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Education Opinion

Campus-Wide Relationships Help Students Thrive

By David B. Cohen — January 22, 2016 4 min read
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Think of the people you look forward to seeing each day. They probably know you well, or at least know something important about you. They make you feel good about who you are. They show that they care, regularly, just because of who you are and who they are. You don’t have to prove yourself to them daily, and you know where you stand with them.

Now, imagine you’re a student again. Go back in your mind to one of the more difficult years in your educational journey, and think about teachers you knew then. Did they know you well? Did they know the most important things about you, outside of academics? Did they make you feel good about yourself, without conditions? Did you feel a need to prove yourself, over and over, in order to determine or improve your standing with them?

As teachers, we are generally caring people who want to forge strong relationships with our students. We do care about them as people, and want what’s best for them. However, the academic focus of the teacher-student relationship can make it challenging to bond with some students. The reasons are suggested in that mental exercise above. Yes, we have ice-breakers and community-building activities, game days and field trips, learning journals and student-teacher conferences, all of which contribute to our knowledge of our students and provide touchstones for personal interaction. Still, it can be hard to escape some of the traps that taint the relationship. We know from personal experience that receiving any kind grade, any kind of negative feedback, can feel like judgement, can induce shame, or at least create some distance between people. For students who are struggling academically, the “academicians” may not be seem trustworthy.

I think that’s a large part of the reason that many students find so much value in their relationships with the non-teaching adults on campus.

In education discussions and writing, we don’t pay enough attention to the wide range of adults on school campuses. Teachers are central to the educational program of course, but we’re not always central to the students’ emotional lives at school. Even if the interactions with other adults might be limited, there are some students for whom these relationships are essential parts of the school experience. Teachers, parents, and anyone who cares about the overall wellbeing of students should take note. In many cases, we have underappreaciated and underutilized people making significant difference for kids on our campuses.

We could start with the obvious certificated staff members, like librarians, counselors, and administrators - people tasked with supporting students, interacting with them as a natural part of their day. Setting aside the fact that sometimes these student interactions are necessitated by negative incidents that will taint the relationship (such as administrators or counselors dealing with disciplinary matters), these members of the school staff often create meaningful bonds with students.

But in this post, I’m even more interested in the classified staff, or the volunteers around campus, people whose job descriptions may not mention students, but who nonetheless notice the kids, talk to them, and build relationships that can be as significant as any at school.

In my own experience, I’ve seen how some students gravitate to our school’s front office just to hang out. The secretary understands that this group often rides an early bus to arrive at school on time, but then arrive so early they don’t have a lot of options if they want to stay indoors. Instead of kicking them out in order to ensure the space is always quiet and uncrowded, she welcomes them, gets to know them individually, to an extent where sometimes I’ve heard her interject a question or weigh in with an opinion during a conversation among students. At an elementary school I visited last year, the secretaries I observed conveyed their respect and affection for everyone who came through the door - students, parents, grandparents, and other visitors. The interactions with students were brief but knowing, with requests to bring in artwork or a picture of a pet.

I posted this topic idea online and friends sent plenty of other examples. How would you feel as a child if your bus driver was dressed up for the first day of school, and literally rolled out a red carpet for the students at each stop? At some schools, there’s a store or snack bar, and one colleague mentioned the school store manager is someone kids turn to, an adult in a position to sit and listen to them if they need to talk. A friend recalled her own experience as a student, fondly describing a custodian who chatted with the children and provided a gentle, caring male adult relationship that was not part of her family life. At another school, I learned there was a campus security aide who happened to be a former Marine, someone who could get through to certain students when other adults on campus could not.

I think every school has someone like this. The custodians, landscapers, secretaries, and others have a key advantage - the chance to be with kids during the unguarded moment. For some students, time with teachers is time to be careful, watchful, reserved. The non-teacher can be present in other moments in students’ daily lives. Not every teacher can be the trusted caring adult for every student, and not every student even needs that kind of relationship from someone at school. But for those who do, it’s enlightening and encouraging to see what’s possible.

As a student, parent, teacher or other school staff member, maybe you’ve known someone like this, who provides a lift, a spark, some small but meaningful demonstration of love for the kids in our care. If you have an example to share, I encourage you to make use of the comments section below.

Photo: Jessica Montmorency Nisenbaum teaching at Malcolm X Elementary School, Berkeley, CA; by David B. Cohen

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.