Keeping Your Friends in School

October 26, 2009

I only missed one class session while I was an undergraduate. I was compulsive about attending class and superstitious as well, afraid that a missed class might be the start of a slide into failure. There were many days when I didn’t want to make the drive or didn’t feel well or was tired, even days when the juggling of all my responsibilities gave me a good excuse not to go to class, but I went anyway, until the day my best friend Pam told me she was dropping out of school as I passed her on campus. That day I spent the afternoon talking with her in the student union instead of going to class.

Pam was an outstanding student who was also an English major who planned to be a teacher. We shared many classes and often commiserated about confusing new concepts and course requirements. We studied together, proofread each other’s papers, and shared parenting tips since we both had sons at home. I knew that if Pam dropped out she would be sorry, but I also knew how much I would miss her and how much I needed our mutual support sessions.

I won’t go into the details of her discouragement, but it was the careless words of a teacher that had wounded her and convinced her that school was not the place for her. Together we were able to put things into perspective and she promised to go back to the class. She did and went on to graduate. Years later, we still talk about the day she almost dropped out. The friendship that was forged during our days as unsure and worried older students has lasted more than twenty years. I sometimes felt out-of-place among all the students who were younger than I was, but with Pam, I felt at home.

This week’s theme of fun in learning is camaraderie. Key words repeated often in fun surveys that led to this theme include friends, group activities, sharing, feeling like part of something, safety, community, teams, relationships, and support. There were many days that Pam and I kept each other from dropping out of school with empathetic listening and shared laughter. She was also the first one I shared my triumphs with—my first A on a test, my first meaningful comment on a paper—not that my family didn’t understand and care, but just that Pam was sharing my struggles and knew just how much these things meant. I often think about the kinds of intellectual and emotional support we gave each other and wonder how to translate them into classroom camaraderie for my students.

Unfortunately, I also know that while I can set up classroom conditions that encourage camaraderie, genuine friendship cannot be forced, but must emerge from individual efforts both to find friends and to be a friend. I believe that this is a key element of staying in school, finding the support you need to help you keep going when you’re tired or discouraged or just plain wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into.

Much of my work as a teacher is with teachers; because of my previous experience in a dropout prevention program, I came up with “six Rs of dropout prevention.” As you look at these six things, you’ll see that connections with other students can be as important as those that students make with course content and with teachers:

The Six Rs of Dropout Prevention (Zinn, 2008)

Relevance: I have reasons to be here that are meaningful to me.

Rigor: Expectations are high, and I can get the help I need to build necessary skills, attitudes, knowledge needed for academic success.

Recognition: My efforts are seen, appreciated, and celebrated.

Respect: I am treated like a unique and valuable person.

Relationships: There are people here who care about me and about whom I can care.

Responsibility: I am supported in the developmental processes of becoming a lifelong learner and can make meaningful contributions here.

Last spring, I suggested to my colleagues at the university that each of us, regardless of our job, should consider ourselves dropout prevention specialists. You can be one too.

What kind of friend are you? What kind(s) of friends do you need?

Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “What! You, too? Thought I was the only one.”
• C.S. Lewis


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