Saturday, December 14, 2013

I Was Absent Because I Wasn't Here

Post by Joni Bruecken: Joni has served as the attendance secretary at Bettendorf High School since 2005.  Joni & her colleague Vera are the welcoming faces of BHS. 

“Good morning, Bettendorf High School attendance, how can I help you?”  Sounds straight forward doesn't it?  A simple little job writing passes for kids while keeping meticulous attendance records, sipping coffee and keeping the information highway at BHS running smoothly. While all of this is part of a day in the life of the Attendance Office, my small world has opened to a larger, more complex view of how students move through the high school experience.  Some are equipped to take on additional responsibility with confidence and maturity while others struggle with emotional overload, parental shortcomings and the inability to set an alarm.

“And why are you late today?”  Oh I see, you are late today because you were, “waiting for your pants to dry,  field dressing a deer , up late for the premier of Hunger Games, flat ironing your hair, eating pancakes, helping Mom find your missing hamster, thought there was no school today” or a host of other humorous reasons involving siblings, pets and mismanaged time.

In these cases, we simply smile, point out that what is excused at home may not be excused at school, give the student an unexcused pass and send them on their merry way. There are other reasons for being late that are more compelling.

“And why are you late today?”  Oh I see, you are late today because “you’re living at your friend’s house, your parents are getting a divorce and they’re fighting, your grandpa is dying, your mom has cancer and you can’t stop crying, your brother was arrested last night, you were too depressed to get up”.  All of these reasons have been offered as excuses for being late.  The challenge is how to help without intruding, how to show we care without being too emotional and how to tap into the resources available (and there are many) for a struggling student.  We have called counselors on many occasions to alert them to students in tears or expressing anger when they check in. Our administrators have gone on record saying we should get to know our students, personalize their school experience and let them know they are not an interruption. We work toward that goal in the attendance office. 

In years past, there were many non-teaching adults in the High School to offer support and encouragement to our students.  Each floor had at least one resource secretary that offered another pair of watchful eyes, a pencil, a calculator or an encouraging word. Their function was support; support of teachers and kids, no grades to be given, no class performance to be measured; just an adult to listen and lean on if needed.  The value of that adult presence is difficult to measure, but it did have value. 

As you all know, a student with a challenging home life is not always the most attentive, engaged or punctual. Being the first person a student sees in the morning is kind of an awesome responsibility.  The moment a student checks in late, it is not about being tardy, it is about how our interaction can set the tone for the day. We can connect personally with our kids if we greet them with positive energy and a smile. It’s good for both of us. Some kids are hyper cranky in the morning, looking as rumpled as an unmade bed and resistant to our charms.  Others are sucking down a Starbuck’s as big as your face and telling us they’re late due to car trouble…apparently the stop at Starbuck’s is not what made them late. :)

There are just as many reasons to celebrate our students as to bemoan another late arrival. Everything that happens in a family will eventually touch our office.  We get parent calls for family weddings, new babies, scholarship interviews, rowing teams, community plays, college signings, individual achievements, “once in a lifetime vacations” and so much more.  It gives us a chance to share in the more personal details that make up a family, building trust and relationships that can last for years. That’s the fun stuff.

Our office is the first line of defense, the gateway to all other offices in the school. As in the movie, The Lord of the Rings, a particular passage resonates with me as gate keeper to the entrance of our school: “You shall not pass!!”… until you state your business, show your ID and remove your hood! Students and parents grumble very little about having to wait to be buzzed in when the doors are locked at 8:15 a.m. The added layer of security is another way to show the kids and the community how much we value them. The benefits outweigh the inconvenience.

The Attendance Office is so much more than attendance. We are actually a welcome center. Kids appreciate a little humor, a comment about their hair color du’jour and the occasional bag of skittles.  We have just a few moments when kids check in or pass through our office to check their mood barometer, make eye contact and share a word of welcome. It is the most important part of our job!

Joni Bruecken


  1. Joni's words should be read by every secretary in every office of every school building. Our secretaries are the directors of first impressions and ours do it so beautifully!! I couldn't be more proud to work with these women and and as a principal and mother, they are who I want greeting all kids, including my own. Thank you, Joni, for giving a voice and value to what secretaries bring to the schools and to our people - both the children and the adults. We couldn't be so student centered without the expertise and support of all the secretaries. Well done, Joni! Love this!!!

  2. Joni- What a powerful post! Thank you for being a champion for kids every day and for taking the time to get to know every student on an individual basis. You bring so much joy every day to Bettendorf High School as well as to our students and our staff. I am genuinely grateful for all that you do for our school community. You are the best! Blessings - jimmy

  3. Joni - thanks for sharing this wonderful post. The students at Bettendorf are truly blessed to have you in their lives!

  4. Insert applause here________________. Bravo, Joni. Rodger

  5. Joni, this is a wonderful post. Both of your cheery voices and calming personalities are not just having an impact on students, it also has an impact on those you work with. You hear so many things, some comical and some heartbreaking and you handle them accordingly. . You are a great co-worker and I am glad I work with you.

  6. Joni,
    What a great post! It is a privilege to work with you and Vera on a daily basis. You do set the tone of the day for many of our students. Your ability to connect with students and create that caring environment is a benefit to all those that pass through your office. Thanks for all that you do.
    ~ Colin

  7. Joni,

    I applaud the job that you do! Thank you for taking the time to get to know the kids and families that your school serves. You are certainly an asset to your district. This blog was brought to my attention (and the attention of many others) at a National Association of Secondary School Principals annual conference in Dallas, TX this past weekend. I'm so happy that yours was the first post I read. Keep doing what you're doing!

  8. I've heard spoken with those voices in the office many a morning. Thanks to a group of true educational professionals. Your post and the post by Sharon Woodworh remind us every day the Bettendorf isn't the home to the Perfect Bulldog. We are the home to Every Bulldog.