For students in a classroom, they figure out fairly quickly if the teacher values them as a person. I think that most teachers have the feeling – and are able to convey it – that they care about students. They care about their well-being, and want to help guide them and prepare them for their future. The disconnect that causes public middle and high schools to lose so many of our youth is that class sizes are too big (even 30) there are too many of them (4 to 7 per day), and that your teacher this year may never see you again as a student. There is simply not enough time for a teacher to establish and maintain an effective relationship with 150 students at one time. The kicker is that as paid employees of the district and state, they feel that they need to assign tasks (work) to students. The students most likely to succeed and to work at these tasks are those that have come to the school best prepared to learn, and with the highest degree of support from home. This sets up a self-defeating scenario if we want to encourage and reach all kids. Unless the teacher is able to separate the student from the work entirely, they will find themselves appreciating and gravitating towards the students that do what they are told to do, and do it well. This creates a system of students being dependent on teacher approval, which is set up to revolve around compliance to directives and to completion of x number of units of work per day, and evening. In traditional classroom tasks, students take notes, read the text, watch a movie, and take a quiz or test over the material. There may be no emotional connection whatsoever to the subject, or to the performance of the student on the work, outside of the assignment of the grade. The student who has not been known as a high achiever does enough to get by, and may drop out when other pressures come to bear.
Contrast the above scenario with the same teacher (who is a caring and conscientious teacher) that chooses to set up their curriculum and learning experiences woven into the community. Suppose it is a language arts class, and the teacher tells the students that she needs their help this year to create a healthier communty in their city. The curriculum is a mixture of good books (related to the work the students will engage in), student writing (about how they might make changes, the struggles they encounter), and oral presentations (to members of the public – from neighbors to the mayor to anybody else that constitutes an authentic audience). The teacher also calls upon the students to help mentor and teach grade school children.
The students have went from passive receivers of knowledge, dependent for teacher approval, to creators and masters of their own destiny, under a guiding hand. If this is 9th grade language arts, and we have half of the class that have survived schooling to this point, imagine the sense of connectedness they would feel if they knew that they were needed every day. If they showed up and worked hard, and creatively, they might convince the town elders to build a skate park. If they failed to show up the next day, they would be letting their little grade school buddy down. Imagine the sense of accomplishment they would feel at the end of the year if they had made something positive happen in their school, or community. You might argue that this is fluff and equates to lost learning time. I would counter that when students (and teachers for that matter) and engaged in a calling (as opposed to a career or a job), the learning is intrinsically motivated, and will occur long after the bell sounds each day, or the diploma is handed off. Instead of being known as the “C” average kid who never contributes, we could open up a whole new way for students to be known. They could be known as a Valued Member of a Good Society (that they are helping to create).