By Valerie Woodruff
When I look back on my own high school experience, I remember being disengaged and eager to get out. But thanks to some excellent teachers who inspired and encouraged me, I went on to college and a successful career as a teacher, guidance counselor, principal and eventually secretary of education for the State of Delaware.
Having spent most of my career working with high school kids, I have a special place in my heart for them. Though they seem so grown up these days, they’re still just kids who look to the adults in their lives for help, guidance, and support. Parents certainly play a critical role in this regard, but it is also important for students to feel a connection with a teacher or other adult in their school. I learned this through my own experience as a guidance counselor and principal, but it was reinforced recently by the students themselves.In fall 2006 and early 2007, the Department of Education hosted a series of youth forums. We invited high school students from all three counties to share their thoughts on their middle school and high school experiences. Every public high school in Delaware was represented. We asked them to tell us the good, the bad, and the ugly. What worked and what didn’t? What would they change? And, as you would expect, they were brutally honest. Yet they were also thoughtful and constructive. Here’s some of what we heard:
- Students tell us to expect more of them. Set higher expectations but help them and support them in meeting those goals.
- Make sure teachers know the content, but can also present it in different ways that students can understand. Make it relevant for them.
- Don’t lose them in the crowd. Students need to know that someone is watching out for them. They’re looking for a connection with someone in their school who has faith in them, offers encouragement, and even nags them at times.
The strongest theme to emerge was the importance of teachers and administrators who genuinely care about students. Students are willing to assume responsibility for doing their part — working hard and taking school seriously — but want more support from adults in their school. They asked for counselors and teachers to be more open and accessible to giving students one-on-one attention for academic, career and personal issues. “Just going to see the counselor once a year isn’t enough,” was a typical response. One student remarked that their new principal was out in the hallway greeting them, wanting to know how he could help. “Lots of interaction with the administration…shows they care about us,” he said.
Throughout our public schools, many teachers and administrators are already doing an excellent job connecting with students as individuals and providing the encouragement and motivation they need to succeed. But we must make sure that EVERY student has this opportunity. We can’t let a single one slip past without the benefit of that valuable connection to someone who cares.
As part of our Reaching Higher for Student Success initiative, we have made it a requirement that every high school student be assigned to an advisor as part of their Student Success Plan process. Teachers and administrators will each have a small group of students whom they will mentor, guide and support on an individual basis. Each school will determine how best to make these assignments, but the common goal is to ensure a one-on-one connection for every student with an advisor who sticks with them throughout their high school years.
This may not be an easy thing to do, but typically, nothing worthwhile ever is. When Polytech High School implemented a similar program back in 1995, their teachers were wary at first. But today, they wouldn’t give it up. They’ve seen what a huge difference it has made for their students, and parents as well who are now more involved than ever.
Making one-on-one connections with students is just one part of our efforts to revitalize public middle and high schools. We are offering new resources for college and career planning, implementing new graduation requirements, expanding advanced placement course offerings, improving career and technical education, offering free college tuition and more. We’ve also launched a campaign called “Yes You Can!” to help students reach their goals for college or careers.
Please join our effort by making connections with the students in your life—friends, neighbors, nieces and nephews. A little bit of encouragement can go a long way! For more information, visit our new website: http://www.yesyoucande.com/.