Feb 12, 2011


He swaggers into the room, slithers into a desk in the back. Everything about him screams defiance. He ain't gonna learn nothin'. School is a waste of time. You can't make him do anything and any threat you make to even try will result in nothing--no action whatsoever. His parents never graduated high school; they don't care. The administration is sick of the kid, but they can't do anything because he's under the legal dropout age and they are required to provide him an education. He gets suspended regularly, but never for anything so bad he could be expelled. You look at him in your classroom and your stomach twists itself into knots, wondering what the coming weeks will bring. You wonder how much of a disruption he will cause and how much instructional time the other kids in class will lose because you're dealing with him. You're already planning the weekly TGIF parties so you can de-stress. Weeks go by and it's just as bad as you thought. You try to ignore his swaggering, slithering self but ignoring doesn't make him stop. He interrupts your instruction, makes fun of the assignments and distracts your other students. He doesn't do any work, ever. He's going to fail your class and you're just trying to make sure that your other students don't follow his lead.  You wonder, "Why doesn't he just drop out???"

One of the biggest frustrations for a high school teacher who is passionate about what they do is the kid who they just can't seem to reach. I was an at-risk teen and for 15 years I have been teaching at-risk teens. Despite all of this experience, I am not an expert. Every student is different. What works for one might not work for another. Each time a new student enters my alternative high school program I spend time thinking about how to reach them, and I know that in my district I am not the only educator who spends time thinking about how to reach a particular student who seems unreachable. The problem is not just occurring in my district, though.  Many educators are faced with a growing number of at-risk students in their classrooms. The reasons why at-risk numbers are skyrocketing would be another entirely different discussion! For now, I will just acknowledge that general educators are faced with a very difficult reality. Due to NCLB /AYP requirements and value-added assessment, your job may be at stake if you can't reach your students. Below are some things I've learned through my experience that may or may not help general educators who are trying to reach at-risk students.

Caveat: there are no quick fixes. If a student has been beaten down by the system for 14 or more years, you won't be able to reach that student in an hour, or even a day. But you can reach them. They want to be reached. Throw a rope out and they won't ignore your attempt to save their education. Here are some of the easiest interventions to use:
  1.  Sometimes instruction is not the most important thing. It is your job to figure out when an issue is big enough to interrupt instruction and then to let it interfere.  Depending on how old you are, I bet you can remember powerful examples of when life interfered with instruction: Kennedy's assassination, the Challenger explosion, September 11. For at-risk students, life interferes with school on a daily basis. Those outside influences are more powerful than your lesson plan. You can choose to ignore the outside issues and keep chugging through the lesson, but you will not reach the at-risk student unless you acknowledge their outside struggles. (Notice I did not say you need to glorify their struggles or abandon your lesson completely.)
  2. Treat your students as if they are your peers. Say hello to them--by name--when they walk into the room. When you first meet them, make eye contact and shake their hand. Introduce yourself the way you would if you were attending a meeting or a job interview. Make them feel important and respected. As teachers, we often say that students need to "give respect in order to get respect." With at-risk kids, the teacher needs to model the act of giving respect because many of them have never seen what real respect looks like. 
  3. Give some positive feedback. Even if it's just a compliment about something non-academic: "I like your shirt today." Most at-risk teens only receive negative feedback at school: you're late again; you forgot your homework; you failed the quiz; you need to go to the office; that's a detention; get your feet off the desk; stop talking; you're disrupting your peers who are trying to learn! Then there's the nonverbal negative feedback: you're ignored by the teacher, you get the "evil eye"; your peers fear you, ignore you or make fun of you. Can you imagine how you'd feel if you were surrounded by that kind of negativity every day at work, year after year? That is the school reality for many at-risk teens. Positive feedback--as simple as a smile or a compliment--can make a HUGE difference in the day of an at-risk teen. And if you offer positive feedback each day for a week, at-risk teens might actually start to believe you are telling the truth.
These are some very basic strategies and some would argue that they are universal strategies that should be used with every student, whether or not they are deemed "at-risk". What do you think? How do you reach those hard-to-reach students?

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