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At-Risk, Education, Teaching

Balancing Act: Empathy and Expectations


flickr photo by rwkvisual

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching/working with students at-risk is balancing empathy for their given situations with an appropriate expectation level.  Many of these students lack resources at home, or in their neighborhoods, that would positively contribute to their progress in school.  This may include access to technology, parental support, home environments conducive to study, etc.  These are frequently kids who have been forced to assume adult roles in other aspects of their lives (i.e. caring for younger siblings), yet operate at a maturity level that is typical of adolescents.  As a teacher, or school staff member, it is important to be aware of the individual situation of each student and understand the inherent hurdles a student may face on their way to academic success.  This is obviously true of all students—whether or not we consider them at-risk.

Knowing the challenges that students face allows us, as school officials, to make certain accommodations to help students who are “at-risk” be successful.  For example, we might not require a paper to be typed if we know that several of our students do not have access to computers at home.  Arrangements might be made for students to come into the classroom before, or after, school to work on homework so they have a quiet, secure place to work.  Most importantly, we might just show an interest in the lives of our students.  Many of us have had very sheltered lives compared to the students we teach—we often cannot imagine the obstacles these kids face in their daily lives.  However, students generally don’t want sympathy for their situations, but demonstrating awareness can have a positive impact on their attitude and performance.

That being said, this empathy has to be balanced with an appropriate level of expectation.  All students, but most importantly those we consider “at-risk” have to be challenged and have to learn how to effectively overcome the hurdles they will most assuredly encounter as they go through life.  Willard Daggett is fond of using the terms “rigor, relevance and relationships” as the lynchpins to educational success.  I agree, and would even go so far as to argue that these are even more critical for students who lack support systems outside of school. There is generally a lot of debate about what defines rigor.  I think of rigor as a rubber band—you always want to maintain positive tension.  Too little and it isn’t effective.  Too much and it breaks.  Push students.  Find things that interest them.  Provide encouragement.  Teach the “hidden curriculum” that will allow them to effectively deal with the academic, social and personal challenges they encounter.  Find the appropriate balance between empathy and expectations.

Feel free to share you experiences in working with “at-risk” students.  Are there strategies that you, or your school, utilize to successfully maintain an appropriate balance between empathy and expectations?


About azjd

Junior high principal by day, aspiring difference maker, and Jedi in my own mind. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.


2 thoughts on “Balancing Act: Empathy and Expectations

  1. I hear you on this, however it doesn’t always work. I am an Advisor at a Big Picture School and our order is Relationships, Relevance and Rigor. I as an Advisor would have 15 students all four years of high school for all content areas. The theory is that if I have a relationship and know these kids then I would be able to get them to excel academically. It was true in many cases but not the majority. It was probably a teacher-training issue, but we lacked rigor in our Internship and Independent projects. I was a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher, so I was well versed in cross-curricular PBL.
    Because ‘relationships’ haven’t been working, we had to completely repaint the jet while flying it. We are in the middle of reinventing the school for January. It stinks because I will lose my seniors that I’ve had for 2.5 years (got them as sophomores), but it will help them academically. I’ll be able to work on a team with a Biology and English teacher and teach a PBL course in Bio-Health… Biology in the context of Child and Human Development. We are still going to have an ‘advisor’ for students… it will be their primary contact person for some of the nonacademic issues.

    Posted by Dennis | December 4, 2010, 3:32 pm
    • Thank you for the comment Dennis.
      You are absolutely right, it doesn’t always work out the way it was planned–and forming meaningful connections with kids is never a given.

      I think the important thing is that all educators understand the importance of the “relationship” piece of the equation. No matter how much we invest, it is unlikely that any one teacher will be able to form meaningful connections with all students. However, if all are making an effort, it increases the chances that students find at least one adult they trust and in whom they can confide.

      Sorry to hear your school’s plan didn’t turn out the way you expected, but it sounds like you are making decisions that are in the best interest of students. Wish you the best of luck with the new format.


      Posted by azjd | December 4, 2010, 5:36 pm

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Jeff Delp

Junior high principal by day, sports enthusiast, technology fanatic and jedi in my own mind. Striving to be a difference maker!
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