Do you remember the first time a teacher saw you for who you were? For me, that moment happened in 5th grade English when my teacher noticed me drawing in class. Instead of asking me to put my drawings away, she praised their originality and even encouraged me to illustrate my assignments.
Sometimes we are fortunate to have a teacher come into our life who sees our authentic selves and encourages our talents. Yet opportunities for students to be seen and understood by their teachers and peers do not have to be left to chance. At MBA, we strive to create environments for school communities to connect in meaningful ways that build a sense of safety and attachment.
Providing opportunities for teachers, students, and peer groups to engage authentically has had particularly transformative effects at our partner site Bridge Academy. Bridge Academy is a small school that serves youth with histories of truancy, expulsion, or probation. When asked to describe her students, Bridge Academy teacher, Lauri Clausen does not sugarcoat the challenges they are facing:
“A lot of our students have been involved, at least peripherally, in community violence of one sort or another. Some of them have been shot. Our students don’t have post-traumatic stress. They have current traumatic stress.”
But just as quickly as she enumerates their stressors, Ms. Clausen highlights a key strength:
“The fact that they are willing to come to school is a strength, because for many of them school has not been a supportive or successful place.”
Strong attendance at Bridge Academy reflects the student body’s growing attachment to their school community. Studies have consistently linked this attachment to improved attendance and academic performance. School attachment also serves a protective function by reducing the likelihood students will engage in truancy, violence, and substance use. In the small scale study that the MBA Project did, MBA Project programs contributed to a 24.1% improvement in school attachment.
School attachment can begin to take root when students, teachers and peer groups step out of their roles, learn what’s really going on in each other’s lives, and develop the skills to empathize in meaningful ways. Ms. Clausen credits MBA with creating the safe space for these types of transformative interactions to take place.
“I have seen kids really share deeply in our MBA groups. It’s good for us as a school and for my relationship with the students because it puts us in a different dynamic.”
In a recent MBA group, one student shared a deep sense of vulnerability about his future and stormed out of the group in tears. Ms. Clausen took the incident as an opportunity to check-in with the student throughout the week in the mindful and compassionate style taught in MBA groups. The result was a deepening of their teacher-student bond:
“That following Friday, he said the sweetest thing in group. He said I was like his grandmother and that even though he can be ‘sort of gnarly’ sometimes, I never give up on him and that there aren’t many people like that in his life.”
Ms. Clausen attributed her rapport with this student to multiple sources but credited their exchanges in MBA groups as playing a key role in strengthening their connection. A teacher-student bond based on mutual respect and understanding in turn forms the foundation for learning and academic growth.
“I have always felt like education starts with relationship and it grows from there. So if you deepen that relationship and sense of trust and understanding, it has a positive impact on academic success.”
Getting real with one another in MBA groups has also played a role in healing peer conflicts that, if left unchecked, are shown to undermine school attachment. Initially two students who were peripherally affiliated with rival gangs refused to participate in the MBA group together. As the semester came to a close, Ms. Clausen recalls that their rift had softened.
“By the end of the group he was saying that he wanted her to paint a mural in his community garden. They exposed their true selves to each other in MBA groups and that built relationship.”
Bridge Academy students have noticed the transformation in their school community and are grateful for the change.
“I really appreciate ya’ll coming here. Now everybody around the school kind of connects more to each other and gets along more,” one student offered.
Ms. Clausen has high hopes for how MBA groups will continue to strengthen their community in the new school year. She believes that the experiences of safety, connection and authentic sharing in MBA groups have the capacity to shape the trajectory of her young students’ lives:
“I believe that MBA groups will strengthen our community. The stronger the community is, the more people are able to get focused on their goals and stay on their path.”
By Laney Rupp, Curriculum Intern
Fite, P., Rubens, S., & Cooley, J. (2014). Influence Of Contextual Factors On Academic Performance In A Sample Of Latino Adolescents: The Moderating Role Of School Attachment. Journal of Community Psychology J. Community Psychol., 42(8), 924-936.
Hallinan, M. (2008). Teacher Influences on Students’ Attachment to School. Sociology of Education, 81(3), 271-283.
Libbey, H. (2014). Measuring Student Relationships to School: Attachment, Bonding, Connectedness, and Engagement. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 274-283.