Think about your first day at your first job — desperately trying to not look “new” and yet, hoping to spot a face in the midst that could be the source of support you might need? We don’t like being new, because when we are new, we often are also inexperienced — and that can cause us to feel “dumb” (a word I hate, but it best describes the feeling I’ve had when I’ve been this person). We quickly learn from experience that “inexperienced” and “dumb” are not synonyms, and that we need to seek out support systems if we want to succeed. Continuing my look at Langston’s 6 Success Attributes, I want to share about how I’ve considered the presence and use of effective support systems in my work with high school kids.
My supervisor of 7 years at is now headmaster at a school in Oregon this year, and he is working to establish means of supporting students at his new school similar to how we support them at the school I am continue at as Learning Specialist. He called me one day to ask me what seemed to make the biggest difference in whether or not a student progressed and succeeded in my program. At first, I said something that was pretty general and vague because I hadn’t really thought about it. Later that night…well, in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep and I was still thinking about his question…it hit me – it’s relationship! Every student who has succeeded in becoming an independent learner is one with whom I had developed a close, trusting relationship. When I couldn’t connect with a student, I lost him – and felt like I had failed. I know that we can’t connect with every kid, but in my particular school environment and being the only one in this role of Learning Specialist (not tutor), I feel that I need to connect and help each student who is referred to me because I want each one to develop the big picture skills of metacognitive thinking and strategies, rather than just leave with a finished homework assignment. The key goal of each session, in terms of my work, is to “focus on islands of competence” and maintain a positive, safe environment for my students (Ficksman & Adelizzi, 2010, p. 35). The most important message I need to convey to my students is that they can trust me enough to be honest with me. If something I suggest doesn’t work for them, then they can tell me and we’ll try something else. Early on, this is difficult for kids to do – there is a lot of “nodding and smiling” during those first sessions and then a lot of “nothing gained” as a result. Once I’ve gained the student’s trust, however, and have a rapport with him, they will tell me, “you know, I hate having to write stuff into a planner just because the school gave me a planner; can’t I use an app on my phone?” We weigh the pros and cons of each system and the student tries out the app for a week, and then lets me know at the next session if it worked better for him than the planner book. When I see a student has a backpack bulging with loose papers, I joke about it and then offer to help “toss and file.” Some are hesitant, but usually with a few more jokes, I can get them started, and we start piling, and filing, and tossing, with me explaining the how-to’s and the why’s of the process as we each score “free-throws” into the trash or recycling baskets.
What I try to be is what Langston describes as the “Charismatic Adult” in each of my student’s lives. Langston believes that “the charismatic adult does more for a child with a learning disability than just offer support, foster good self-esteem, and help discover the child’s strengths. The charismatic adult teaches that child the power of human relationships. That child realizes that to make it, he or she will have to continue to partner with other people.” Just as I partner with my student to help him toss and file, my student can learn to partner with others to tackle tasks and activities and to engage with others socially. This relates to our discussion of pro-activity because helping students recognize when they need help and how to accept that help means that I often serve as a “bridge” between a student and the source of help so that student gains confidence in the help offered and learns to trust that others will support him.
Sometimes, as a bridge, I connect students to each other for support. This past year, I worked with two students who are autistic. Both of these students, Matt and James, struggle socially, so the first action I took was to introduce them to each other because they both like video games. I scheduled their meeting times with me for the same period so that they would have time to talk with me, but also to have time to talk with each other. After each seemed more comfortable with informal conversation, I introduced them to a third student, Cameron. Cameron, a senior, had worked with me for a couple of years so he knew why Matt and James were meeting with me, and not only that, he also played video games. As it turned out, Cameron was also in two of James’ classes and they ended up working on group projects together. When James needed to get involved in a community service activity for graduation requirements, Cameron encouraged him to join the Interact Club, and he did! I loved coming in one Monday and hearing James tell me about how he, Cameron, and the other kids made care packages on that Saturday at one of the kids’ homes. I believe that all of this happened because Matt and James learned to value each other’s support and social acceptance as we worked together, and because for Cameron, I was an adult whom he knew he could count on so he visited my room often, and he was willing to support two of my students because he understood the need for support from his own experience.
Look around…someone in your midst, whether a colleague or a student, may feel inexperienced in some area, and as a result, may feel “dumb” — I encourage you to be that source of support, that “charismatic” person in someone’s life.