As educators, we are trained to coach our students in the lessons they need to be prepared for the real world, but sometimes our most important job has nothing to do with the subjects we teach. When our students are faced with moments of crisis, often the best thing we can do is be there to support them.
I once had a ninth-grade student called to the office in the middle of remedial reading class. I took one look at her when she returned and my heart sunk in my chest. Her face, her entire demeanor had crumbled. I stepped outside with her and asked what was wrong.
Her answer was heartbreaking.
Her mother had just evicted her over the phone and told her that she had dumped everything the girl owned in paper bags and left them on the porch. I was stunned. This 16-year-old child had just been told by her own mother that she would have to find a new home. It was obviously difficult to talk about, but it showed me the importance of ensuring my students felt like they could come to me about anything. I talked it through with her and got the counselors involved to make sure she had the support she needed. But in that moment, I showed her that she wasn’t alone.
There is so much more going on in the world outside the classroom — and our students aren’t immune to the craziness of the real world. You never know what might be happening in a student’s personal life. What you can do is create an environment that helps support your students whatever they’re going through.
If you haven’t thought about how to do this in your school, here are a few proactive steps I’ve found can go a long way to ensure your students know they’ll have your support when they need it most:
Make space for privacy. While it’s important to set up your classroom to encourage community building within the room, it is equally as important to allow space for privacy. Carve out a private area away from prying eyes in your classroom where your students know they can go in case they need a moment to themselves, or to talk in confidence with you.
Don’t make the division between educator and student so obvious. Students are not your peers, but that doesn’t mean you have to create an overly hierarchical relationship between yourself and your students. Emphasizing two-way trust in your conversations with your students and setting up your classroom in a way that lets the students know it is just as much their classroom as it is yours can help facilitate a more open relationship.
Ask students about themselves. Not all students make it obvious when they’re having a difficult time, so taking a moment to ask questions when they enter the room can help you detect when a student isn’t doing as well. And it can really be as simple as asking them how they’re doing or what’s going on in their lives.
Study faces. You see your students every day, but are you really noticing what their faces are saying? By paying a little closer attention to how students carry themselves, you can make it easier to detect when something is wrong that they’re not talking about. I’m not saying to stare your students down, but paying attention to facial cues can go a long way.
At the end of the day, the most important thing we can do is create an environment where our students can learn and grow, which they can only do if they feel safe and supported.
While there is no way to predict the real world challenges your students will face, doing the work upfront to foster an environment of trust and safety can help ensure every student is supported — whether they’re just having a tough day, or just got kicked out of their home.