Leadership magazine March/April 2018 V47 No. 4 | Page 31

educators take advantage of listening to the experiences and perceptions of the children we teach, we gain a great understanding about what contributes most to their suc- cess. Following are three profiles of at-risk students succeeding at school. Names have been changed to protect their confidential- ity. Each of them attribute much of their success to the student-teacher relationship. Lupita’s story Lupita was a 12th grade student who was ranked third overall in her senior class. She was highly motivated to attend college and to pursue a medical degree in pediatrics. Lupita’s parents are both immigrants from Mexico and have less than a fifth grade edu- cation. Spanish is her primary language, and she lives in poverty. She shared that she hasn’t had many op- portunities to experience much outside of her community and recognized the negative impact it had on her exposure to her cul- tural, social and emotional development. When she was in eighth grade, her grand- mother, uncle and great-grandfather all passed away. This moment in her life was very difficult for her to cope with as a middle school student. She praised the caring rela- tionship she had with one of her teachers as the savior to her education at such a pivotal time in her life. Lupita describes Mrs. Jenkins as “the first teacher that actually had confidence in my abilities.” During the time surrounding her grandmother’s death, Mrs. Jenkins made the biggest impact. Lupita describes a particular experience with her teacher: “I remember we were in class and somebody mentioned grandmothers, and I asked her if I could be excused. She went out and she had a talk with me, and I was just telling her how I was scared and everything. She made me feel that everything was going to be OK.” Lupita shared many other experiences with various teachers that impacted her life, making it clear to her that a teacher’s rela- tionship with a student was critical to her resiliency development and mindset. She described the need for at-risk students to have teachers who believe in them and show confidence in their abilities. She recognized that, although she receives support at home from her parents, many at-risk students do not, and therefore, it is critical that teachers fill that void at school. The loss of these close family members threw her into a downward spiral, causing her to struggle in school. She started to be- lieve that her ability to achieve in school was not possible. One day Mrs. Jenkins chose to read her essay to the class as an exemplary model for the rest of the students to follow. Lupita continues, saying that after class her teacher pulled her aside to tell her she was an amazing writer. She shared, “She would always tell me that I was an amazing writer. She was the first teacher I can remember that had confi- dence in my abilities.” She credits this teach- er’s positive reinforcements to her ability to believe that she can overcome any challenge and be successful in life. She began to cry softly as she expressed her deep appreciation to this teacher, credit- ing the teacher for her academic success. As a Top 10 graduating student, her parents will get to sit on the football field in the front row at graduation to be recognized. Her tears flowed more freely as she expressed the pride that her parents feel toward her excellent ac- complishments in school and she credits her teachers for her motivation to succeed. Jamie’s story Jamie emigrated from Nigeria when she was 11 years old. She has faced mul- tiple challenges in her life, including the loss of her father as he collapsed and died in the streets of Nigeria one day walking home from church. She lives alone with her mother and is struggling with a new male figure emerging in her life as her mother be- gins to date. I asked Jamie which teachers contributed most to her academic success and why. She admits that the advisory program at school helps her cope with the challenges because of her teacher’s compassion, understanding and commitment to student success. She stated, “I can talk to my advisory teacher about anything. She helps me stay focused on my academic success, teaches me how to be successful in my classes, and gives me an opportunity to fix things when I am strug- gling in a class.” Jamie shares additional experiences about other teachers who influenced her life, spe- cifically a former chemistry teacher. She expressed that her former chemistry teacher excelled at communicating with students and in providing help with difficult concepts in class. A student’s question in class was always perceived as being important to the teacher, and she took great care in answering the questions without intimating the ques- tions were unwarranted. Her appreciation for caring teachers that focused on student success was evident in our conversations. Her final example came from her English professor who always took the time to teach ways to improve rather than criticize deficiencies. She noted that teachers who genuinely focus on student learning make the greatest impact in the lives of students. The language that her teachers chose to use with her undeniably motivates her to see that effort and success are linked together and that her abilities are not limited to her circumstances. Jose’s story Jose is an athletic young man with a desire to become a physical therapist for athletes. Jose’s primary language is Spanish, and he lives in a low-socioeconomic community riddled with gangs and violence. He had a close relationship with his fa- ther, until he was convicted and sent to prison out of state. If his father survives the 35-year sentence, he will be deported to Mexico after his release. After his father was convicted five years ago, the money the family needed to sur- vive was diminished significantly. Due to the drastic change in his home environ- ment, Jose now lives in poverty. At first, his older brother was helping out with the bills, but his mother kicked him out of the house when he became heavily involved with drugs and gangs. The situation had a very serious impact on Jose’s life and left him feeling angry, be- trayed, hopeless and frightened. To add to the stress that Jose has encountered, last year his best friend and teammate was struck by a p