Vulnerable but Invincible

Way back on August 22, educator Steve Kukic spoke to our faculty during our August Professional Development. I have a few pages of notes from his day with us, but one particular set of information has guided my thinking about my work with students these last few weeks. (I’m basing this on my own incomplete notes, so any mistakes are mine.)

Quoting from the study Vulnerable But Invincible: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood, Kukic cited three factors for the resilient kids who succeeded despite the roadblocks in their way:

1. High expectations from home, school, or community,

2. Future orientation (not focused on past or now), and

3. “Unconditional positive regard” from an adult.

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Sophomore reading with kindergartner.

Reading conferences are often tough during the first few weeks of school, especially with students who are new-to-you. You feel like you’ve recommended the same book twenty times. A new English teacher lamented the number of times she’s asked “What’s your favorite movie or video game?” when students say “I don’t read” when she’s helping them find books.

When this has happened to me this year, especially with juniors and seniors, I’ve asked what they want to do after high school. A counselor I worked with used to mention how surprised she was that no one ever asked students what they want to do after high school. Many students have tough and even horrible pasts and presents, pasts and presents that are utterly beyond their control. The future, however, can be within their control, and we can help them with that.

This year, a student told me he might want to join the military, and when I asked him what he would want to do there, he said he didn’t know. He thought that flying sounded cool after I listed all the things that one could do in the military. Since my brother is a pilot, I then told him every possible thing that I know about learning to fly airplanes. Did my student run out and sign up for flying lessons? Of course not. Does he now realize that flying is actually something that ordinary people can do? That he can sign up and take lessons and learn to fly before he graduates from high school? He knows all that now. The more interest we show in our students’ futures, the more likely they are to turn their focus in that direction.

I’m still thinking about how high expectations play out in my classroom. I don’t think it means academic rigor, or strict expectations for classroom behavior, or inflexible grading policies. High expectations isn’t “We all must read William Faulkner together” when 40% of the class is still working on decoding and academic language.

I think that when it comes to high expectations, what we really need to communicate to students is a high level of belief. It is not that I expect you to read at this level; instead, I believe that you can read at this level. I believe that you can write this narrative. I believe that you can pass Algebra.

I believe in you.

In a meeting this year, someone said “But he can’t—” and one of our instructional leaders interrupted with “He can’t yet.” An English colleague repeated it later, and I remind myself to remember the power of yet. He can’t read that yet. She can’t do that yet. But I believe that my students will do it. It’s not that he can’t read single and double consonant words, it’s that he can’t read them yet. Even better: “He is working on single and double consonant words.” You can learn to do this, I say to my students, and I know that it is true.

And, of course, we work to practice unconditional positive regard every day. On this blog a few weeks ago, Angie Huesgen wrote “Be damn nice to kids. All of them. Every single day.” This isn’t as obvious as you think. “Don’t smile until Christmas,” people say. “You’ve got to be tough, make them respect you,” others might add.

But I agree with Angie. Be nice, damn nice, every day. Even to the mean kids and the kids who ignore you. You might say hi twenty times before students respond, but they do notice when you say hi.

At my school the secondary teachers supervise buses loading while our elementary colleagues walk the little ones to their buses. A lot of the time this means walking around while students work hard to talk to anyone but a teacher. I know from personal experience that walking around saying “Get on your bus, get on you bus” does not work. So last year I started saying “See you tomorrow” if I didn’t know a student. If I knew their name, I said “Good-bye” and their name and that I would see them tomorrow. That works better.

We then stand by our stadium and wave at the buses as they pull out, all twenty-four of them. The little kids wave and shout good-bye, smiles huge. The high schoolers ignore us, and sometimes they even give us a school-inappropriate finger.

But they know we’re there.

And they know that we’ll be there tomorrow.

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(Yes, that is our view. When it isn’t raining.)

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