“Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.”Urie Bronfenbrenner
Over the past 20 years of teaching I have identified a trend when working with some of my most challenging students - they were often the students who were either chronically truant or occasionally absent from school. I am a firm believer that for most of these young people, life outside of school was chaotic at best and likely uncertain or even dangerous at worse. If truancy was common for these students in the preceding years, by the time they reached me in their 9th grade they struggled academically as a result of the gaps in their education. These were the students whom Carol Dweck mentions, “the poorly prepared or poorly motivated students”. And as her research suggests these students are in need of supports, scaffolding, and engagement more than any other students.
I tried my best to keep this in mind when I would have challenging interaction with students. I could see why they were disengaged, they had missed previous lessons making it difficult to actively participate in class. This would often lead to off-task or disruptive behavior. I am also a believer in teachers getting crystal clear on their sphere of influence and operating with that sphere as much as possible to avoid burnout. One factor that lies outside of that sphere is whether or not students attend school. There are, of course, interventions to help truant students attend school more regularly like calling home, contacting the student’s counselor, etc. However, I can’t force a student to attend but I also did not want a battle with them each time they did come to school.
With these students, as a first step toward connecting with them, I made a conscious choice to let academics take a backseat. Instead, I held tight to Bronfenbrenner’s words and assumed that each of these kiddos had never had one adult who was wildly and irrationally on their team. As you know, I stand at my classroom door before each class period and greet my students. I find that this brief connection with students serves to better engage students and reduce off-task behavior throughout the lesson. Also, it is just fun!
Here was my plan for my truant students when they did attend class. I have to be honest, in regards to management it was much easier to conduct a smooth lesson when they were not present. So when they did arrive, it was nice to see them, but I did have some trepidation. Regardless, to make them feel welcome I would greet them at the door with a big smile on my face and proclaim, “WE MISSED YOU! It just is not the same when you are not here.”
When I let loose (not let go) of my desire for them to achieve academically and attend school regularly I was able to focus completely on making a human connection. All I wanted them to know was that there was one person in the world that was really happy to see them whenever he was afforded the opportunity. Attendance is beyond the teachers sphere of influence so I have no evidence of whether or not my greeting impacted their truancy rates. I do know one thing for a fact, my consistent greeting influenced their engagement in class and my overall classroom management issues. I liken it to the first step in what Zaretta Hammond, in Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain, calls Learning Partnerships. The first step is defined as building “rapport and affirmation” with students. She explains,
“...Affirmation simply means that we acknowledge the personhood of our students through words and actions that say to them, “I care about you.””
When a student feels cared for by their teacher they are more likely to see them as a trustworthy adult. Hammond goes on to explain the relationship between fear and trust in learning and how trust actually frees up the brain for learning.
If you have truant and/or challenging students give this a try, stand at the door and greet them with a smile and let them know you missed that and that things are not the same when they are absent. Give it a try, I’d love to hear about the impact it has.