In our collective efforts to help students succeed in school, sometimes we adults forget to stop and ask “how is school going?” Because the answers students give to that simple question can tell us a lot.
Frustrated by what he perceived as his inability to keep students engaged after they moved on from his classes, one veteran teacher hit the road on a journey to ask current and former high school students across the country what motivates them. Teacher-researcher Chris Holmes traveled across 14 states in 30 days interviewing hundreds of students and recording their answers for his “Backtracking Apathy” project. His goal was to figure out why schools, teachers and parents too often are losing the apathy battle with students.
“In a suburban Kansas City, Missouri, coffee shop, a high school senior broke down in tears talking about lack of friends, struggles with school work and a disrespectful teacher. In Dodge City, Kansas, a recent graduate of an alternative high school talked about a loneliness that led her to self-harm and quitting school. On a sidewalk in Grand Junction, Colorado, a kid told me how boring school was, then cried when revealing that first his friends, then his teachers, then his parents had given up on him.
All of these students spoke of one teacher who truly cared—who bent over backwards for them, who went above and beyond for them—yet whose efforts ultimately weren’t enough. Sometimes even the superstar teachers—the inspirational, motivational “life-changers”—are limited in their abilities to create self-determination.”
So how can we re-engage students who have checked out? Here’s how Holmes sees the problem:
“It’s not students who are disengaged—it’s us. Teachers. Parents. Legislators. When we don’t engage students in what matters to them—autonomy, connection, competence—the components that actually create motivation—when we don’t involve students in the process of teaching and learning, then the problem is ours, not theirs.”
Here in Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal believes schools can help students stay engaged in middle and high school by adding more guidance counselors. Currently there is no state law requirement that schools hire any counselors (though many do). King 5’s Drew Mikkelson reports that Superintendent Reykdal would like to see funding tied directly to hiring, so that schools and districts meet the recommended 250:1 student to counselor ratio (the current ratio in Washington is about 440:1). He points to middle schools as being the most “starved” for counselors.
Why do counselors matter? These days, counselors do a lot more than help students sign up for classes or meet graduation requirements. They often work with school nurses, social workers and others to make sure students are getting the supports they need. But their most important task may well be the time they spend with students who just need to talk. From NPR education reporter Clare Lombardo:
“Spending face–to–face time building relationships with students is key to establishing a healthy school environment, where kids feel comfortable coming to counselors with their worries—whether they’re about school safety, happiness, or day–to–day classroom concerns.”