“They don’t care about us!” A middle school student shouted these words during a student town hall meeting. His classmates echoed his words. The teachers and I immediately went into a nurturing mode. We had questions. “Why do you think that they don’t care? What happened that makes you feel this way?” Suddenly, bursts of emotions came from several students, and they opened up their feelings. Students need to know you care at all times. As the principal, these were my children in my school, and I had to figure out how to show them that we cared.
It is a difficult time in the nation due to COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man. Watching a man die by the hands a policeman was enough to pop up the racial strife that’s been brewing for a long time. As I watch and read the news about the protests and riots, the memory of that middle school student came to mind. Many of the young black and brown people are feeling the same way. When interviewed, they feel as if no one cares about their well-being or them as a person. Educators, you have students who feel the same way. When they return to your buildings, what is your plan to show them that you care?
A Mix of the Best and the Worst
Let me tell you more about my former school and students. The Pre-K through eighth-grade school is in a Chicago neighborhood with the best and the worst of a large urban city. The building’s location sits two blocks from the lakefront and near expensive homes and condos. However, the school also lies in the middle of poverty, where subsidized housing and homelessness exist. The income level for the zip code told a different story than the 98% poverty rate for the students. Multi-unit apartment buildings surrounded the school. Our families rented and lived in substandard housing, while wealthier landlords stayed a couple of blocks away.
The students and families struggled to make ends meet. The mobility rate was over 40%, and the homeless rate was approximately 30%. The student population was diverse, with children from Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and North America. Most were second-generation citizens of the United States. Approximately 55% were African-American, 25% Latino, 10% Asian, and the remaining were White or mixed race. The staff members were a diverse group, too. My school was a beautiful mix of cultures and ethnicities.
Despite the beautiful mix, our school, and the community could not escape the ills of society. We were a city school amid gang violence, drive-by shootings, drug use, and other crimes. Our students were witnesses to many of these acts or ills. Sometimes, our students or a family member was a victim. Then we had families who were refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria, Congo, Afghanistan, etc. These students came to us traumatized and also did not speak English. Often they were unable to describe their distress because of the language barrier. As a staff, we had to be prepared and able to comfort our children at any given time.
The Effects of Violence
“They don’t care about us!” This cry did not come out of anywhere. The student meant his words. During that particular time, a couple of drive-by shootings happened near the school or close by. One victim was a former student and known by students and staff members. We decided to have a town hall meeting with our sixth through eighth-grade students. It was our hope that we could get them to express their feelings about violence and the aftermath.
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Teachers and I asked questions such as:
How does violence make you feel?
What can we do to help you?
In your own words, what you’d like to say to people in your community?
How can the adults in the neighborhood make you feel safe?
Suddenly, the students turned the topic around. They wanted to talk about why don’t the people who own the apartment buildings make it safer for them. One student emphasized that the landlords “don’t look like us and could care less if we live or die because we’re not white, and we don’t have money.”
The students’ thoughts were legitimate to them. They felt deeply about people not caring about them. My staff and I were distressed by this sentiment. We knew how we felt about our children and wanted to prove our commitment to them. As a team, we decided to make social-emotional learning a priority. We also realized the importance of engaging our community and develop strong relationships with external partners. Budgets were limited, so we had to leverage relationships to provide services for our students and their families.
Plan of Action
We never wanted to hear from our students, “You don’t care about us.” First, my assistant principal, counselor, and I met and discussed how to best approach the tasks. All staff needed to buy-in on making the social and emotional well-being of our students a priority. Next, we surveyed our students to determine the most significant needs. Based on what we found out, we began to formulate a plan of action. Here is a brief synopsis of what we put into place to support our students.
Based on a student survey, third through eighth-grade students were very concerned about bullying in and out of school. We implemented the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. All teachers, staff, student council members, parents, and community members participated in the training. Members of the student council trained additional classmates. It was all hands on deck. Over time, we saw a significant decrease in cases of bullying.
Second, we hired a full-time social worker to work directly with our school counselor and district social worker. Our district provided a shared social worker for two and a half days per week. It was not enough for the number of services needed by our students. So, we scraped up enough of our discretionary funds to pay for a full-time social worker. This decision was one of the best we made because he was able to develop essential relationships with the children and their families. Through the links, the social worker could make better decisions about how to provide support best.
Third, local community agencies and external partners wanted to offer services to our students. The neighborhood had many types of social agencies that could support our families. We developed relationships and implemented programs to fit the needs of our students. At one point, we had over 20 partnerships, including arts, social services, medical services, community gardening, tutoring, classes for adults, and more.
Fourth, universities are a useful resource to help our schools. With the assistance of the full-time social worker, we developed working relationships with several universities. We were able to get three or four graduate students to complete their social work or counseling internship at our school. The graduate students stayed with us for a year, and it was free! They provided counseling sessions, anger management groups, and more. The caveat was that they must have a certified social worker to supervise their work. It was a win-win for the graduate students and our school.
Lastly, it was vital to take care of the staff. The students came to us with much trauma and sometimes drama. Our teachers did not have an easy job managing the behavior and the effects of violence that spilled into the classrooms. Teachers needed to know that I cared for them, too. While it may not have been nearly enough, I provided them the space to vent or take mental health days without judgment. I appreciated the work and the effort they put in every day. In hindsight, I wish I could have done more to take better care of the adults.
If you don’t want to hear, a student say, “They don’t care about us,” you have to show them otherwise. Words are not enough. Your actions speak volumes about your feelings and intentions. Children are more perceptive and wiser than we realize. They know when you are doing right by them and who can serve as a buffer from the social ills. Now more than ever, show them that you care.
Meeting the Social and Emotional Needs of All Students
Talking to Children About Violence
How to Support Teachers Emotional Needs Right Now
Social-Emotional Learning During Covid
Student Trauma won’t Just Disappear When Schools Reopen
Social Violence: Effects of Community Violence on Child Development
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