I still remember the day my baseball coach stopped by my house to pick up my uniform. I had quit the team out of frustration because I wasn’t playing as much as I thought I should be. I had been successful at every level I had played and was the starting center fielder and lead-off hitter for our varsity team until an injury took me out of the line-up. I didn’t want to quit, but as a 17 year old kid I lacked the social emotional skills and maturity to work through this low point in my life on my own. After all, I was healthy again and felt I deserved to have my starting spot back, but instead, I watched game after game from the bench. At the time, my parents were not in the best place to help me work through my dilemma, so quitting seemed to be the easiest way out. The doorbell rang and I peered through the window to make sure it was him before I opened the door. I remember wishing that my Coach would put his arm around me and tell me a story about knowing how I felt because he too had been in a similar situation as a boy. I wanted him to tell me he understood why I was frustrated and then apologize for never talking to me about why I was no longer playing. I wanted him to tell me he wasn’t going to let me quit. I wanted him to show me he cared about me; cared enough to tell me to keep my uniform and that he would see me at practice that afternoon. But the words never came. Instead he reached out and grabbed my uniform, shook his head, turned, and walked away. I was devastated. I went straight to my room and cried.
“Why wouldn’t he just talk to me?” I kept asking myself.
It’s been 31 years since that interaction took place, but it still serves as an important reminder to me in my work as a school leader on a daily basis not to underestimate how critical it is that we take time to talk to our students. I can honestly say that most of what I have learned from my work in working with students has come from….yep, you guessed it, talking to students. Yet, although we sometimes find ourselves dealing with some very deeply rooted issues originated by our interactions with students, most of the conversations that are happening in schools today are barely scratching the surface. In fact, in some cases we avoid these interactions all together.
So how does this fundamental core element of expecting critical conversations to take place with students often go ignored in schools? Maybe the thought is it is easier to ignore than it is to address it. Let me offer a few reasons why I believe this issue continues to exist in schools across the country and what we can do as school leaders to try and address it.
- The belief by some staff they do not have time
- Simply put, school leaders must make the time. Create intentional opportunities for adults to be able to spend time with students. We all have staff members who want to spend more time with students, so create a plan to ensure this happens for those who want it by carving out time in the day for students and staff to spend time talking and learning together.
- The belief by some staff that is not their job
- Set clear expectations about a Student’s 1st mindset. This starts with the building leader creating a vision for a culture that values every student and holds staff accountable for not only delivering quality content in meaningful ways, but for cultivating positive relationships with their students by getting to know their students on a more personal level through positive interactions and dialogue. Every staff members needs to remember that our kids are our most precious commodity and without kids, we don’t have a job.
- The belief by me that it takes a certain skill set that can only be developed by those who are willing to initiate these type of conversations in order to improve their skill set
- We can encourage and expect staff all we want to initiate more of these conversations, but unless we take time to either model or train our staff how to have these conversations, they will not be effective and in some cases may even be detrimental.
- Modeling is crucial, but again, we must take time to reflect on the modeling piece and be willing to have follow-up conversations about what was observed and the important takeaways that need to be emulated in order for the intended skills that were modeled to be effective.
- The belief by some staff that it is not worth it because of the negative reaction they will get from students &/or parents
- As building leaders, we must be prepared to support our staff during these difficult times. We must recognize they won’t always get it right, but as building leaders we must be prepared to work through these challenges with them with a non-critical eye and protect them. Taking time to walk through anticipated responses from others ahead of time can help everyone avoid potential pitfalls. However, in some cases it will still come down to you having to have the courage to have the tough conversation because no one else wants to.
- The belief by some staff that students don’t deserve it because of the way students treated them
- This thought won’t enter your mind if you recognize that we are working with children/young adults who in most cases have not developed the ability to think beyond the short term nor do they have the experience or level of maturity to understand the long term impact or consequences of their choices or actions. It is imperative that in these moments we don’t make it about us, but rather focus on the learning opportunities that lie before us, not just for the student, but for us as well.
Whether we are describing conversations among our students about our concerns with their choices/decisions, matters of discipline, role on a team or organization, or simply wanting to know how their world is today, all kids deserve at a minimum for the adults in their school community to take time to listen to them when they have something to share. We should be careful not to dismiss what our students have to say by labeling it as whining or complaining although expect at times they will. Be sure to not only listen but to ask questions to further understand their position at that moment, something I have learned to do better over the years.
I am not suggesting that we can or should try and “fix” every situation a student is in even though we may want to initially. One of the hardest things about being in a position to have to make decisions is that the easy thing would be for us to “fix” it and make everything and everyone feel better initially. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do or even in the best interest of the student long-term. Sometimes the hardest thing is not “fixing” it for a student. This is especially true when we know that harsh feelings are sure to follow, either from the student or even a parent(s).
We can’t expect that our students will always have opinions that coincide with the way we see things in our adult world. But we can expect they will have experiences as students that will shape them and it is our responsibility as the adults to set the tone for those experiences and to make sure we never leave a student asking,
“Why won’t he or she just talk to me?”
“Every time I think about you I have to remind myself that if you wanted to talk to me you would.” – Anonymous