Last week I read Bill Burkhead’s (@NormandinBill) blog on building trust and making a difference. As I read his posting I reflected back on a number of interactions I had with students over the years. Like Bill, I too prided myself on being able to connect with the most challenging and troubled students. Much had to do with the fact that I myself did not have a positive school experience. Because of my own experiences, I believe it gave me a better perspective of what our struggling learners face on a daily basis and gave me some insight on how to influence their behavior in a positive way.
One of the most successful strategies that I have used over the years to connect with students and develop a trusting relationship is a strategy I call, “Picking up the Pieces.” It is a rather simple strategy I learned from my first boss, Dr. Dan Donder, who hired me as an associate principal when I was a mere 26 years old. He modeled for me over and over the value and importance of following up with students after dealing with them in any type of discipline situation. He would make it a point to follow up with students after an office visit in the hallway, cafeteria, during passing time, etc. and ask them if they understood why he had disciplined them. He would listen to what the student had to say and then share with the student it was because he had high expectations for them and cared about them. He would often state, “I never want you to think it is okay to behave in that manner. I have higher standards for you than that. I am always going to encourage you to take a look at your own behavior and ask yourself what you did to contribute to the situation.” He would then make it a point to search the student out over and over again to check on him/her, ask how they were doing, compliment them in some capacity, share a personal story, etc. until a meaningful relationship had been established. To this day, I still use this strategy to connect with students regularly and refer to it as “Picking up the Pieces.” However, over the years, I have modified my approach a bit and compliment it with another similar strategy. Now, I often ask students after meeting with them for any type of disciplinary situation two simple questions immediately at the conclusion of our discussion.
1. Do you feel I treated you fairly?
2. Do you think I care about you?
If I have conducted myself appropriately and managed the conversation in a way that the student feels valued and that there voice was heard, the answer to those two questions will be a solid yes. If not, then I have to be willing to accept the feedback and work even harder to build that trust. Understand it is not always about agreeing with what the student had to say. Sometimes showing love and support for an individual means not always agreeing with them, but rather telling them what they don’t want to hear because it is the best way for them to reflect on their own behavior so growth can occur. In other words, it is important to ask the student the role they played in impacting the situation in a negative way and encouraging them to take responsibility for their own conduct.
Do not misunderstand having insight with having all of the right answers. On the contrary, I feel like I have failed more often that I have succeeded. I often think of the Michael Jordan commercial where he shares that he missed over 9,000 shots, lost over 300 games, was entrusted with taking the game winning shot 26 times and missed. He states, “I failed and failed time and time again, which is why I succeed.” But like Michael Jordan, I enter every interaction with a student with the confidence and belief that I can and will make a difference with the student. I then make it a priority to follow up in an intentional way in order to try and establish a meaningful relationship where the student feels cared about and valued.
In some respects, I have grown as a school leader and managing behavior as much through my mistakes as I have through my successes. When I came into administrative role 19 years ago, I had so many ideas, philosophies, and thoughts on how to manage student behavior and establish meaningful relationships with young people. Many of those things remain strongholds today; many have had to be adjusted. One thing that has not changed is the realization that I am passionate about teaching and the opportunity to have a positive influence on young people. Developing purposeful relationships with my students gives meaning to my work and my life.
‘Everybody has a savior, but it isn’t always going to be you.” – Dr. Dan Donder