“We have ghosts among us that are in plain sight!”- High School English Teacher
In The Sixth Sense, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a troubled and isolated 9-year-old boy is able to see and talk to dead people. Throughout the movie he endures chilling experiences until he realizes that his perceived burden of seeing and hearing what others do not—the “ghosts”—is a gift.
At a recent professional development meeting I facilitated, probably like most of the nation, the discussion centered around school safety given the tragedy that occurred in Parkland, Florida. In preparation for the meeting, I gathered information regarding how to best keep the school community safe.
The Secret Service has conducted extensive research on school shootings that produced the below findings shared at the staff meeting:
- In 81% of attacks, other people knew about the attack before it took place.
- In 93% of cases, the person who knew was a peer- a friend, schoolmate, or sibling.
(United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education, 2004)
The data prompted staff to ask several questions, but one stood out from others: “If a student knew of a planned attack on our school, would the student tell us?” Surely, student-teacher relationships were strong enough that a student would feel comfortable to confide in an adult!
Next, the staff looked at data referenced in author Russell Quaglia’s book, Student Voice: The Instrument of Change. According to Quaglia, the My Voice Student Survey was completed by 56,877 students in grades 6-12 at 200 schools representing various sizes and socioeconomic backgrounds. The gender and grade-level breakdowns were evenly distributed, and the sample was both racially and socioeconomically diverse.
The survey revealed surprising and unsettling student perceptions of student-teacher relationships such as the following:
|Survey Statement||% Of Students That Agree|
|My teachers are understanding when students have personal problems.
|My teachers care about me.||51%|
|My teachers notice when I am absent.||47%|
|My teachers know my name.||52%|
In examining the survey’s results, many of the teachers believed their school’s data would never be so dismal. This school must be different! The staff independently wrote predictions about their school’s data prior to the reveal. “That’s definitely not us,” one teacher proudly clamored as he wrote his predictions.
However, data from their school climate survey unfortunately, did not tell a different story. This school mirrored national statistics. A visceral reaction ensued. Doubt was cast upon the validity of the survey; the students’ understanding of the statements was questioned, as well as other comments that might explain the disparaging data.
After much dialogue, the conversation landed on the brutal facts. A relatively new teacher rose from his seat and said, “The data reveals student perceptions. Their perceptions are their reality.” Not all students felt they were unknown, but a school is only as strong as its weakest relationship.
Next, I asked the staff to think of one student in each of their classes about whom they did not know much. This proved to be a challenge. Teachers were being asked to identify the ghosts in their classrooms, the kids on their rosters who walked the halls, but were unknown.
The reality is that often teachers know the extroverts or the students who seek their attention. Some teachers tend to gravitate toward students they like. As Douglas Fisher et. al., note in Engagement By Design,
“Some students are more likeable than others, and some are really good at proactively developing a relationship with you. But others don’t yet have the tools in their toolkit. It’s up to you to initiate and cultivate productive relationships, even with the hardest to reach kids. We’re not selecting our friends; we’re teaching youngsters.” (32)
After teachers identified one student per class who was unknown, they were tasked with talking to the student for 3.14 seconds per day about anything but academics. We chose the number of seconds to honor Pi Day which occurred on March 14, approximately ten days from the beginning of the task and when the staff would meet again to discuss their impact in strengthening relationships. The task was to take a personal interest in the student, her gifts and talents, her likes or dislikes, etc.
We met again on March 14, approximately 10 days after teachers accepted the challenge of seeing their ghosts. The following comments were made at the staff meeting:
Ms. Smith shared that she tried for seven days to engage a student in conversation with little to no response from the student. On the eighth day, without any prompting, the student (described as “socially awkward” by the teacher) approached her and said, “You know Ms. Smith, today is International Women’s Day.” It was the first time the student had chosen to talk to the teacher. Now, the teacher said with a smile, “…she tells me the significance of each day, and I love it!” Through Ms. Smith’s persistence, a door had been opened. Her ghost was now visible and heard.
Another teacher learned by talking to one of her ghosts that the 9th grader she chose to engage with was new to the country. The student explained how she entered the country with the help of a coyote (a guide) who smuggled people from Mexico along with, believe it or not, human organs. Unaccompanied, she crossed the Rio Grande, fended for herself during the long trek, and ultimately, arrived in the city. The teacher learned that she was home sick and having health issues – on top of being sick, the 14-year-old girl desperately missed her parents and was a victim of traumatic experiences. Yet, the girl was determined to earn an education and benefit from the opportunities in the United States.
In listening to the staff debrief, an experienced English teacher said, “We have ghosts among us that are in plain sight!”
We had learned in 10 days that investing a minimum of 3.14 seconds per day in a student was enough to jump start a relationship. Similar to the movie The Sixth Sense, we, too, had the ability to see ghosts. And like the troubled 9-year-old boy in the movie who ultimately realized his gift was to see and hear ghosts that needed help, we learned that our challenge was the same, and as such, a gift. Do you see your ghosts?
Fisher, Douglas, et al. Engagement By Design: Creating Learning Environments Where Students Thrive. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2018. Print
Quaglia, Russell. Student Voice: The Instrument of Change. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2014. Print
United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education. The Final Report and Findings Of The Safe School Initiative. 2004.