Saturday, September 7, 2013

Breaking Down the Barriers of Connection

Post by Amy Harksen: Amy is in her 7th year as a school counselor at Bettendorf High School and currently serves in the role of Team Leader 

When my principal asked me to speak on student engagement at our staff in-service, it was like asking Michael Jordan to speak about basketball—that is how enthused I feel about this subject. I am fortunate to call myself a school counselor. This is not a job for me but a calling. Everything in my life, every belief I have, and every value is rooted in my passion for wanting to make a difference for others. I am fortunate to work in a high school that not only professes that as a philosophy, but encourages us to live it in the work we do with teenagers. The difficulty for me in addressing this topic was in my desire to convey the thread of engaging students not as a huge intervention but as a way of relating and reaching out. I have great respect for our teachers. They work hard, and in today’s educational world, there are only more demands outside of their time in the classroom that make the very important job they do feel unmanageable. There is more to do in so many areas—unit planners, data plans, benchmarks to reach, reports to write, and test scores to raise. I did not want to add to that burden with my Pollyanna attitude and entreaty to engage the disengaged student. Rather, I wanted to reinforce that much of what they are already doing matters--matters so much more than they know in ways they don’t realize. I also wanted to help them see that it is the small gesture, the consistent smile, and the warmth of a greeting that can make such a difference in the life of a teen.

We all know what the disengaged student looks like….little to no eye contact, head down on the desk, no response in class, no investment in schoolwork, etc. It is pretty easy to let that be a barrier to connection. My contention is that we need to go towards that student and not away. We also probably all know that there are reasons these teens act apathetic. It could be family problems, poverty and downright hunger, pressure to succeed, low self-esteem….the list goes on. They may have learned that life doesn’t embrace them and they are not the star athlete, honor student, or anything society has told them they should be. So they learn to back off and slump down.  The best teaching methods in the world probably won’t engage them. However, this is why it is so important to build relationships with our students. Supportive teachers affect students’ interest in class work, inspire effort, and build confidence. How do we reach these students to build that relationship? By noticing them, by not being put off by the scowl, by talking to them with warmth and a smile even when they give nothing in return, and by doing that day after day… noticing that they have new shoes, or a band on their tee shirt that we like too, or a haircut or color that is cool, or a slightly finished assignment when others were never started. In the consistent, day after day refusal to be put off by their disengagement, in conveying belief in them, and in noticing they are unique individuals, we build a relationship that can lead to them wanting to try even just a bit. In my time as a school counselor, I have heard almost all of our teachers named “favorite” by a student. The interesting thing about that is that it is not always the popular teacher who is named. With unfailing consistency, it is the teacher who took time and made a student feel like they cared. End of story, hands down—it matters.

Despite my master’s degree and clinical training, my best intervention with a student is to care. I had a student who was failing, whose Mom was at a loss as to how to get him motivated, and who appeared lost himself. He came to my office very timidly with his pass. His bangs fell over his eyes in that adolescent attempt to hide from the world. He slumped in his seat and initially had difficulty talking. I talked to him about him and not his school work. What did he do after school? What were his interests? What was his family like?  He warmed and became more comfortable. We made a plan for getting homework done and I asked him if he was willing to come in every week so we could watch the progress. I told him I believed he could do this. He smiled as he left. A funny thing happened. I sent a pass the next week and he had done his work. Going forward, I neglected to send a pass one week due to a crisis and at the end of a Friday I looked up and there he stood at the door to my office with a smile. I jumped up and greeted him, thanking him for being so responsible to come on his own. I never sent another pass and he appeared like clockwork. He wasn't an honor student, but he passed every class. More importantly, he believed a bit more in himself and that someone else believed in him. My primary intervention was a sincere smile, happiness to see him, and interest in who he was. We jotted notes and grades in a notebook, but that wasn't the difference.

 I hope we can all remember as educators and adults who interact with teens that we have an impact that we don’t realize and that the work we do matters. To me, that is why the work we do is so fulfilling. It is definitely why I feel fortunate to be a school counselor.


  1. Excellent post Amy! Sincerely caring about students is the most powerful tool we have! Showing care and concern, even in the smallest way, can make a huge difference in the lives of our students. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Great job Amy! You hit the nail on the head. They dont care how much we know until they know how much we care.

  3. Great post, Amy! It is crucial that we all work as a team to create and cultivate the types of relationships that you and your department model for us on a regular basis.

  4. Great post Amy! I could not agree more with the contents of your post. A positive relationship is an essential component of the disengaged student. I like your statement on reminding us to walk towards these students and not away. It's the small things that matter! Again, great job!