We are halfway through summer and the 2021-22 school year is only a few weeks away in some communities. After countless disruptions caused by the pandemic, the vast majority of schools are expected to open for full-time, in-person learning. Understandably, many educators are spending the summer planning for how they will identify and address gaps in learning when students return. To make this year successful, school leaders must also plan for how they will support the kinds of caring relationships between teachers and students that are the foundation for learning and development.
All teachers recognize that forming these connections creates the kind of classroom environment where kids want to participate and engage. Yet, according to student surveys conducted by Search Institute, the quality of student-teacher relationships declines throughout middle and high school. By the end of high school, just 16% of students say that teachers really care about them and push them to be their best. Students learn best when they are seen as individuals, when they are comfortable asking for help, and when they feel supported to take risks. Imagine the possibilities if more students could make meaningful connections with teachers--especially at the time that they are transitioning to adulthood.
The good news is that we can make sure all children have one-on-one relationships with educators — and research shows that there are considerable academic and social-emotional benefits for students when we do. Positive teacher-student relationships are connected to greater engagement, increased motivation, and better grades.
What’s more, these positive outcomes appear to be greater for low-income students, students of color, and low-achieving students. This is important because we know that students of color and their families experienced disproportionate negative health, economic, and educational impacts related to the pandemic. For example, a RAND study found that schools operating on a fully remote basis during the past year served higher percentages of students of color and low-income students. Those schools also reported significantly less instructional time and curriculum coverage than schools operating in-person or with a hybrid model. It’s critical, then, that schools prioritize interventions designed to meet their needs in the coming year.
That starts with planning for a return to school grounded in relationships and connection. We know that some students will be returning to the classroom after learning from home for 18 months. Many will have experienced significant stress and trauma. Making sure that each child feels seen, heard, and valued as part of a community will be essential to supporting their well-being and their academic success. And it shouldn’t be up to individual teachers alone to make it happen.
Here are three strategies for school and district leaders to turn a commitment to building strong relationships into action.
Provide practical guidance: Educators shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Several organizations have compiled recommendations to design back-to-school plans centered on relationships. CCSSO’s recovery guidance on well-being and connection provides strategies and resources to support educators, students, and families. CASEL’s roadmap helps school leaders and leadership teams implement critical social-emotional learning practices.
Know each student: Educators did everything under the sun to keep students engaged in remote learning over the past year, from phone calls to home visits — even dressing up as the school’s mascot to celebrate students with nearly perfect attendance. When students return to school, maintaining these connections with students and their families will be critical (even if it doesn’t require a mascot costume). Having at least one supportive and caring adult relationship is one of the strongest predictors of resilience to adverse life experiences in a child’s life — and the best way to create that relationship is by making sure every student can check in regularly with an adult who knows them as an individual. Creating a routine where students reflect on their life in and outside of school builds belonging and can be an important part of a strategy to address unfinished learning.
Find the right tools: The most stubborn barrier to creating relationships is time. Particularly in middle and high school, students’ schedules are packed and they may have half a dozen or more teachers each day. If it isn’t possible to schedule one-on-one check-ins with students, make sure educators have tools to connect asynchronously (and know how to use them). At Gradient Learning, we developed Along to give teachers and students the flexibility to check in on their own time in a format that works for them. Teachers can send reflection questions designed to get students to open up. Students can choose how they want to respond through video, audio or text.
A new school year is always an opportunity for a fresh start. This year, schools can make a deliberate investment in building strong relationships so that all students can thrive.
Andrew Goldin is the executive director of Gradient Learning.
Andrew started his career teaching middle school science in New York City as a Teach for America corps member. He joined YES Prep Public Schools in Houston, Texas, as the principal of two campuses and later was a manager of school leaders. After YES Prep, Andrew was the Chief Schools Officer ...