What’s in our Student’s Backpack?

By Amber K. Walters, Cohort 8 Mentor, Principal at Avon Intermediate School West

Each day the school bell rings, students hurry into the classroom where their teacher cheerfully greets them! They unpack their backpacks and prepare for the day. They quickly put their lunchboxes in the assigned location, put homework and any notes from their parents to the teacher in the homework tray, carefully place their notebook and pencils in their desk and run their backpack over to the cubby. Just like that, their backpack is empty, and they are ready to start the day.

We hope for every student to experience this as they come to school each day indeed. However, we must recognize and understand that many of our students walk through the school doors each day with so much more weighting them down. The things weighing them down are like bricks in their backpack and are not the materials needed for school. However, these “heavy” items leave little space for active learning until the needs of these “heavy” items are met.

What are these “heavy” items? Homelessness. Food scarcity. Divorce. Abuse. Neglect. They are taking care of siblings while their parents work. Not knowing where they will sleep at night, not feeling loved, not knowing if they will eat again until they return to school on Monday are real issues our students face. They are also experiencing sickness, loss of loved ones, drug/alcohol use in the home, no heat or electricity at home, addiction, unemployment, racism, covid, incarceration, deployment of a parent, toothache/ infected teeth. There are so many more “heavy” items that students walk through the doors with every day. How do our teachers respond to these needs? Do we expect our students to leave these “heavy” items at the door and focus only on academics when they come to us each day?

As leaders, what can we do to help our teachers recognize our students’ heavy needs each day and focus on relationships over content? To focus on meeting the student’s needs first. Don’t get me wrong; I recognize this is tough. These issues are challenging in a world of standardized tests, demands on high student achievement, making every minute count, and so much more. I know that if we don’t tend to our students’ social and emotional needs, they won’t be able to focus and achieve to their best ability academically. We are here to take care of the needs of our students. I remind my staff and students every day that our #1 job is to keep all students SAFE.  

What does it look like in our classrooms and in our schools to focus on relationships first?

  1. Listen & Observe. Listen to & observe your students. Listen to the stories they are telling about what they are experiencing at home or not at home. Listen to what they are sharing with their peers. Be observant as you listen and watch closely with your eyes and pay attention to what you see in their behavior and mannerisms. What are you noticing? Tell them that you see them. Tell them you are there for them. Ask them, “What can I do to help you?” If you can do what they say, DO IT! Show them that you are there and will do anything you can.
  2. Extend grace. If you know they are coming to school each day with these “heavy” items, this trauma, please extend grace. Give them grace as they navigate big emotions in small bodies. They were not born with the tools to process what they are experiencing, how they feel, and how to persevere through it. They need help finding the tools. If they have a significant response from time to time or don’t complete a homework assignment, extend grace. Yes, we must still have high expectations for every student. However, we must understand that these students will need grace as they experience and walk-through life with these “heavy” items. As adults, we would have great difficulty navigating any of those “heavy” items, let alone being a child and trying to navigate the “heavy” items.
  3. Connect & Love. All humans need connection. Students carrying these “heavy” items with them each day need connection more than anything. How can we connect with these students? How can we make sure they know that we are there for them? How can we provide a genuine connection? We take time each week to have lunch with them. We can find someone to cover for us for 10 minutes to go for a walk, shoot hoops, color, or something else the student likes. We can make each student feel like they are most important. What else can we do to provide the CONNECTION that they long for and do not have anywhere else in their lives?

How can we help lighten the load of the “heavy” items our students carry with them each day in their backpacks? If they need food, we can provide food. We can provide resources to help get utilities turned back on. We can help families fill out job applications, etc. We are not able to bring loved ones back or get loved ones out of jail or prison. In every situation, we can LISTEN, OBSERVE, extend GRACE, and provide CONNECTION & LOVE. Most importantly, we can remind them every day with every smile and hug, and by being present, we LOVE them. Remind them each day that we will always be there no matter what. Our kids need us. They are, just like us, surviving a pandemic in these unprecedented times.

What else must we remember about our work? I know that this is the most critical work for our students, but I also understand that this is what our teachers and staff need, too. We must assume positive intent with our team. They, too, are going through a lot. They, too, are walking through the doors each day with “heavy” items that, in a perfect world, they could check at the door and put on their “A” game and be an ideal teacher. Let’s be real—we are not living in a perfect world. Our teachers are human. The reality is that “heavy” items weigh our staff down, too. As we listen, observe, extend grace, connect and love our students, we should listen, observe, extend grace, connect and love our staff too.