Reaching the Hearts and Minds of Students

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I am fortunate to serve in a district in which I started out as a student in the Bakersfield City School District. Having been a student of a Title I school for the majority of my educational career, I can relate to many of our students in our district. I have sat in the same seats as them and grew up in the same community as them.  The school in which I serve as the principal, is 97% free and reduced lunch and 98% socio-economically disadvantaged. My mother taught me the way out of poverty was through my education. Although she was limited in her educational experiences with only a second grade education, she saw the value of learning and what opportunities college would bring.

This is the hope, without being a cliché, that I seek to instill in my students: That learning is truly the key to success. A large percentage of my students do not have the motivation and push from their parents at home, as I did.  This is why the school and classroom environment is so crucial.  We as educators, must provide our students, no matter their socio-economic status, home life, or parental involvement, with the highest educational experience that we can offer.

How do we ensure learning of our students who are already disadvantaged and far below grade level?  In my experience, the way to reach our students is to reach their hearts and then, their minds.  We cannot solely focus on academic achievement without building relationships and knowing our students beyond their test scores and their achievement on a standardized test.  A non-negotiable at my school is for teachers is to build relationships with their students by conducting a one-on-one social emotional survey at the beginning of the year.  This survey includes questions that have nothing to do with student academic data.  The questions revolve around what their hobbies are, what fears they may have about school, how many siblings they have, their birthdays, and favorite foods.

Another way of building relationships is through mentorships.  Most schools that have Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in place, have “buddy teacher” systems.  Most often, this is used as a means of giving a student a “time out” when they exhibit problem behaviors. The receiving teacher receives that student for a certain period of time, and it is seen as a punishment for that student. Instead of going that route, our school will use the buddy teacher system as a mentorship program going into next school year. We will pair students with other teachers who can guide and mentor students who need that extra support, whether it’s academic, social, emotional, or behavioral. This mentor will be the cheerleader for that student to push and motivate them, as my mother did.

Now what about the academic side of the coin?  Students must be taught with high expectations and engaging activities.  Having taught in the district that I grew up in, I have first-hand experience with engaging students from poverty. I had the privilege of serving, for two summers, as a summer school principal prior to my current assignment as principal, and I have found that what motivates all kids, regardless of their socio-economic status, is the engagement and task students are required to do.  Students must be engaged through collaborative learning. My district has a wealth of knowledge and expertise. They write our curriculum for summer school, which is entirely based upon Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM). One thing a student said to me that struck a chord with me was, “why can’t regular school be as fun as this?”  That changed the way I view instruction and learning.

During summer school, I did not see one worksheet printed off or one workbook on students’ desks.  I saw students creating stop animation with Chromebooks, students engaging with robotics, students on the floor creating projects with collaborative groups relating to water filtration systems.  Students engaged in collaborative discourse with academic vocabulary as they respectfully agreed or disagreed with their peers. They add onto partner’s ideas which eventually led to students constructing argumentative essays.

This is the world in which we must prepare our students: A world where problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaborative group work is dominating most professions today. As educators, we have this charge: To engage our students with high expectations by building relationships with them.

No matter how much pedagogy we know, no matter how many degrees we have, unless our students know that we care, they will not learn from us.


Lemuel Kwon currently serves as a K-5 principal for Casa Loma Elementary in the Bakersfield City School District.  She has served in various capacities for BCSD: as a teacher, Academic Coach, Dean of Students, and Vice Principal.  She enjoys working with and learning alongside her staff, the best staff in BCSD!