How does a group of young people and a teacher who can’t stand one another  find a way to build trust, come together, and weather the tragic loss of a student? Mr. Dome tells the story in his piece on what Common Ground’s guidance really means.

By Larry Dome
Math Teacher

Mr. Dome’s current guidance group poses in the woods during a community service day.

I have always believed that even though I am a math teacher at Common Ground, my most important teaching job is teaching my guidance group. Guidance is an integral part of the culture of Common Ground High School. It sets the school apart from many others because freshman are placed into a guidance groups when they first arrive at school.

Each guidance group is run by one or two teachers and and students stay in the same group with the same teacher(s) for all four years they are at the school. We have guidance periods four days a week, every week, for the entire time the student is here. This gives students an opportunity to work with one teacher, who over the four years gets to know that student as they grow and develop and begin to make important life decisions.

Guidance groups have key goals that must be met each year and these goals are different each and every year. They may also do community service together, work on the farm together, or engage in some friendly competition with other guidances doing coat drives or food drives.

Mr. Kelahan’s Guidance at the summit of Panther Mountain in the Adirondacks.

But the important common thread through those four years is the role of the teacher as a mentor to the students. The guidance group develops a culture of its own over time and students learn to support each other and use it as a life resource. This process is not always smooth and the pathway is not a prescribed straight line. In a successful guidance group there is a deep respect between the teacher and the students that enables the teacher’s role as a mentor/life coach.

A key learning moment about the importance of this relationship came with my last guidance group, who graduated three years ago. As freshmen, that guidance had proved to be difficult, but I was hopeful that things would turn around their sophomore year. However, when they got back to begin their sophomore year they were worse than when they showed up as freshman.

I took a very dictatorial path trying to manage them and to get them to do the work that was needed and they fought me every step of the way. It all came to a head as we headed into Thanksgiving break when I completely lost it with them after another loud disrespectful session of not working. I told them:

I can’t stand you. I hate this guidance and dread seeing you every day. You probably feel the exact same way about me!

No one disagreed with this statement. I said that I had as much responsibility for this mess as they did and that we all needed to spend break looking in the mirror.

The lesson I learned from them and what I saw in the mirror was someone who was not talking to them, but someone who was talking at them. When I got back, I started talking to them, asking what they wanted out of guidance. At the same time I explained the ways in which I was held accountable by my administrator. We worked out a plan about what needed to get done and a plan for us to play, bond and grow together.

It took most of the rest of their sophomore year for me to regain their trust. The culture we built together was productive, respectful, and fun. They taught me some of the best lessons I have ever learned as a teacher. At same time I was now able to help them do the work they needed to do in order to prepare themselves for life after CG.

Javi, from Mr. Dome’s past guidance, was shot and killed December 28. 2013. Common Ground created the Javier Martinez memorial wetland is his honor.

The richness of the culture of that group took on an importance that went far beyond what one would normally expect when one of the students from my guidance was shot and killed one night during holiday break. It was senior year and I feared the stress of this event would tear us apart and undo all the work we had done. Instead all that work held us together and got us through that horrible event. They were able to graduate and all of them headed out with a plan in hand (mostly college). It was the trust and respect we built together that got us all to that graduation.

Although what happened to that guidance group was an extreme case, it serves to highlight how important guidance is for both the students and the teacher. It continues to be the most important relationship I have with students at school and I believe it is the beating heart of Common Ground High School.