Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Making a Student Connection in 20 Minutes

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I took a chance with our Team Leaders. Since then, I've been contemplating how to once again try something different with our Team Leaders group. Partly inspired by my former co-administrator's (and now Palo Alto High School principal) decision to bring her own quasi-team leader group to Texas for the Learning Forward conference, I want to transform our Team Leaders into a different style of group.

As previously mentioned in the post linked above, we have "Team Leaders" every Tuesday morning at 8:05 to 8:25. Each of our seven teams have a "teacher leader" who attends the Tuesday morning session. These teacher leaders are provided with information about the Wednesday 8:05 to 8:35 Staff Collaboration and then lead the Team Collaboration from 8:35 to 9:10 in their respective groupings. While in past years, we've solely covered Wednesday's Meeting in a Memo at our Tuesday Team Leaders and I've become increasingly frustrated with the seemingly repetitive nature of these meetings. Truthfully, I feel like I'm wasting the collective genius of my teacher leaders by merely repeating information they'll hear the next day.

So last week I cancelled the Team Leaders meeting. Instead, I invited each of them to the Team Leader Challenge (TLC).

Here, I presented a shared Google doc and asked that each of them filled out the Google doc before the following Team Leaders' meeting. I explained that instead of meeting in Team Leaders on 12/3 at 8:05 to 8:25, each team leader would spend time outside of their class schedule with one individual student of their choosing in an effort to build/strengthen the student-teacher relationship as well as the student's connection to our middle school. My goal was to displace the time from Team Leaders to an opportunity for a student to have an extra connection with a staff member. Within the Google doc, I provided various examples of what their student connection could look like... Perhaps before school, they could schedule a mini breakfast for a student with twenty minutes of conversation and care... Or they could invite a student to walk the track with them during brunch to chat about class, their favorite novel, or any other interested topic... Or maybe they work directly with a student on their homework after school and find moments to check in with them about how their school year is going... I intentionally provided examples of student-teacher interactions that already occur within our school day, so as to not challenge our Team Leaders with the seemingly odd request for the week. Even with what I felt was a soft and gentle assignment, I was worried with what the response would be.

Over the week, I checked in with a few Team Leaders about their homework. One staff member said they loved the idea and had an incredible time over bagels with their chosen student. Our assistant principal enjoyed getting to spend a little more time with a student who has been bubbling behaviorally in recent weeks, finding out that the student is struggling with the content in their math class. One Team Leader admitted to be slightly frustrated with the assignment at first but understood that there was a higher purpose to the exercise, and thus was willing to participate in the assignment. Overall, it was a positively mixed feedback response.

Today, one by one, each Team Leader shared their twenty minute time with a student of their choosing. Each member of our Team Leaders had an incredible takeaway from their student conversation.

"My student struggles in school and yet looks forward to it every single day"

"He is looking for adults to have positive interactions with"

"She is an amazing ray of sunshine"

"My student reminded me of the amazing programs we have to escort them out of their comfort zones into safe, challenging opportunities."

"Middle school is an awkward time of growth -- don't lose sight of the positives"

"In a word, my student is just so happy"

"My student had an appointment midday and forced their grandpa to take them back to school for 6th period -- he wanted to be at school"

"They've moved twelve times in twelve years. I've moved once in my entire life."

And we ended with my sharing of the student I met with, the subject of which will be a future blog post. My student is one of the more challenging students at our school and yet one with possibility the most potential. My student didn't only lack the knowledge of what they wanted to be, but they lacked the passion to find out. It was a challenging ending to what I felt was a positive experiment, but not every interaction with a student is going to be striped unicorns and pretty roses. It was a solid conversation, just somewhat depressing on a student's failure to see their own potential that exists just past their self-built wall of challenges.

The bell rang and Team Leaders ended. Before we departed, I encouraged each of them to try the same exercise with their teams the following morning. As always, it was a soft, optional request but my hope is that they lead their teams through the exercise in a similar format as I've presented to them. After all, the purpose of the exercise wasn't just to spend twenty minutes with a student, getting to know one additional member of our student body. It's not that I don't value relationships (I believe I do), but my true goal was to embed leadership into our Team Leaders and have them lead a similar conversation amongst their teams. This process is not without risk, but I trust they will be successful. I'm also quite excited to hear the results. Fingers crossed.

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