Family. Resilience. Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Relationships. All of these terms have become mainstream during the last eighteen months, but what do they truly mean? How do we teach students and adults to be resilient by coming together to build “familial” relationships?
In my eighteen years in education I have seen teachers come and go. Many did not make it beyond the first three years, let alone the first five. Different studies show various reasons why teachers are leaving the profession. However, they have a common thread: teachers don’t feel supported in a multitude of ways. I’ve come to realize that there is no magic wand to wave, but there is magic in building relationships to improve school culture, where teachers feel valued and supported by students and adults, and they can be resilient and find their love for the profession again. I know because I’m living it. I found my resilience in a bleak moment and I’m rising up to once again find my joy in teaching by being the change I want to see.
What are relationships and why do we need them?
Simply put, relationship-building skills are skills that people apply when connecting with others to form positive relationships. These skills are essential to finding the balance and harmony in any relationship, including a relationship with a partner, relationships with friends, with administrators, with colleagues, with students and even the relationship with self. These relationships may look very different from one to the other, but they all seek to make meaningful connections that will bring about positive results. Without strong relationships in place, it is easy to fall into the mindset that we are islands and find ourselves feeling unsupported.
Building relationships takes work and it must be intentional. Let’s look at a few examples of relationship-building that we engage in as teachers.
With students, there are many ways to build relationships. I’m going to focus on the three I find most effective.
1. First, get to know your students and appreciate them for who they are. This is the biggest thing you can do to let them know you care. I have found that all of the trinkets, rewards, stickers and other tangible items I may bring into my classroom in my effort to “manage student behavior” are meaningless if my students don’t first know how much I care for them.
When I say getting to know and appreciate them for who they are, I mean going beyond the “What’s your favorite color? What did you do this summer? How many siblings do you have?” questions that yield one word answers and only scratch the surface. I mean asking the right questions that will yield robust conversation that will give you a window into their true selves. At the beginning of the year, I try to take at least two full weeks to really dive into building relationships before starting on curriculum.
I follow up in small ways throughout the year so it doesn’t become something we did in the beginning that goes by the wayside later on. Does it take extra time? Yes. Is it important? Yes. Has it made a difference? Yes, but it has to be built on honesty, respect and intention. I have to intentionally plan for it and understand my own values going into it; building relationships does not happen without intention. It may feel like you don’t have the time, and maybe you have an administrator telling you that you don’t actually have that time, but we know that when a student feels supported and safe in their learning environment, the academics will naturally follow and there will be plenty of time to “catch up.” If you don’t have two full weeks to spare, try at least one full week. Your inner classroom manager will thank you later for laying a strong foundation.
2. Another practice that does not take much time but yields big results is including a daily check-in with students and then following up on the information you gain from it. I know from the time our day starts what kind of day my students are having and what I will need to do in order to be mindful of their moods and behaviors associated with those moods. My students know I am there for them, without judgment, to offer whatever support they need from me each day.
3. Finally, I have tried to be very conscious of the language and tone I am using with my students. I talk to them with respect and try to follow the creed, “Respect is not given freely, it’s earned.” They are always surprised to hear me say, “You don’t have to respect me simply because I am the adult in this classroom. You will treat me with respect because that is how I’m going to treat you until we have a reason to treat each other otherwise.” I’m knocking on wood right now that I have not experienced the “otherwise.”
We don’t have a list of classroom rules hung on a wall for reference when students get in trouble. Instead, we co-author a class mission, vision and pledges. This year my class changed the “pledges” to “values.” We recite it every day and it serves as our reminder of the importance of the language we use when we interact with each other to forge and maintain strong relationships.
Relationships with Colleagues
Of course, I knew the importance of building relationships with students and how it impacted the culture of my own classroom, but I wanted to expand on that to have it affect our entire school community and promote positive change among the adults. My three dailies: treat others as though they matter; greet everyone I come into contact with; and write at least one positive message per day.
We all know our administrators get caught up in the busy life of being an administrator and it sometimes feels like we don’t get the support we need. It’s easy to forget they’re people just like us. We’re all tired, teachers and administrators. There was no coming back this school year feeling refreshed and full of vigor. I’m more tired this year than I was last year! Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that everyone is doing their best at any given time. If I wanted for something to be different, I was going to have to take the initiative to change it. I had the power in my hands to create the kind of post-pandemic year I wanted. So I set out on a mission to employ the same strategies I used with students to promote a positive school culture on campus.
1. First, I needed to remind everyone that we were so hyper-focused on student SEL we had neglected adult SEL. In order to feel more supported and like I wasn’t in this alone, I needed validation that I was doing a good job, that I mattered and everything was going to be okay. I thought, perhaps other people needed those same things, so my first order of business was to make sure that people knew I appreciated them for the kindnesses they shared and how much those small acts meant to me and my own emotional resilience. I started writing “thank yous” and recognition notes every time I thought about it to make sure people knew I supported them as colleagues for all of the “small” things they do on campus every day that aren’t so “small” to others.
2. Next, I set out to create a staff wellness calendar. What started out as a once-in-a-while reminder to engage in self-care, has now become a full month of self-care practices that are simple (taking a full minute to close your eyes and tune into the sounds around you while you breathe deeply) AND free/cheap (I love you mani-pedi, but you’re not easy on my wallet). Some practices even highlight the expertise of our own staff. Last Tuesday one of our kindergarten teachers led a meditation and affirmation writing class for our staff. Next month one of our first grade teachers will lead the staff in a workshop focused on the Reggio Emilia philosophy and easy ways to incorporate child-centered SEL in the daily routine in any classroom.
3. My third initiative is giving people breaks to practice self-care. Giving breaks does not cost anything and can go so far in making someone know you support them by showing you understand the need for the occasional pass to step away. I also understand that our administration is very busy right now, so I offered up my plan time once a month to relieve teachers, the finders of the “Golden Tickets.” My teammates thought it was such a great idea they decided to join in so we could give whole teams additional time to meet with each other to practice self-care together. This would not have happened if there weren’t strong relationships established early on. Now I get to have a hand in helping my colleagues feel supported and become more emotionally resilient.
Relationship with Self
This section is perhaps the shortest, but in my mind the most important, for if you do not set the intention to have a positive relationship with yourself, it will be much more difficult to cultivate meaningful relationships with others. I haven’t always had the best relationship with myself. I’m hard on myself, expect a lot of myself and haven’t always been kind to myself. This year, I have learned to love myself without judgment and forgive myself my perceived flaws. I am trying to be more gentle with myself.
One way you can support yourself is to schedule “me” time in your calendar. It’s harder to ignore things when they’re on our calendars and it’s a good reminder for us to pause and breathe. Say “no” to things that do not bring you joy or that you cannot answer “yes” when you ask yourself, “Will this bring me closer to my goals and help me uphold my values?” If you’re going to be a support for others, you must first be a support for yourself.
Don’t forget to feed yourself what you need—mind, body and soul. If you like to read, pick up a book without giving yourself a deadline or a quantity of books to read, but instead read for the pure enjoyment of it. Take a walk. Get outside and birdwatch. Whatever piques your interest, do something, anything, that is just for you.
Finally, ask for help when you need it. It’s ok to not be in complete control of everything and abstain from judgment of self for not being able to do it all. It doesn’t make us any less of a person, just the opposite. Lean on others when you need to and let go of some of that control. You’ll feel lighter.
Give yourself grace. Relax your standards. Don’t try to be everything to everybody. You will end up tired and burnt out.
Your team needs you, I need you, your students need you, the world needs you.