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Repost: Every Teen Needs a Champion

This post originally appeared in ASCD Express on May 9, 2019.

“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 sometimes act as if they know everything and don’t need anyone, they probably need a champion more during these trying years than ever before. Teens today face a great deal of pressure and distractions that steer them away from meaningful connections. 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 their corner who is not their parent or caregiver can make all the difference.

Supporting Teachers in Building Relationships

I can remember going through a particularly challenging, typical high school issue during my sophomore year. My friends tried to be there for me, but they were 17-year-old girls and 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 between classes to 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 created a safe space in the classroom to discuss both personal and school-related things. Mrs. Prolizo was a champion for students who intentionally planned relationship-building into her schedule.

As a consultant, I support schools in training their educators to be champions for their students; we call these educators “No-Nonsense Nurturers.” Teachers often share stories of struggling to work with a student, and my response is always to work on building a stronger and more meaningful relationship. Teachers often agree that this would help, but they believe 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 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, so getting to know their students well without going above and beyond can be difficult. But not all teachers are able to go beyond the call of duty and stay after school, attend extracurricular activities, or find other ways to connecting to students. 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 doing this work with students.

Sponsor Groups

My son’s high school prides itself on ensuring that each student is “known and loved,” which they do 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, I find it comforting that my son has another adult in his life to turn to when he’s stuck, cheer him on, and hold him accountable—just like I had with Mrs. Prolizo. His high school recognizes that students perform better when they trust and respect an adult in the building, and it has created expectations and structures to support teachers in getting 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 by us. An older student in his sponsor group is also adopted by his aunt and uncle, and the two have been able to connect over their experiences. For my son, knowing that he isn’t the only one with a story like his has helped him feel like he “fits in.”

The sponsor and their students 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, participate in community service activities, organize after-school outings, and compete with other sponsor groups in school-sponsored events like trivia contests 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.

What makes sponsor groups work:

  • Small, multi-age groups to foster relationships between peers. This allows younger students to have mentors and provides upperclass students 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 or other problems.
  • 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 students mold their plans 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 teenager, have seen that help schools give kids what they need most: a real connection with a “champion” at school. While such groups require work to set up, we know that relationships are foundational to behavioral and academic success. Does your school have this type of system now? Would every student there say that they have a champion?

By Jaclyn Surratt, CT3 Associate

Read more about Jaclyn’s background as an educator here.

 

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