are often mistakenly viewed as a homogeneous group. They are not. They are a diverse group of students at risk for a variety of reasons. They come from diverse households — low-income, single-parent, two-parent, upper middle class. Some struggle with substance abuse, poverty, and abuse at home; homelessness or gang membership; boredom in school.
Whatever the reasons they want to drop out, it is our responsibility as educators to find a way to keep them in school. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, nearly 7,000 students drop out daily. That’s almost 1.2 million students annually. The average high school dropout earns $19,540 a year versus $46,390 a year for a college graduate. Beyond wanting to head off the economic impact of dropping out and its societal implications, we as educators have an obligation to make sure all students graduate as critical thinkers, prepared to embark on any journey or dream. Although this may seem overwhelming, it begins with a straightforward first step — connecting with students. Based on my own experience, I suggest the following:
- The label students sometimes makes us forget that our students are people first. People just like us. Our first impulse should be to focus on our similarity, our shared humanity, rather than our differences.
- From this foundation of shared humanity, we must acknowledge each student’s individuality. Knowing is a two-way street. For the true work of learning to begin, students and teachers must see beyond stereotypes and recognize one another as individuals.
- People feel recognized when they’re listened to. Teachers should:
- Focus attention directly on the student (no multitasking).
- Pay attention to a student’s body language.
- Use our body language to show we’re paying attention (nod our head, encourage students to continue speaking, etc.).
- Not interrupt a student during a response.
- Show that we’re curious about a student’s perspective, reality, and experience. Instead of asking obtrusive, potentially alienating questions, we have to show our eagerness to understand how the student makes meaning. We have to come to these conversations with an appreciative lens of respect for what children value.
This list is simple, but it is not simplistic. It is based on fundamental skills that, as educators, we tend to forget during the daily grind of teaching. Nor is this list exhaustive; it is a reminder of the extraordinary importance of purposefully viewing students as people, making an earnest effort to get to know them and help them get to know us, and listening to them.
The connections we build must reveal us as teachers — adults who have our students’ best interests in mind and offer them a safe space to learn and grow without judgment.Connecting with students does not mean becoming their friend. The connections we build must reveal us as teachers — adults who have our students’ best interests in mind and offer them a safe space to learn and grow without judgment. With this focus, teachers and students can reinvent their roles, change from potential adversaries into powerful partners in a relationship in which everyone flourishes. Often we take simple things for granted, forget to facilitate the appropriate, crucial connections to foster successful relationships with our students. Often we focus on what students must learn and forget that they are insightful and extremely gifted people who have much to teach us.
The connections educators established with me helped me change from a student who detested school to one who earned a Ph.D. My experience is a testament to the potential of at-risk students and a reminder for teachers not to give up on their most challenging students. The educators who reached out to me did not expect to have an immediate impact but hoped — believed — that their efforts would affect my life long term.
Because the educators I encountered dared to go beyond traditional teaching, I am now able to live my dream every single day. Thank-you to them and to all teachers who remember that connections with at-risk students are the first step to empowering the dreamer within these students.
Before he earned a Ph.D. in Sociology, before his Bachelor’s Degree from a university, before his Associate Degree from a community college, Dr. Hernandez was an “at-risk” K-12 student — at risk of dropping out. Today he works with high schools, non-profit organizations like TheFutureProject.org, community colleges and universities to help students at risk of dropping out. His research focuses on the sociology of education and social inequality. Contact him at email@example.com.