Shane Thill is Director of Second Chance Alternative High School and Assistant Principal of Mitchell Senior High School in Mitchell, South Dakota. He was the 2015-2016 LifeChanger of the Year grand prize winner. He offers some insights here of his perspective on teaching.
When I started my teaching career I never thought I would be working with at-risk teens. But as of today my view has evolved. In working with at-risk kids I have learned these young people want to be looked at as just that, young adults. Not as bad kids, nor just another kid who has come into the alternative school. Not as troubled kids, but as young people who want to be taught with respect and dignity. One of the most difficult things about at-risk students is that they have had to fend for themselves for a long time. Most of them have never lived a typical teenage life. This puts most teachers at a disadvantage when it comes to “life experiences” with these youth. Most teachers come from a two parent typical family with success in the education world. But, I have learned from past student experiences, that the biggest reward is built upon a personal connection with the at-risk student. I demonstrate consistency, dependability, compassion, tough love and I take the time to listen. One could say, I become a surrogate parent to my students.
Once there is a connection, I find that I am able to tap into the heart as well as the person. Then the moment comes when all that time pays off. I get a glimpse of a kid who wants to help, inspire others, and make a difference in their lives. I start to see a person who responds well to guidance and buys into rules. I start seeing a young individual who seems to look like a typical fun loving teenager again, expressing passion, respect of others, enjoyment, seeking guidance, and contributes to their own daily goals and educational opportunities. It’s a priceless feeling, but if I could sum it up, I would say this is what drives my passion. It’s a very proud moment for me and my staff.
There is something precious about the moment when the student sees hope for the first time in their life. To me, it’s like a little leaguer hitting a home run for the first time. I can see the darkness of despair and hopelessness disappear, and a breakthrough so large that they can’t help but smile. This is why I do what I do. There is no better feeling. I tell myself, it’s about love and compassion. If I can get the young individual to trust in what I am trying to do, it’s only because he/she has decided to meet me halfway on the trail of success. After the young student embraces my compassion and guidance, I gradually start to see their thoughts transform and then their actions and view of education change.
These at-risk kids used to challenge authority, and tried to squash anyone who attempted to help them because they didn’t want to be hurt again. It’s their defense mechanism, but by sticking to my vision, and some tough love I have seen a lot of these at-risk youth become productive citizens within our community. They have embraced education as the key to breaking the cycle of despair and hopelessness. The title of at-risk disappears from their genetic makeup. Sometimes it takes years to see the change, but I have learned if I stay persistent with my passion and vision; I can make a big difference in the lives of the toughest kids in my community. And that is the greatest reward of working with at-risk youth! It’s all about the Starfish…