At the “Heart of Route 66,” in northwestern Arizona, is the rural community of Kingman. The local high school is attended by your “typical” teenagers, although some still ride their horses to and from school!
The students I work with at Kingman High School (KHS) are primarily lower income, Hispanic, and at risk of dropping out. Many of their parents have recently lost their jobs or their homes due to the economy. They feel the need to explain that this is the first time they have had to ask for help and how embarrassed they are to do so. I let them know that they are not alone and should not be embarrassed because each of us at one time or another needs a little help.
I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona to a Hispanic father and Filipina/German-Irish mother. For 25 years, I worked as a probation officer, the majority of that time with juveniles and their families. My background has definitely been an asset as Kingman High School’s Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) Coordinator and head of Student Assistance because I can easily relate to my students and their families. I am very honest about my past. When I was a teen, I caused my parents a lot of heartache. I was an “at risk” student during high school and a single parent on welfare during college. When I meet students’ parents I ask them what they want for their child, and I share some of my personal experiences. I let them know that if I got a degree, their child certainly can too.
Within a week of arriving at KHS, I was asked to sponsor the Hispanic Student Union (HSU). We started with 25 members and now have 108! Students in HSU have a sense of unity and a purpose for attending school. Hispanic discipline referrals have dropped significantly. Many of my students simply need someone to listen and guide them. They know my office is a safe, judgment-free place and open to them any time. If they are hungry, they can make a peanut butter sandwich. I am warm-hearted and easygoing, but I can also be no-nonsense. If you ask any student who frequents my office what is the one word that is not allowed, they will immediately respond “hate”. I try to rid them of any prejudices or misconceptions they might have for others.
I have found that teens need and actually want boundaries! They share with me their problems, concerns, and fears. I listen, and honestly answer their questions, offer suggestions. I let them know as a parent that I would want my child to come talk to me about things that worry them. Many students come back and tell me they have done this, and that it helped them connect more with their parents.
The majority of Hispanic families I work with want their children to attend college. For many families, my students will be the first to do so. I appreciate their desire to live in the U.S., and how they work hard so their children can receive a better education, and, ultimately have a better life than what they had. Don’t all parents want that for their children?
The most recent challenging issue—especially with the passage of SB 1070 (Immigration bill)—is the fear of deportation. The process to obtain the paperwork to become “naturalized” is labor intensive and takes several years. Many of our students have had a parent or other family member deported. This creates financial and emotional hardship, and impacts attendance, especially when these students travel to Mexico to visit deported family members. The majority of my students have lived in the United States since they were very young. This country is their home! I don’t ask my students if they are here legally because it doesn’t change how I treat or help them.
It’s not always possible to share the same ethnicity or culture as the students you work with. Key characteristics for building trusting, quality relationships with students and parents of a different culture—especially in a school setting—are honesty, not being afraid to ask questions, apologizing when you’re wrong, and admitting you don’t always have the answers. Student success often comes down to making an effort to meet the parents, and not just at parent-teacher conferences or when their child has discipline issues. I’ve hosted potlucks so that I can meet the parents and share a meal with them. Food is always a great ice breaker! I make it a point to say one positive thing about their student; sometimes it’s several things because their kid is so awesome! I know I’ve established a positive rapport with parents when I see them at the grocery store or at a restaurant, and they give me a hug or tell me how they’re doing.
Despite my best efforts, I have students who continue to struggle in school. Some don’t make an effort to pass their classes because they don’t feel respected by their teachers. Others have been kicked out of their homes, expected to survive on their own. I constantly worry about my students becoming teen parents. I dread hearing that one of our students was picked up and is pending deportation.
In spite of these scenarios, I love going to work each day. My students make me feel welcome. They worry when I’m gone. They make me laugh … and cry. They make me proud! I have been invited to quinceaneras, confirmations, baby showers, and graduation fiestas. My students have allowed me to be part of their lives, and for that I am especially grateful.
Girlie's Top Five Tips for Connecting with Students and Parents
1. Be honest. As hard as it is, you've got to present to students and parents the “big picture,” and the consequences for their poor decisions.
2. Get involved. If you can, support students in their activities—attend their games, performances, etc. Be their cheerleader!
3. Have a sense of humor. Kids will know you're human and that you are not so uptight.
4. Always be respectful. Allow students and parents the opportunity to speak and validate what they have to say. It will help establish a positive rapport.
5. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Other teachers and staff have knowledge and experiences that can help you do a better job. Their wisdom is invaluable.