Why Every Student Needs Caring Adults in Their Life

Greater Good Science Center A new book argues that caring adult mentors are critical to students’ success in school and in life.

BY TIM KLEIN | JUNE 13, 2019

Being a public school counselor can feel like barely contained chaos. In the large urban school where I worked, I was constantly interrupted by students in distress, lock-down drills, teachers who needed support, and parents seeking guidance. I often joked that the position was giving me Attention Deficit Disorder.

However, there was one predictable part of my day: when “Ben,” a 12th grade Haitian student, would come into my room to “post up” during fourth period. Every day, Ben made himself at home in my office, shot jumpers on the door-mounted basketball hoop, played me his favorite songs on Spotify, and lamented the Boston Celtics performance the night before. Rain or shine, he never missed a visit.

In my office, Ben was charismatic, kind, and possessing a sense of humor beyond his 20 years. But outside of my office, he was often in trouble, cutting classes, getting into arguments with teachers, and coming late to school. Throughout high school, he failed the majority of his classes and attended summer school every year. I wasn’t sure he would graduate.

Because of this, my colleagues wondered why I spent so much energy on him. Weren’t there other students more “worthy” of my support? Shouldn’t I be focusing my efforts on those who were college-bound?

To some, the relationship might have looked like a waste of time; but in my heart I felt its importance. I learned that Ben lived alone with his grandma and worked 30 hours a week at a fast food restaurant. He was remarkably independent, but he didn’t have a strong support network. Sometimes, he would open up about his past struggles and his uncertain future.

Unfortunately, conversations like these are rare in high schools. Without time and support, it can feel nearly impossible for educators to build meaningful relationships with their students and learn about their lives. Educators are not evaluated on how they relate to students, but on the rigor of their academic curriculum, college entrance rates, or standardized test scores. When society defines success as wealth, power, and status, it can be difficult for students and teachers alike to see the importance of meaningful relationships.

But the essential new book Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks provides compelling evidence for the centrality of relationships in schools. Julia Freeland Fisher and Daniel Fisher make the bold argument that building strong relationships, like the one I built with Ben, should be the central mission of every school and educational organization—not an afterthought.


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