It was a typical school day. Students started moving to their classes after assembly ended. I took a glance from where I was on the second floor and noted that most students were present.
Of course, there will be a number of latecomers. Those who would come just in time, and those who would come 1 to 2 hours later. It’s a tough battle to fight – latecoming.
Being late for school or not attending school is only the symptom. The root cause for this can vary. No two students will have the same reason.
I walked over to the lobby and looked at the small number of students seated there. A student leader was gathering their student passes and keying their details into the iPad. The custom is for the discipline head to speak with the students after this, to explain the consequences for being late.
Then I noticed him.
Or rather, I noticed his ear stud.
I wondered if I should go up to him and tell him to remove the ear stud. Or should I leave it to the teachers. He didn’t have a friendly face too. Well, it’s past 7.40 am. I guess not many will wear a bright and cheerful face when you are late and would face consequences later.
I walked up to him and asked, you had your particulars taken? He nodded.
Your card is with you? Yes.
Come, take your bag and follow me. Let’s take a walk.
We started walking. I initiated a conversation with him along the way. What is his name, where does he live, why is he late for school. I also told him to keep his ear stud, saying that it is obvious that you shouldn’t wear it to school.
We had a conversation, not interrogation. He told me about himself and where he stayed, and shared that he has been late for most days in the term. Mention his name to the teachers and they will associate him with latecoming, even if he stays less than 3 km away from the school.
He told me why he was always late. He couldn’t wake up early. And he would reach the bus stop only after 7 am. Taking the next bus means he will reach after 7.30 am. Definitely late for school.
A few things troubled me. One, it seemed nobody in his family cared for him. Even though the family is still around the house between 6 and 7 am, nobody will hurry him to leave the house before 7 am. Two, he was retained in the same level once and was supposed to take the national exams that year. It was obvious to me he was disinterested in learning. Three, this young man had not thought deep about his next steps. He said working in McDonald’s would probably be his permanent job after graduation.
His worldview is not complicated. His ideas are not complex. He thinks working in McDonald’s is sufficient to provide for all his future needs and wants. That troubled me.
I encouraged him to think about his future. Will working in McDonald’s be the only career you see yourself in? What interests you? How can you take what interest you and develop into a career? Is a N level certificate enough for you to get to what you want? Will further studies help you learn more and have a different future?
We spent about 40 minutes talking. One of his teachers walked to where we were and reminded me that the student was supposed to attend lessons. Before he went off, I told him that I would like him to reduce latecoming by thinking of actions to take so that he can be punctual. I also shared that I will keep a lookout for him, now that I know he has problems reaching school in time.
For the next two weeks, the student was not late for school. I was happy he made the effort. On some days I would walk up to him to praise him for his effort and encouraged him to keep going. For the rest of that year, the student continued to make an effort to come to school on time. But there would be days when he came late. And he also skipped school on some days because he was bothered with his personal issues.
This student is but one of many in the school my teachers and I try to work on year in year out. Each of them has a story to tell. When I asked my discipline head about this student, he could tell me at length the student’s issues and what the teachers had been working with him on.
So it is not that teachers didn’t take action to support the student. Neither is it that the student had slipped under the radar. I don’t think my encounter with the student is a transformative experience. But it tipped the scales for him.
What is the difference? I won’t claim to have a grasp on this, but I think there are three ingredients that may have made the difference for this student.
1. Care must be visible
To teens, the adult figure can be quite imposing. Maybe terrifying. So imagine the school principal speaking to a teen. Worse, speaking to the teen when it is obvious that he has broken a school rule.
It may be a surprise to this student that I chose to know more about him, instead of chiding him for his offence. Perhaps the process of getting him to think how being late creates certain consequences for himself (detention, poor record, falling behind schoolwork) and how taking actions like leaving the house 5 minutes earlier can spare him such a scenario might have helped.
Maybe the process of helping him think over actionable steps to solve his situation helps. A bit of scaffolding to support and guide him in decision making, rather than leave things to his own device, could turn out to be important for him. Especially since his family does not seem to pay much attention to him.
In short, if you show care for the person, chances are the person will appreciate and listen. The student did not put up his defence but became open to listening to what I have to say as he shared more about himself.
2. People need targets and goals
As a runner I enjoy taking part in races. They provide a setting for me to set time targets to beat. Even while playing chess, I also have a goal – check the king and defeat my opponent. So goals and targets are important to focus one’s attention and in formulating plans to actual use them.
At work, we also have targets and goals. Whether you want to chalk up a sales target, develop a system within a timeframe or roll out initiatives or projects by a certain time, targets and goals help us measure our progress and spur us on. Without them we may stagnate and stop moving.
I think setting short and long term targets and goals for this student probably helped. The short term target of leaving his home 5 minutes earlier helped him review his morning routine. The short term goal of reducing latecoming to save time probably helped him to realise that it is possible. Helping him think of his immediate future, posing questions about whether he sees himself working in a fast food chain in the long run probably stirred him to think further. What goals does he want for his life?
3. Empower and affirm along the journey
He fumbled at times. He skipped school occasionally. Yet he also reduced his latecoming records for a period of time. And he put in the effort to complete his coursework. No, he is not the model student. He definitely is not top academically too.
Everyone has flaws. Nobody can walk along life’s journey without tripping up at times. You cannot climb higher and clock achievements all the time. There will be moments when we reach one peak, before scaling to the next. What we all need along our journey is encouragement and support, so that when we fall, we can get up. When we achieve, we have people to celebrate the moment with.
I did that to this student. For the first two weeks, I affirmed his effort to turn up punctually and encouraged him to keep up the effort. When I see him in school, I would smile to recognise his presence. I asked his teachers to watch out for him where possible, and when he skipped school because of his personal issues, I requested teachers to counsel and guide, not chastise.
Do not just look at the outcomes. Focus on the journey and support along the way. The student knows he has to face the consequences for being late. But he should not be labelled as a latecomer just because of that act. He is more than a latecomer, He is a human like you and me. All of us want acceptance and have a sense of self-worth.
I didn’t follow up with the student in the next year, as I had left the school for another posting. What I am glad though is that he made an effort to attend school and study, including putting in time to complete his coursework. He also gave me a bright smile whenever he sees me in school. I hope he has moved on and is pursuing further studies in an area of interest.
There are many students who do not pose disciplinary issues in school but nonetheless have their struggles with life. If you are an educator, pay attention to them. Even spending a couple of minutes chatting with them, listening and sharing life’s nuggets with them may go some way to help them in whatever they face.
If you have children, spend time observing and supporting them in what they handle in life. Ask if they have learnt anything useful in school, and give them your attention when they ask for it.