Care and Commitment: Reaching Students At-Risk of Dropping Out

At-Risk of Dropping Out

Taking the Right Approach

When I taught graduate students, I remember saying, “The only excuse for not submitting this paper is death — your own.”  While I know that was a bit extreme, what I was essentially saying was, “Things will happen, but if you are committed to earning your degree, you will need to learn how to deal with life and complete your work in a timely fashion.”

By the time I had made that remark, it was well into the semester, and these graduate students—primarily teachers and principals—had already learned of my commitment to the young people they served. They already knew that I regarded their chosen vocations highly but held them accountable for acquiring the knowledge and applying it to the problems seen in their communities. Basically, they knew I was genuinely committed to the cause, and they knew I cared.

In working with youth in at-risk situations, I have had to take the same approach. However, I also abide by the unspoken guidelines that when teaching and mentoring, don’t “diss” (disrespect) them and don’t “perpetrate” (be fake). You won’t get anywhere in the teaching and learning process if you are communicating disrespect and/or lack of sincerity.

School, for most at-risk students, is a safe haven and the one place where they have access to people who, quite frankly, are paid to help them succeed. I think they know this intuitively, and they expect to hear it, or at the very least, feel it in their interactions with faculty and staff members. When it is not evident, they either react internally and distance themselves, or rebel externally  and inspire you to distance yourself. While there are numerous reasons cited for students dropping out, the response I have gotten most from students was, “My teacher didn’t like me.”

Communicating care and commitment in the learning process is both art and skill, a pedagogy of sorts that is at once culturally sensitive and “street wise.” I have since learned that there is a whole body of work, called restorative practices, which sits at the nexus of discipline and care. Restorative practice, as defined by the International Institute for Restorative Practice, is “a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making.” Helping young people to build and maintain meaningful relationships that can be “profitable” (social capital) while exercising social discipline is worthy of pursuit and very well could be “the answer” if applied en masse.

Consequently, teachers, tutors, and mentors of students who are at-risk of dropping out because of their real-life and real-time challenging circumstances can themselves be stressed by their assumed responsibility to instruct, inform, and encourage this group of students. Thus, those who serve must learn to incorporate peaceful ways of relating to students and possibly change their ways of speaking and responding to stressful situations as suggested in research (Kecskemeti, 2013).

Borrowing from the “Trust but verify” statement coined by the man known as the “Great Communicator,” President Ronald Reagan, I’ve come up with a few statements appropriate for those who serve. 

Care but specify… 

  • Considering all that you have experienced and continue to experience, I won’t give up on you, especially if you continue to come here and work hard on your goal of finishing school. This process is worth it; you have to trust me on this. 

Care but clarify…. 

  • I am a teacher, and I do care about you, but I am concerned about your commitment to learning. I am hoping that you will partner with me as we learn together. I will learn more about you and your unique way of learning;  you will learn more about me and my style of communicating the material we will cover. 

Care but don’t pacify… 

  • I need you to focus on learning this right now. Just commit for this hour to learn this material. Then when you’re out of class, you should focus on solving those problems. Who knows, you could very well learn a new approach in here that can help you solve your problems out there! 

Care and dignify… 

  • I am concerned that if you don’t achieve these learning goals, the world may never see your incredible talents. 
  • I see greatness in you, and you are involved in the process to make sure everyone else sees it, too. 
  • I can’t imagine what you are going through, but there are countless examples of people who have overcome incredible odds to achieve great things, I know you can become one of them if you just stick with this. 

Care and certify

  • I am not necessarily concerned with your past; you are clearly an overcomer. I am greatly concerned about your future, however. You really need to master these skills. If you commit to this process, I am certain that you will begin to do the great things you were destined to do. 

Hopefully, this framework gives you something on which to build and strengthen your relationships with tomorrow’s leaders. You should never be accused of “dissing” or “perpetrating” if you can master the art and skill of communicating care and commitment to the shared goals of learning, which hopefully leads to the longed-for liberation from these students’ everyday challenges.


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