A faculty member and university dean just told me one of their best students got expelled from school. They were baffled by a poor decision he made—and said what we’ve all said too many times: “How could such a smart kid do such a stupid thing?”
I reminded them it was likely a matter of the heart and had nothing to do with his IQ.
Most of us who lead students recognize that what stands in the way of their learning and growth is not an intellectual issue—it’s an emotional one. If they’re not performing the way you know they’re capable of performing, it’s very likely an issue of the heart: something is wrong at home, something has gone awry in a relationship, or something has impacted their self-esteem. Jess C. Scott said, “When our emotional health is in a bad state, so is our level of self-esteem. We have to slow down and deal with what’s troubling us, so that we can enjoy the simple joy of being happy and at peace with ourselves.”
Dale Carnegie wisely noted, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.” This is especially true of students.
Getting Personal with Students
Recently, Virginia Ward, Kristen Ivy, and my friend, Reggie Joiner, collaborated on a project they call: “It’s Personal.” In it, they share five questions every one of us should be able to answer for the students under our leadership at school, in our homes, on a team, at work — you name it. The questions are simple, and we can answer them, they’re profound keys to unlock the doors of their hearts.
Five Questions Every Student Wants You to Be Able to Answer:
1. Do you know my name?
They need us to get beyond the superficial. Much of their life on social media is superficial. They need us to get personal, to genuinely know them.
Students can tell they’re not the only ones who are overwhelmed. We are as well. Consequently, we labor to make our workload manageable; to take short cuts. I recently met high school and college students who say they feel like a number. No adult authentically knows them by name and by their story. I’ll admit this is work for me—but when I do the work, it makes a world of difference. I returned to a school to speak a year after I’d visited for the first time and greeted some students. One approached me, and I happened to remember her name. Her eyes got big; she couldn’t believe it. The result? She was my most attentive listener when I spoke that day.
2. Do you know what matters to me?
They need someone to authentically understand what makes them tick and what they find important and interesting. What they have a passion for.
A high school teacher I know found it difficult to explain math equations this fall. No matter how clear his explanations were, his students didn’t seem to engage. Then, he tried something new. He applied the equations to social media followers and to Fortnite (in which most of his class was fully engaged). Suddenly, his “theory” was relevant because he related to their interests. His actions said, “I know what’s important to you.”
3. Do you know where I live?
This means they need a caring leader to know their backgrounds, their zip codes, and what goes on in their daily lives. Their struggles, loneliness, and anxieties.
This past year, administrators at a high school discovered three of their students were part of a family whose income was so low, they would not experience Thanksgiving or Christmas like most of us do. Five of the faculty decided to do something about it. They raised money to provide an incredible celebration for the kids and personally delivered it to the mother. After the holiday, the three teens visited each of the teachers to thank them. What they expressed gratitude for (more than the food) was that the educators came to their house and saw the context in which they lived. They were personal, not distant.
4. Do you know what I’ve done?
Most kids have secrets they hide from everyone. Why? Because of shame. They feel that if someone knew these hidden realities, we wouldn’t like them.
I enjoy telling the story of Jim Sporleder, former principal of Lincoln (Alternative) High School in Walla Walla, Washington. When he handled the discipline cases on campus, he always took the high road with the student offenders. He found ways to relay that he knew the details of what they’d done—but he still believed in them. In fact, he believed their infraction was not an accurate depiction of who they were.
5. Do you know what I can do?
They need us to know them personally enough to spot their gifts and strengths. To see their potential and believe in them enough to encourage them.
Jeffrey Knight is a science teacher in Louisville, Kentucky. He engages his students with experiential learning and gets to know their capacity while doing so. He is always amazed at how teens open up to him about the struggles and details of their life, when he begins by connecting with their best-self and potential. He reminds them of what he sees in them—and they reply with transparent dialogue about their dreams their hopes and what they want to do with their future.
I love how Rasheed Ogunlaru summarized the issue: “The only way to change someone’s mind is to connect with them from the heart.”