The Critical Importance of Influential Adult Voice & Strong Student Relationships
Unlike any other profession, the strongest work-related and school related relationships are built within the world of k-12 public education. We build and foster deep relationships with colleagues and students. There is something very unique about education that allows us to cultivate intense and long-lasting friendships/relationships. Even as we trek and promote from one district or county to another, our connections and relationships remain strong. On some levels, the relationships we have established with our students also begin to reveal the fact that we are all growing older. The current societal trends and intensity of economic stress is often manifested inside the buildings of our schools. Many of us recently ended or are wrapping up the crunch-time and hurriedness of student registration. You can feel the anxiety in the air. Families are stressed and students are full of angst. During the course of a school year, some students are cognizant of the fact that they are emotionally attempting to manage their tension, while others are unaware of how the rigors of daily life and the fast pace of our daily demand to perform are impacting them internally. Educationally, some of us have witnessed the emotional stress of students come to a crashing crescendo in its many forms within our schools.
During such critical moments of student anger, frustration, and emotionality; the greatest educational intervention and prevention tool we possess is our voice. During every school day and in virtually every school building across the country, adults are far outnumbered by students. Years ago I was told by one of my mentors, Dr. Alan Young, that adults operate and run schools with the permission of the students. He literally said, “We run the school by agreement.” The statement might sound strange without interpreting it intellectually and understanding the need for sublime balance in relationships, but the premise is emphatic truth. The essence of his analysis was based upon the acute importance of respect, mutual respect, and the fair treatment of students and colleagues. As adult educational practitioners, if we violate our student-to-adult relationships with the spewing of disrespect and misuse of influence and power, our voice becomes futile to our student population. Thus, a lack of appropriate adult-modeling results in the breaking of the agreement and student trust in authority can be sadly lost.
Again, during intense and or dangerous campus or off-campus moments, our most prized possession is our voice. When you speak do students pay attention? More importantly, when you speak do students listen and respond responsibly? As practitioners we must always model what we expect of students and if we violate that principle of professionalism — without explanation or apology — the stage is set for students to question and rebel against our educational leadership.
In terms of adult educational voice, this dialogic process is not about how loud a teacher, principal, assistant principal, dean, or counselor can yell and demand respect or a certain type of compliance — it is about adults behaving, instructing, and relating to students with respect, fairness, and love. In the end, such dispositions can go a long way to bring relative calm, peace, de-escalation, and restorative justice to situations or incidents on or off school campus. We cannot physically use our muscles to demand and command appropriate student behavior, therefore at the end of the day it drills down to the influence and quality of adult voice.
I vividly recall a disturbing and unsettling lunch-time high school scene several years ago. The day was smooth and without incident, but just before the lunch bell sounded for students to venture to class, a pupil was randomly and violently struck on the side of his face. No administrator saw the jolting blow, but several of us heard the chilling crack, followed by the student dropping to the ground. All things appeared to move in slow motion as the 10th grade student remained on the concrete, momentarily unconscious, while his highly agitated and upset friends lifted and carried his limp frame out of the mêlée and into safety. As an administrator I knew the victim, his brother, and surrounding friends very well. I had intentionally developed a relationship with them. I knew at some point I would need influence with them. It resulted in us developing an after school program together.
Immediately after the thumping blow a good portion of the campus was frenzied. Some students responsibly walked to class while others feverishly scurried around the campus, seeking the individual(s) who landed the unexpected punch. Of course a few others simply took advantage of the momentary disorder and played the role of spectator. Administrators and teachers whisked students into classes, attempting to bring calm to a suddenly unpredictable and dangerous climate. Clearly in that moment, every adult on the campus was outnumbered by scores of emotionally upset students.
In a blink I found myself standing in the long main office hallway, sandwiched between two opposing groups of students. One rival group was charging and yelling from the left and another group approached from the right. The boys on the left were my group. I had developed deep relationships with them. I knew several of their parents and for some of them I had been in their homes. As they moved in, yelling threats at the group they deemed responsible for knocking their friend unconscious, I proceeded with all I had, My Voice. At any moment both sides could have ran through me. There were forty students to the left and forty to the right. Despite their yelling, I shouted to the group on my left (looking them in the eyes), “Do not walk past me! Do not walk past me! I do not care what you say, but do not cross this line!” My heart was pounding and the young male students on my left continued to yell with fury at the students on my right. The students to my right were not retreating; they were ready to lay hands on more students. However, I soon noticed that neither group was crossing the invisible line of my voice and body. Thank goodness!
They were as close as they could get, but they never walked or pushed past me. One other educator with influential voice and invested relationship stood with me in the sandwich. She kept the group on the right from physicality. There we were, completely vulnerable, two adults standing in the midst of momentary rivals with one influential tool, Voice. After 20 minutes of uncertainty, thankfully we were able to restore complete order and ensure the safety of all.
It was during episodic reflection that I realized the payout and importance of building strong student relationships, and the need for cultivating admirable and influential Voice. If I did not have relationship history with the students on my left, the campus and educational result would have been horrendous and costly for the students, the school in general, families, and the community. Continue to cultivate your relationships with students and your voice. Whether instructionally in the classroom, in SART/SARB conferences, suspension/expulsion meetings, conversations on the yard, or intervening in cases of bullying or mutual combat, our most effective educational tool is the influence of our Voice. Cultivate, nurture, encourage, and foster your Voice and student relationships!