5 ways to reach out to high school students in need

Famous motivational speaker and author Mawi Asgedom recently visited Senn High School, and his story closely paralleled the many challenges J has had in her life. Mawi spoke of his family’s struggles assimilating to the United States, including his mother’s struggle to acquire a driver’s license despite her inability to speak English. Despite his father’s near-blindness and the language barrier, Mawi’s family reinforced the power of education to the point that he was able to graduate with top honors from Harvard. Presently, he works with teachers in helping them recognize the “invisible children” that give up on themselves–they type of teenager I’m hoping J doesn’t become.

Through his lecture to area teachers and administrators, Mawi shared advice that can help teachers reach students in need, students that feel invisible as J often does.

Mawi is acutely aware that many young people are marginalized to the point that they lose their voices and struggle to have an identity. Teachers have the power to return that sense of identity.

So how can a teacher help students create a sense of identity? How can they help the young find the confidence that has been sapped?

  1. Welcome the students’ stories AFTER sharing your own: Even before I heard Mawi speak, I had an epiphany. How can I expect my students to tell me their stories when they don’t know mine? Instead of my normal routine of asking the students on the first day or two of class to share information about them, I take a week to share my story and other people’s stories in a way that can introduce the Journalism courses I teach. By hearing stories, the students inevitably begin thinking about their own. Two weeks into school, I asked students to write a paper on their life stories, and I couldn’t believe the thoughtful honesty that I received. This assignment afforded J the opportunity to share her trauma, which led to the idea for the group project. Not only can I use the information I receive to create a stronger teacher/student understanding and relationship, but I can also refer the students to appropriate counselors. Had I not asked for the student stories at the appropriate time, those student struggles may have remained invisible.
  2. Change the “Can’t Do” mentality to the “Not Yet” mindset: How many times do teachers give up on a plan because the students simply can’t do it? I know after seeing my students struggle with group work, I often recognize how much easier it would be to have my students work quietly and independently and don’t push them to find their voices amongst their peers. But what’s sacrificed? When teachers give up on challenging students simply because they don’t display immediate proficiency, they move away from turning weaknesses of students into strengths. Those students that are branded as “Can’t do” students feel marginalized because they recognize that their teachers have given up on them. By pushing them, they become visible and gain confidence that comes from learning a new concept or skill. J is the type of student that could be invisible in the classroom if a teacher allows her to coast. I push her, as I push the many like her, to work hard to obtain results she’ll be proud of.
  3. Like your students: I heard at a conference I went to years ago, that the greatest predictor of a students’ success in the classroom is how they answer the question of “Does the teacher like me?” Adolescents are intuitive and can recognize insincerity, so it’s important for teachers to actually like being around their students rather than only pretending. People become more likable when we walk in their shoes, and the easiest way to accomplish that is to converse openly with students. In my sixteen years teaching experience, I’ve learned that students shut down after I stop caring about them. For many, I have to go out of my way to show that I’m interested in their lives, using eye contact, smiling, asking them about their lives outside of school. The connections teachers make facilitate learning and enable students to feel a sense of self-worth.
  4. Avoid sarcasm/veiled insults: Teenagers communicate with sarcasm and insults–I hear it every day in the halls. And teachers often use these devices in order to create friendly bonds with classes, gently teasing students with a wink and a smile. But sarcasm can easily turn and become hurtful. “You always get your work in on time” to a student that is perpetually failing could convince him that there’s no point in trying because the teacher has already made up his mind about him. Brian Gatens wrote in a piece called “Avoiding Toxic Humor” for the Concordia Online Institute, “Children, depending on their social and emotional development, sometimes don’t grasp the language of humor, and any comment that isn’t direct and clear only serves to confuse them further.” If the recipient doesn’t get the joke, then it’s not funny.
  5. Force them to talk to you: More often than not, when I approach a student with “How are you today?” I get nothing more than a grunt or a nod. These approaches to conversations are futile because young people have been taught they’re insincere. I force my students to stop walking outside my classroom and answer me. And I ask, hopefully, interesting questions or make thoughtful observations. “You looked really stressed out yesterday, is everything all right?” could uncork the pain that a student like J might have bottled up.

As teachers we have to care and we have to show that we care. I hope that J’s story proved that even if young people aren’t invisible before us, their problems may be. J hid behind a smile and persistent attitude, and without using the five steps techniques above, I never would have known her world.

What techniques do you use to make young people visible? How could these techniques help you as a teacher, parent, or mentor? Please share your thoughts and stories at @jsstorypodcast.


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