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Teachers' "Antennae" Help Them Better Understand At-Risk Students

Voice of ExperienceEducator Kathie Marshall makes an extra effort to get to know the "whole student." In this essay, she shares strategies and techniques she uses to open up the lines of communication between teacher and students and gain a better understanding of at-risk students.

Kathie Marshall
I remember the first time my life outside of school invaded my school life. I was eight when I learned my mother's recent surgery was the dreaded cancer. I carried to school the fear that my classmates might learn my family's secret.

Eight years later, my mother died. Not wanting to stay at home where grief prevailed, I immediately returned to school. I put on a brave face, but I shared none of my feelings with anybody else. I silently suffered inside. After nearly 30 years as a classroom teacher, those feelings are still fresh.

Today, I am an instructional coach. I work with teachers and students -- and I always feel compelled to seek out information about personal issues that affect my students' abilities to perform academically. I want my students to feel they can, and should, open up to me. I'm sure my interest in knowing this is firmly rooted in my own mother's illness and death, but my feelings were reinforced a few years ago when a former student committed suicide at the age of sixteen.

To me, there is no choice. I must learn about my students -- about their academic skills and the personal events that shape their lives and affect their learning. I have developed special "antennae" that help me to see my students as individuals, some of whom attend school against great personal odds. There is nothing magical about my antennae. I have developed them by carefully constructing an environment in which my students are comfortable sharing with me things they might not even be able to share with others -- even their own family members.


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If I am to have any hope that my students will see me as somebody they can talk to, I must first be willing to share myself. If I am willing to do that, my students might begin to see me as a real person who has experienced many of life's challenges. By sharing how I have coped with personal adversity, I am modeling coping strategies for my students -- strategies that might help them as they struggle to develop their own emotional resiliency.

My students are not blind to what I am trying to do. That point was driven home to me when a former student, an especially difficult student with special needs, said to me, "At first I didn't like you. But then I saw you're different from some other teachers. You talk to us."


A specific strategy that helps my students to see that I understand their personal struggles is the "double bubble analogy." This strategy also helps students to understand themselves. I introduce students to the concept by drawing two large bubbles on the board. One bubble has arrows pointing to it from outside while the other has arrows pointing toward its edges from the inside.

I explain to students that those two bubbles represent us as individuals. We discuss how our lives are like the bubbles. Pressures from outside sources threaten to burst the bubble, as resources from inside help to strengthen it. I challenge students to list both positive and negative influences -- things that might strengthen the bubble and/or threaten to burst it -- and I write those down. My students frequently mention things such as parents, school, church, friends, peer pressure, grades, TV, movies, music, drugs, and gangs among the influences; some of those things, they note, can be both positive and negative influences.


If I want my students to feel comfortable enough to open up to me in times of need, it is also essential that I seek out ways to earn their trust. Some trust develops naturally because I am making an effort to communicate with them; they're more likely to respond in return. But I have also found some specific strategies that seem effective in getting students to open up. For example, at the beginning of the school year, I provide students with an inventory of personal prompts. Some prompts are neutral, for example What pets do you have? Others, however, are intended to encourage students to share their more personal thoughts. Some examples include:

  • One thing that really bugs me is...
  • One thing I'd really like you to know about me is...
  • Three things I like about myself are...
  • Something I don't like about myself is...

After that inventory exercise, I closely study the information students shared. For example, several years ago I got back an inventory with the following response:

One thing that really bugs me is...when people try to make me do something.

Of course, my antennae went right up when I read that response. I knew the sixth grader who wrote that to be hyperactive and intelligent, so I immediately set him to work as my assistant, a strategy that succeeded in helping to get Travis (not his real name) to see that I was on his side rather than against him.


I've also had excellent results by having students write letters to me. When I first shared my thoughts about having students write letters, another teacher said, "Oh, those eighth graders won't write you letters!" Well, I hadn't even given that possibility any thought. Perhaps they wouldn't, I decided, but then I doggedly tried the strategy anyway.

Sometimes I assign letter writing as a homework assignment for an entire class. At other times, however, I ask a specific student to write me a letter. Those individual letters might be triggered by events such as an unusually upset demeanor, a drop in grades, or a school suspension. From some student letters I've learned everything I've always wanted to know about skateboarding, hip-hop, or a favorite relative. Some of what I got, however, was revealing -- even eye opening.

Like the final comment from a student who agreed to write me a letter that would share her troubles with me: "So just be glad I'm here today instead of killing myself last night."

Or the one from a student who'd gone from an "A" to a "D" in a few short weeks: "My grades have fallen because six of my relatives were killed in the last month. My aunt and three cousins died in a car accident..."

Or the letter from a former sixth grader who returned as an eighth-grade student: "Thanks for teaching me about journaling when I was in the sixth grade. Last year my aunt, uncle, and cousin were killed by another cousin. At first I was so depressed. Then I remembered what you taught us about keeping a journal. I tried it, and it really helped me to get better. Thanks!"

Or the one from a troubled student who was failing all his classes: "My first problem is my parents' divorce...My next problem is my grandpa is dying of colon cancer...My third problem is my brother is on trial for murder, and we don't know if he's going to get the death penalty or life in prison...I guess I have a lot of problems, huh?"

Those letters and many others have convinced me that students will open up when they sense real concern from a teacher. For some students, those letters were cathartic. For others, they were the first healing steps. In all cases, those letters gave me insight into my students' worlds, their concerns, and their hearts. Most importantly, the information shared in those letters made it possible for me to seek for those students -- with their permission -- some assistance in tackling their problems.


Can a teacher reach all students? Can a teacher get all students to open up when troubling times have them down? Certainly not. But that doesn't stop me from trying, and trying again.

I discovered an eighth grader of mine was a "cutter" only because I persisted in asking, "What's wrong, Bernice (not her real name)?" Within a week of thrusting her slashed forearms in my direction, Bernice got the psychiatric hospitalization she sorely needed.

One year I became very concerned about a student because his academic performance had plummeted. It took me six months of one-way "conversations" before the dam broke and this child was able to share with me his great despair over his parents' divorce -- despair his parents knew nothing about.

I know that I will never be able to reach every student. I know that some of my colleagues will be more successful than I will be at connecting with some of our students. The fact is that, if we all try, one of us is likely to connect at some level and be able to guide students through difficult times.

Sometimes a teacher can be more effective at filling the role of confidant then even a parent can be. In 1991, my husband had surgery for a massive brain tumor. Two years prior to the discovery of the tumor were terrible for my two teenaged daughters and me as we struggled to understand why our caring, funny husband and father was slowly turning into somebody we did not recognize. I truly believe that my older daughter, a high school junior at the time of the surgery, was able to cope in large part because her English teacher allowed her to stop by daily to share her troubles. I've thanked God for that teacher's help many times, and I know many of my former students and their parents have done the same for me and my colleagues who take the time to get to know our students on a more personal level.


Students Thrive Where Teachers Care
Teacher Ann Bianchetti shares that when students begin to believe teachers care about them, they begin to care about school.

Teaching with Heart
Teacher Brenda Dyck deals with the question, How can teachers maintain that zeal and make that connection?

A teacher for nearly 30 years in both public and private schools, Kathie Marshall currently works as an instructional coach at Pacoima Middle School in Pacoima, California. She has published two holiday graph art workbooks, Plotting Points, Grades 2 to 4 and Plotting Points, Grades 5 to 8 (published by Instructional Fair).

Article by Kathie Marshall
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