24 Jan Creating Champions for Students
“Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists they become the best they can possibly be.” -Rita Pierson
While teenagers often think they know everything and don’t need anyone, the truth is that they probably need a champion more during these trying years than ever before. Teens today face great deals of pressure and are exposed to distractions that steer them away from meaningful connections and relationships. If I put no limits on my 15-year-old son’s use of technology, he may just game himself into oblivion.
Relationships and connections are powerful. They create the space to be vulnerable, learn about yourself and others, express emotions, and share dreams and fears safely. While relationships with peers are often incredibly meaningful to teens, having a “champion” adult in your corner who is not your parent or caregiver can make all the difference.
I can remember going through a particularly challenging, typical high school issue with a boyfriend my sophomore year. My friends tried to be there for me, but they were 17-year-old girls and they didn’t know what I should do. Fortunately, I had developed a relationship with my Spanish teacher, Mrs. Prolizo. Because Mrs. Prolizo always stood outside her door in between classes to say hello and check in with students, I knew where to go for advice from someone with more life experience. Mrs. Prolizo went out of her way to make sure that her students knew she was someone they could count on and trust. She would ask us questions about our lives, share things about her own family, and wasn’t afraid to create a safe space in the classroom to discuss anything personal or school-related. Mrs. Prolizo was a champion for students, and she had intentionally planned relationship-building into her schedule.
As a consultant, I support schools in training their educators to be champions for their students, but instead of calling them champions, we call them No-Nonsense Nurturers. Oftentimes, teachers will share stories of struggling to work with a student or group of students and my response is always to work in building a stronger and more meaningful relationship with the student. Teachers agree that a stronger relationship would help, but they feel that there just isn’t time. In elementary school, teachers usually have the advantage of spending several hours per day with their students over the course of a year, sometimes even looping with them. But after elementary school, this can become much more challenging for teachers. Middle and high school teachers are departmentalized and typically see hundreds of students for about an hour a day, making it much more challenging to get to know their students well without really going above and beyond. But not all teachers are able to go beyond the call of duty and stay after school, attend extracurricular activities, etc. Heck, some teachers are heading to their second job after school just to make a living. Instead of assuming that teachers just don’t care enough about students to take the time in building relationships, schools need to rethink how they can create structures that support teachers in relationship-building.
My son’s high school prides itself on ensuring that each student is “known and loved,” and they do this by assigning each student a “sponsor” – an adult in the building who will support him from the summer before freshman year through graduation. As a parent, this has been comforting because I am confident that he has another adult in his life to turn to when he’s stuck, as well as a coach to cheer him on and hold him accountable – just like I had with Mrs. Prolizo. His high school recognizes that students perform better when they have an adult in the building that they trust and respect, and they’ve created expectations and structures to support teachers in finding the time to get to know each student that they sponsor.
Almost every adult in the building, from teachers to college counselors to school leaders, has a small sponsor group of about 10 students. Sponsor groups have students in all grade levels with varying interests and backgrounds, but students are often placed with a sponsor or other students intentionally. For example, my son spent his first nine years with his biological mother, my husband’s sister, but has since been adopted. An older student in his sponsor group is also adopted by his aunt and uncle, and the two have been able to connect about their experiences. For my son, knowing that he isn’t the only one with a story like his has helped him “fit in,” and teenagers have a strong need to fit into a group.
The sponsor and the students in the group are able to build deep relationships with each other over the years because of the intentional consistency and continuity of the sponsor groups. They eat lunch together every day, participate in community service activities, organize after-school outings, and compete with other sponsor groups in school-sponsored events like trivia and field day. The sponsor keeps close tabs on the students and their academic achievement and extracurricular activities. Parents remain in communication with sponsors, including at least two formal meetings per year. As a parent, I can rest assured that there is another voice in my child’s ear about the importance of studying or advocating for yourself. Below are some elements of sponsor groups that make them an excellent way to develop deeper relationships between adults and kids, as well as among students:
What makes sponsor groups work:
- Small, multi-age groups to foster relationships between peers. This allows younger students to have mentors and provides upperclassmen an opportunity to lead, creating an intimate group for students to belong to right from the start of high school.
- Every student has an adult assigned to be their “champion,” not just students who are “failing” or have attendance issues, etc.
- Sponsors support students in analyzing and reflecting on grade reports and study habits, celebrating successes and creating plans for improvement. This holistic approach allows the sponsor to help them mold their plan for the future, whatever that future may be. My son’s sponsor knows him well enough to help us discuss things like the best college environment for him, and pushes him to engage in sports to meet his need for physical activity.
Sponsor groups are one way that I, as an educator and parent of a school-aged teenager, have seen that schools can give kids what they need most: a real connection with a “champion” at school. While this requires work to set up, we know that relationships are foundational to behavioral and academic success. Do you have this type of system now? If I were to ask every student in your school, would they say that they have a champion?
By Jaclyn Surratt, CT3 Associate
Click here to learn more about Jaclyn’s background as an educator.