administration was kind of there, in a way, because they had to be. They’re the higher-ups or what-not, so they kind of had to enforce the idea of go to college, pursue education past high school or whatever the case may be; whereas teachers themselves I feel like I had a closer connection to, especially in high school. I was going through a lot of stuff in high school… I feel like honestly you have a tighter connection to coaches and teachers and things like that. Of course they’re going to encourage you to do better.
Many students and alumni feel as though they have been able to establish deep, meaningful relationships with their teachers. These teacher-student relationships stand in stark contrast with the relationships, or lack thereof, they form with those in administrative roles. As one alumni explained, “the difference between administrators and teachers is the connection.” Having a genuine connection to trusted adults in the school allows students to create strong relationships and establish lines of communication.
Oftentimes, students organically develop complex relationships with teachers, as opposed to the non-sentimental and sometimes robotic relationships they develop with those in administrative positions. The differences in the types of relationships students develop with different adults in the school, like teachers and administrators, can help explain the distinction in the advice students receive about what steps they should take to be successful after graduating high school.
For students and alumni, teachers tend to provide guidance that incorporates a more complete understanding of the lives and goals of the students. Due to their role in the school and relationship to the students, administrators are often unable to engage with students in such a genuine way. Administrators’ commitment to reproduce the overarching approach of the school district, to seemingly advocate for all students to four-year universities, constrains their ability to engage students in ways that reflect the plurality of student aspirations. As one alum put it, “administration was kind of there, in a way, because they had to be. They’re the higher-ups or what-not, so they kind of had to enforce the idea of go to college, pursue education past high school or whatever the case may be; whereas teachers themselves I feel like I had a closer connection to, especially in high school. I was going through a lot of stuff in high school… I feel like honestly you have a tighter connection to coaches and teachers and things like that. Of course they’re going to encourage you to do better.”
For some students, the teachers they develop bonds with are concerned with their development beyond the data the district collects in order to track student progress. Administrators, however, seem to be interested in an outcome oriented model of assessing student development. As one alumni said, “[teachers] just wanted me to experience all the aspects of life and then administrators made it seem like college was the go to, like there ain’t nothing else other than college,” said one alumni.
The pressure to attend a four-year university is especially intense for high-performing students. Students who do not thrive in the academic setting of schools and those disillusioned with the prospects of attending a university, often feel as though the administrators are unconcerned with their post-graduation plans because they likely don’t include college. As a current student put it, “I feel like they ignore the fact that there’s pathways that you can take outside of college that will set up success for you. They put like all of the attention on to college.” Feeling as though their post-graduation aspirations are not valued makes students feel as though they are wasting their time in school. If the purpose of doing well in high-school is simply to gain entrance into a four-year university, and some students are not interested in that path, it can be difficult to produce motivation for engaging with school leadership.
For many students, however, teachers are able to develop relationships with them that allow them to feel as though they are not solely being seen as a future college attendee. As one alumni noted, teachers are not only concerned with “helping us get into college but also building personal relationships with us, knowing that sometimes if we needed somebody and couldn’t go to a family member, didn’t have a friend, you could go to them and that eventually will change your life in a way. They’ll always be someone you remember because they helped you.”
Even after graduation, many students stay in contact with their former teachers to give them updates, receive mentorship, and generally check in. While these types of relationships are not prevalent in every school, the culture of Denver West High School is especially conducive for students to develop these types of close relationships with their teachers. As one alumni put it, “I think West just had a different energy when it came to that.” One student, after attending three other high schools in the district, felt a profound sense of relief after encountering the teachers at Denver West High School. Her teachers immediately integrated her into the community and provided a sense of support and intimacy she had not experienced at any of the other high schools.
Students benefit from being given the opportunity to develop their future plans, under the pretense that those guiding them are supporting their interests and abilities. It appears that students are aware and often dismayed by the notion of success being limited to the desires of the “higher-ups” who are unable to account for the plurality of aims students have for their lives after graduating high school. Empowering students to define success on their own terms and engaging with adults who can support and facilitate these understandings of success, allows students to feel supported and valued.