Building Relational Experiences in Students
Poverty, crime and quality of education are all factors influencing dropout rates. These are truisms for our generation and for those of generations past. For decades, students have dropped out of school because they have had financial or legal challenges. Poor teaching or feelings of being disconnected have also been factors. In recent times, however, other influences have been on the rise. Increased cases of school anxiety, attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities that are not well-served in traditional schools are all contributing factors to dropout rates.
In my experience as an educator, students who feel ostracized and rejected are prime candidates to drop out of school, often wasting great potential. An example of one such case includes a boy who came to my school as a freshman in high school. He was intelligent but feared school, and as a result, he under-achieved. On the first day of enrollment at Midwest Academy he was unable to leave his parents’ car to enter the building. I was sent to fetch him. As I walked out of the building I saw him climb into the backseat of his family SUV and then roll over the top of the seat into the cargo area of the vehicle.
I had a choice to make. Coax him out. Let him go home. Force him to comply with demands to attend school. Focus on his distraught mother. Or join them in letting tears flow down my cheeks. As this was our first meeting, the challenge seemed even greater. Obviously, no hello’s, how are you’s or other social pleasantries were going to work. A decision had to be made but what was I going to do?
Ultimately, I chose to open the car door and look my new friend in the eye. I smiled at him and said, “The first thing we do is stand up.”
“What?” he replied.
“We stand up,” I said. “The first thing we do is stand up.” Without another word he did so. He was a 6-foot, 170-pound young man. I could not have forced him to do anything had I tried.
I then helped him put his backpack on his shoulder and we walked to my office. We talked for about an hour that day. I realized quickly that I was speaking to a very intelligent, capable young man who was scared to death of school and many of the other challenges life had to offer – both real and imagined. He had rationalized that planning a life concealed in his bedroom was a reasonable expectation. He knew he was smart but did not need school because…and that is where his rationale broke down.
Over time we developed a routine and a rhythm. He came to school. We chatted. He went home. He came to school. We chatted. He went home. He came to school. We chatted. He went to one class. He went home.
As time passed I pushed a bit more. He came to school. We chatted. He went to more than one class. He went home. We kept on like this adding classes over time. Eventually, he came to school, we chatted or we didn’t. He went to classes; then he went home. One day he came to me at the end of the fifth period class and asked if he could go home. I pushed a bit further and said, “You give me sixth, I’ll give you seventh.” He stayed. This became our status quo for quite some time.
Eventually, he came to school and went to all of his classes. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we didn’t. Over a period of years, we developed a relationship in which he knew I was there if he needed me. Most days he didn’t.
He developed friends, connected with caring teachers and he created an energy source from a soda bottle and recycled materials for his senior project. He was able to graduate from high school having taken extra science classes beyond the required minimum. And he determined that he wanted to become a therapist for those in need of emotional support.
This is a lovely story of triumph. It is one that plays out at my school of 100 students day after day, year after year with staff members who offer almost as much caring as a mother’s love. Unfortunately, it is not commonplace. In other schools in our town, our state and our country this student’s situation continues to occur with ever-increasing frequency, but the outcome is often far different. Many learning-challenged, depressed, anxious or attention-impaired students drop out before graduation.
So, when we think of dropout rates we need to respond to and mitigate poverty, crime and the quality of education our students experience. However, we must also consider the relational experience that underlies the cognitive growth we push for as teachers and parents. Without this foundation true mitigation of dropout rates may never occur.
Kevin Gailey has worked in education for more than 25 years, as both educator and administrator. Currently, he is the Head of School at Midwest Academy, an independent school in Carmel, serving students with learning differences. He received his undergraduate degree in psychology from Springfield College, a Master’s Degree in education from Lesley College, a Master’s Degree in administration from the University of North Carolina and has pursued Doctoral study in philanthropy and administration at Indiana University.