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Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2021-22
Investing in our Children, One Relationship at a Time
Teaching with heart, love, and care
Bonnie Mckerney
Retired Educator and AWSP Mentor
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture; Planning with Data, Improving Instruction, Closing the Gap
Relationships are the key. Ask any business, successful company, or team. They will overwhelmingly state the need for a positive climate and culture built on relationships in the organization.
The same is true for schools.
Did you have a treasured teacher? What was it about that teacher you loved? It may have been the content taught, but chances are it was much more than that. You knew the teacher cared about you and knew you. You believed the teacher saw you, laughed with you, and believed in you. You loved that teacher because that teacher built a relationship with you. Long after you left that classroom, you remembered that teacher, and that teacher remembered you.
AN INVESTMENT OF TIME We know there are some strategies that work in building relationships in school. They are strategies that are simple in appearance, yet they do require a time investment.
Things we KNOW work for students:
  • Greeting each student at the door.
  • Smiling.
  • Providing positive encouragement for each student.
  • Sitting in circles.
  • Providing multiple opportunities to demonstrate success.
  • Intentionally teaching self-regulation through researched and data-driven resources.
  • Reading to students with rich text and literature, allowing students to see themselves in that literature.
  • Providing time for conversation and discourse.
  • Laughter, joy, and celebrations.
So, if we know these things work, why don’t we do them?
They take time, energy, and an understanding of what self-reliant, empowered students look and act like. Training teachers and support staff follow through are needed. This support becomes secondary as the ever-demanding needs and requirements of teachers and administrators take precedence over uncovering and supporting the relationships that build trust and self-esteem.
We hear the cry to build relationships constantly. How do we do it? What do we do? When do we do this?
If we believe relationships are effective in building culture and climate, and ultimately student success, we will see relationships that are modeled by everyone in the school and community.
STUDENTS FIRST First, we must believe relationships are truly the linchpin to success. If we don’t believe this, then we are destined to have meager results with students. This is true in any culture. Strong, thriving cultures are built on relationships. Once established, then true growth can evolve.
Second, we need permission for time. Educators are continually impacted by mandates, many of which are unfunded. Our day is consumed with multiple lessons on multiple standards. Beyond literacy and math, we teach dental health, internet safety, fire prevention, national holidays, nutrition, bullying prevention, test-taking strategies, keyboarding, conservation, and the list continues depending upon which grade level you are instructing.
It takes time to build relationships. Circles are a safe and effective way to get to know students – and it takes time. Time becomes so precious that we negate the things we know work to do the things we are mandated to do.
One example of this is a primary second-grade classroom where the teacher, with 23 years of experience, was handed her schedule for each day. This schedule reflected how her time would be spent with her students. While I understand some of the thinking, (push-in support could be more consistent with like-grade teachers on the same schedule, and we can check the boxes, at least on paper, that we are addressing the many state standards,) this kind of lock-step schedule does little to support the many needs of the students within each classroom, or the evolution of the class climate and culture.
When we all look and act identically, are we truly addressing the individual needs of the students or the teacher? No.
We are letting a schedule dictate the needs of some of the adults, rather than the needs of the students in the classroom. Schools frequently find themselves driven by schedules, not students. This is evidenced by specialists, special programs, lunch, transportation, and recess schedules. Scheduling is extremely difficult as we work to address the multiple needs of many programs. Might we think about putting students and relationships first and then building a schedule with teacher and student input?
If we spend precious time building relationships, we will ultimately free up time as the weeks progress. If students are more self-regulated, they are willing to have a growth mindset and attempt tasks previously nullified. If students cultivate relationships with each other, less time is spent on mitigating disputes and conflict. This allows for more time spent on instruction.
DEFINING ‘SUPPORT’ Third, we need training in how to build relationships with students effectively. We know relationships are key in any endeavor, yet strategies to build relationships may elude us. Many of us flourish with simple, concrete ways to build relationships. We don’t need another mandate, rather we need ideas and support. Support looks like short, simple professional learning we can try on and report back. Support looks like another person — like another teacher, an administrator, or another staff member — helping us with the strategy, analyzing the effectiveness, and then practicing again.
Support also looks like providing teachers the ability to manage their schedule and times that champion the students in their classroom and the school at large. If this is to be effective, we need to believe in the power of relationships, have the time to build relationships, support and help each other in this endeavor, and provide scheduling flexibility.
If we believe relationships are effective in building culture and climate, and ultimately student success, we will see relationships that are modeled by everyone in the school and community.
This isn’t mysterious or elusive. This is teaching with heart, love, and care. This is building on what we know works and supporting each child where they are. This teaches students how to be relational, care, and communicate. While this is not listed in the state standards, without effective relationships, students will continue to resist learning and demonstrate poor academic and personal success.
As we connect with our students each day, may we lead with love and care. May we be given permission to do what we know is right for our students at this moment. May we invest time in each child, time that effectively allows that child to soar and educators to find joy in their classrooms.