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What Forgiveness Means to Students

We tell small children that it is okay to make mistakes. We are told to forgive and forget. But our country doesn’t hold to these adages for those convicted of a crime. The revolving door of incarceration and juvenile justice has ensnared many of my students. It’s a hamster wheel that proves very hard to get off of. Poverty, crime, and violence are inextricably linked in the worlds of my students. In the county-wide consortium high school program where I currently teach, the students are all considered 100% at-risk in a multitude of categories – high-poverty, homeless, court-involved, frequently absent, working moms at 17, pregnant, expelled, etc. To address our students’ intense needs, our high school uses intentional strategies rooted in improving social-emotional learning to provide a better foundation for student success. We use trust, relationships, and character-building to provide stability and support for these students who have suffered trauma and often turn to crime to cope or survive.


Luke’s story is but one example. He was abused and neglected by his drug-addicted parents who lost custody of him, and he had a spotty attendance record beginning in elementary school. When he started our program six years ago, he was already a drug addict. After a stint in jail, Luke was able to get clean, but he was kicked out of his grandparents’ house because of his poor decision-making while on probation. We started to make headway together using trauma-informed approaches, and last year he earned more school credit than he had earned in the previous four years of high school. But just how far he had to go felt daunting to him; he was constantly in his own head telling himself he was stupid. He also had to balance school with working full-time. This past summer he almost decided to drop out.

As Luke’s advisor I am responsible for being his biggest advocate and helping him find solutions not only to academic problems, but to challenges that impede his progress towards post-secondary success. Because the structure of our program allows for home visits, I visited Luke’s residence and workplace frequently. I spent a lot of time establishing a consistent positive relationship with him. I offered Luke empathy for the trauma he had suffered, provided support for the mistakes he made, and gave frank reminders of what he needed to do for school. I also provided opportunities for him to develop social-emotional skills by asking him to share his life story with others and modeled how to engage in productive conversations with adults. We also continued to work on how to make curriculum engaging for him. His interests became woven into project-based learning assignments.

Our advising meetings use motivational interviewing techniques and provide both of us with a consistent frame for his decision-making. Motivational interviewing centers around therapeutic techniques and allows students to discover what motivates them to take the actions they do.

Luke knows that I am not letting him off the hook with finishing school. I am proud to report that he has less than three credits to go. My entire career has been spent with high-needs, at-risk students. Rather than burning me out, my program’s approach with students has had the opposite effect – it reenergizes me every day. My students have many obstacles, they commit major mistakes, but they deserve to be forgiven, to have a second chance, and to contribute positively to their world.

Sarah Giddings is a National Board Certified teacher in social studies and history. She is currently an advisor, multi-subject instructor in Big History, social studies, and ELA, and curriculum coordinator for the WAVE Program with the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium high school programs in Ypsilanti, MI. Currently she is a National Hope Street Group fellow, a Teacher Champion with the Collaborative for Student Success, and a Teacher-Powered Ambassador with the Center for Teaching Quality. She is also a post-residential America Achieves MI Fellow. Sarah has a B.A. from James Madison College at Michigan State University in Social Relations with a minor in English. She has a master’s in K-12 Education Administration and a professional certificate in Educational Technology, also from Michigan State University.