What's Happening in Character?

Building Strong Relationships: What Successful Schools Do Differently

Posted by Rebecca Bauer on Tue, Feb 17, 2015 @ 12:02 PM

by Rebecca Bauer

Beginning with Children CS Heroes Amongst usBetween Random Acts of Kindness Week and Valentine’s Day, February is the perfect month to work on Principle 4 (see our 11 Principles of Effective Character Education), “The school creates a caring community”. When I think of creating a caring community, my mind doesn’t immediately jump to Dewey or Montessori, but rather, a favorite professor of mine, Maria Hantzopoulos.

The book Hantzopoulos edited, Critical Small Schools: Beyond Privatization in New York City Urban Education, highlights successful New York City public schools. These schools stand out because they emphasize relationship building as a means to student achievement, both academic and otherwise. As I reread the text, I pulled out some key ideas that might help you create a “culture of care” in your school.

Creating a Culture of Care through Relationship Building

Developing a Strong Advisory Program

Advisory is a transformative force for improving school climate but in order for it to be effective, it must be done intentionally and used to build relationships between teachers and their students. In order for teachers to provide this space, they must receive proper guidance and support.

Professional Development

When administrators implement advisory programs without providing proper training, teachers often fail to see the program as an opportunity to connect with students. In chapter 1 of Critical Small Schools, J.T. Schiller reports that teachers at schools with advisory programs but no training often feel overwhelmed because they don’t know how to effectively lead an advisory period.

In contrast, he also writes about City Prep, a school where administrators devote professional development time to bring in facilitators who demonstrate team-building activities for teachers to use in their advisory groups. The administrators’ willingness to use school time and resources demonstrates that advisory is a priority.

With this additional support in place, advisory proved to strengthen the students’ relationships with their teachers. The teachers created a space where they can “build reciprocal relationships with students”. Students said advisory is “where they could talk about what was going well and what their struggles were.”

“Walk with the Willing” and let “Success Breed Success”

These strong advisory programs exist in many of our Schools of Character, as well. Sheril Morgan, former Counselor at the National School of Character Muskogee High School, explains that even without professional development, they were able to create an effective program by beginning with teachers who already had strong connections with students. Sheril shared a lesson she learned from teachers at Fox Middle School, you must “walk with the willing” and let the passion of a few inspire the rest.

Following that advice, Muskogee began small, implementing an advisory program with only 10 teachers, all of whom were chosen by the students. How did it become a whole school initiative? “Success breeds success,” Sheril says. Other teachers saw it working and “caught the vision.”

How do they know it’s working? Parents have close relationships with their child’s advisor. Teachers found when they need to contact a parent about a concern, often the most effective route is through the advisor. In addition, Advisors' close relationships with their advisees enable them to relate to their students personally and create interventions tailored to a student's interests and needs.

Connecting with your Students as Individuals

At the heart of these advisory programs are connections between students and teachers, but authentic relationships shouldn’t be exclusive to advisory. At City Prep, teachers go above and beyond to connect with each student inside and outside of the classroom.

Several teachers have implemented culturally relevant pedagogy. In other words, they engage their class by incorporating their students’ cultures into their lessons. For example, rather than always assigning a classic text, one teacher lets them choose from the class library, which she stocks with books they can relate to. These teachers see each person in their class as more than a student.

We also see this whole-child approach in our Schools of Character. Teachers at these schools are actively involved in many aspects of their students lives. In addition to working with their students in the classroom, they coach sports, direct plays and advise after-school clubs. Even teachers that don’t lead an activity often cheer their students on from the sidelines.

Administrators at Schools of Character create a caring environment by making themselves approachable. At one National School of Character Middle School, once each week, the principal invites students from a specific grade to have cookies and milk with him. He gives them the opportunity to get to know him better, as well as voice their concerns.

How A Culture of Care Impacts Student Performance

The case studies in Critical Small Schools offer great inspiration for educators, but the practices at Humanities Prep are particularly compelling because they reveal a lasting impact. At Humanities Prep, the focus on relationship building has not only created a strong community but also successful, empowered students.

In “Building Relationships to Engage At-Risk Youth,” Hantzopoulos demonstrates how the culture of care has influenced students’ lives.

She tells us about Mattias, who, in his interview, “describes how teacher expectations of him coupled with ‘niceness’ and care, encourage him to be his best self.” Although he’d previously considered himself “doomed,” he graduated with a scholarship to an elite college.

Even more heartening, these caring relationships did more than help students get into college. These relationships also served them well in college and beyond. One student reports that close relationships with her high school teachers made her more comfortable working with college professors. Another student echoed the sentiment, saying his relationships with teachers improved his overall ability to communicate with adults.

Consider trying out some of these relationship building techniques in your school and if you’re met with resistance, share with them some of the tangible benefits to developing a caring school community.

Hantzopoulos, Maria, and Alia R. Tyner. Critical Small Schools: Beyond Privatization in New York City Urban Educational Reform. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Pub., 2012. 
Hantzopoulos, Maria. "Building Relationships to Engage At-Risk Youth: A Case Study of a New York City Public School." Education and Disadvantaged Children and Young People (2013): 11-30.

Discover even more strategies for developing a caring school community in our guide to Principle 4!

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