Monday, November 18, 2013

Little Interactions are Everything

As previously mentioned in an earlier blog entry, two of my favorite times of the day are before school as I welcome students to the campus and after school as they depart from the parking lot for home. I try to do my best to connect with every student as they arrive on our campus, either with a hi/hello or with a silly, middle school-esque comment in hopes of exciting them about being at our school. Truthfully, to me, these moments don't feel as significant as a teacher observation or a counseling session with an at-risk student. After all, these interactions last less than a minute, often much less, and at least one hundred passing conversations happen every morning and afternoon in the parking lot. But to two students and their parents, they mean a lot more.

Both conversations happened at our weekend Bid and Boogie, a fundraiser for our school athletics program. Held off campus for just school faculty and parents, the Bid and Boogie event is a chance to interact with parents and co-workers in a non-school environment. It was at this gathering that two parents approached me with separate stories about my morning interactions with their children.

The first set of parents are new to Union Middle. Their child has adapted very well to our school, performing well academically, socially, and athletically. The family has been very positive and supportive of our school and teaching staff as well. This summer, when they enrolled their student, there was a lot of concern about how this adjustment would unfold. While we didn't do anything "special" for their student, we did our usual school introductions and means of welcoming to best assure the parents and student that they landed at an amazing middle school. I think they'd agree that this is true.

I spoke with the parents of this student about a variety of topics. One part of the conversation that stuck with me is when the mother brought up a moment from a few weeks ago in the parking lot during drop-off. I didn't catch what she said the first time around and actually thought she was upset about an interaction I had with her student. Specifically, she said she drove away in tears, which I immediately worried couldn't be a good thing. I surely don't want to gain the reputation for making parents cry. I don't think this would help our greatschools reviews: "We love the school, but the principal makes the parents cry in the parking lot!"

After having my stomach drop to the floor, the parent explained what led her to tears. As it turns out, her reaction stemmed from a conversation between her child and I as the student exited their car one morning. Often, I'll open the car door for our students and encourage them to thank their parent for driving them to school. For some, as I did for this student, I'll also suggest that they tell their parent that they love them. For most students, they mumble "thanks and I love you" and quickly make their way on to campus. For a few students, such as this parent's child, it's more of a struggle the say those three little words.

And so the student paused and tried to keep his eyes low as a way to avoid having to say that little phrase. They made an effort to exit the vehicle but given that I had now placed one arm on the rear door and was still holding the open passenger door, the student had nowhere to turn. He muttered the words and quickly headed on to his first period class. The mother gave me a smile and, as I found out this past Saturday, drove away with tears in her eyes.

This student reminds me of myself as a 7th grader, although I doubt I was as confident and socially acclimated as they are. As I shared with the parents, I often made my mother watch my middle and high school soccer games from the car as I was afraid she would embarrass me if she were on the sidelines. Today, this sounds incredibly silly as my mother never did nor could she embarrass me, especially not any worse than I did on my own each and every day of middle and high school. Secretly, I think she wanted to watch from her car so she could play music and multitask. From there, no one could see her reading her daily novel. Still, I shudder to think that I was so worried about what my peers would say that I made this request of my mother.

I shared this story with these parents and received confirmation through their eye contact that they completely understood what my mom most likely felt upon hearing my request. This student, it turns out, has been slowly distancing themselves from their parents, a little bit more every school year. While this is completely normal, it can still be a challenge for parents to see their child try to set boundaries where there once were none. To this parent, just hearing the words "I love you" were enough to produce tears of joy. Who knew that a simple request of a student could lead to such a reaction?

The other story from this evening involved a parent of one of our leadership students. She relayed a story from a few weeks ago involving her student during announcements. At our school, our ASB officers handle the morning announcements. They do an amazing job and improve throughout the year. I try to stay nearby during the morning announcements for a few reasons. First, I like to hear the announcements just to be informed. Second, I find the energy in the front office to be very electric in the morning and there are often times where I can help out. Third, it's a chance to interact with our ASB officers and check in with them regarding their daily homework load, any peer issues, and get a general sense of the student vibe on our campus. It is also a chance to see if any of them have left out their cell phones that I can "borrow" for a few moment to take a selfie and also post it as their phone's screensaver.

And on one random day, one of our ASB officers did happen to their phone out and I did happen to come across said phone. One thing led to another and a few moments later, this student had a new screensaver on their phone. Of course, the student immediately found out, partly by my deliberate theatrics involving the cell phone. The ASB officers all laughed at the silly principal and left for first period; I never heard anything else about the incident...

Until this parent brought it up at the weekend Bid and Boogie, I truthfully had little recollection of the incident occurring. Given my average school day and student interactions, it didn't register as anything out of the ordinary. Thus, I was a bit surprised that their student had shared this story with them. What to me felt like a silly, passing moment was significant enough for a student to share with their parent as a moment of connection between the oft-goofy principal and 8th grade student. In retelling the story, the parent connected how these little silly interactions make our school the amazing community it continues to be.

There are so many lessons to learn from these ineractions. Every single time you have an opportunity to connect, you help build the relationship between the staff member and student. It doesn't matter if it's a few minutes after a class period to show interest in a student's academic progress, attending their volleyball game, opening a car door to get a quick "I love you" or taking a silly selfie on their cell phone... all of these moments help build the connection between adult and student. These moments bring an end result of our students feeling safe at our school. In order to be open and available to learn, a student needs to feel safe and comfortable in their school environment. When our kids feel physically and emotionally safe, they're more likely to take risks and experience true growth. Essentially, these little interactions mean everything.

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