The Importance of Feeling Connected
In September of 1976 I walked onto Fenn's campus as a new seventh grader. I was coming from a local junior high school, and I was repeating seventh grade. Needless to say, I was feeling shy, vulnerable, and insecure. Before the first day of school, my parents and I read through the parent handbook to get a better understanding of what I needed to bring to Fenn, and I thought I had everything covered. Just like the students of today, however, I did not bring any sports clothes, and I had signed up for football. So I did what any normal Fenn boy would do and just got dressed, which included putting on my button-down shirt over my shoulder pads.
While I may have been the best-dressed football player out there, wearing a dress shirt over my pads did not help my self-esteem. As I was walking out of the gym area, however, I met Read Albright, who was the football coach at that time (and continued to be until he retired in 2003). I explained what happened, but instead of getting upset, which I expected given my past experiences, Read simply his arm around my shoulder, gave that chuckle of his, and said it was okay and that he understood, since he, too, had left items at home on many occasions. He walked me out to the football field, all the while helping me feel connected, something Read probably never knew he was doing. My fears did not completely melt away, but Read's ability to relate to me had a profound affect on me.
This may seem like a non-event to some people, but for me it was a moment I will never forget. You see, Read's actions made me realize that I could have a connection to a school in a manner I never thought possible. I rarely felt any true connection with my past school, and this was the main reason my parents sent me to Fenn. Read was not the only teacher with whom I developed a relationship, but he was the first, and I was fortunate enough to develop many healthy relationships with my teachers throughout my days at Fenn and at Lawrence Academy. In fact, I developed deep relationships with my headmasters at Fenn and at Lawrence Academy. Kim Smith, my headmaster at Fenn, was an avid fly fisherman and helped me buy my first fly rod. Ben Williams, my headmaster at Lawrence, took me upland game hunting, something I enjoyed doing as a young adult. I am sure they understood the importance of the student-teacher-school relationship, but all I knew was that I felt a deep connection because of their actions.
Boys are relational learners; I'm a relational learner. Regardless of the bravado that boys sometimes display, they desperately need to feel a connection to their school and their teachers. When a boy has a relationship with his teachers (or with that one special teacher), he will open up and invest in his learning. When Fenn graduates (and current Fenn students) speak about Fenn, they always talk about the relationships they had with their teachers, with their peers, and with their school. Whether it’s the hard fought game, the blogs or papers they had to write, All School Meeting, or coming together when tragedy strikes, the boys feel a deep connection to Fenn and return here because of this. The best way to teach a boy, to reach a boy, is to form a relationship with him, to get to know him. As soon as a boy feels that connection, that you trust in him and believe in him, he is most open to learning. Michael Reichert and Richard Hawly, Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies that Work -- and Why, point out that “Positive relationship precede desired school outcomes, including the end of obstructive, resistant behavior, increased engagement in classroom process, and increased willingness to complete assigned tasks.” In turn, as you can imagine, forming positive deep relationships with one’s teachers allows a boy to become more open and trusting, both essential ingredients to becoming an independent and life-long learner.
While there are many more studies showing the importance of relationships to learning, I for one do not need these studies. Fenn’s ability to connect with our students is one reason why there are nine alumni currently working at Fenn, and why so many come back to visit—and end up staying.
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