In 2018, the team of Cynde Ciesla, Erika Gilbert & Monica Fitzgerald (Gillette Road Middle School – Cicero, NY) used their Fund for Teachers grant to attend the Model Schools Conference in Orlando, FL, to create an academic setting that is inclusive, focused on response to intervention, integrates standards-based learning, and provides students with social-emotional support. “One of my most important takes from the Model Schools Conference is the idea that culture drives everything, in the classroom, school, and district at large,” said Erika. “If students and teachers feel that they are welcomed, appreciated, and valued within the walls of their classroom and school, they will grow much more as learners and teachers.”
We reached out to this exemplary teacher team to get their tips for building relationships and community during such a different back-to-school season and we’re so appreciative of the learning they shared!
We believe this year, more than ever, that the importance of building relationships needs to be at the forefront of all that we do in our schools. Yes, content is equally necessary and we believe once students begin trusting the adults around them, the academics will fall into place. We need to build relationships first. Students have been out of school for a significant period of time and all will have different feelings about COVID-19, being out of school and away from teachers and friends. Here are some ways to start the year on a positive note whether remotely or fact to face:
Day to Day Conversations
We know that sometimes the best relationships are formed out of conversations we have with students as they enter the room or during our lessons.
Greet all Students
Greet students in the hallway, at the door, as they enter the classroom or in a virtual setting as they enter a zoom meeting/google meet up session. Saying students names allow for connections to be made. It creates a personal connection.
Provide a sense of Safety and Hope
How we feel is contagious and if students see that we have hope it sends a positive message. Right now students have a range of feelings and need to share those feelings, but they also need to hear about HOPE. Hope trumps fear.
Let your students know that you are there for them – have a conversation with students about what they are feeling and why and share that you are there for them. It’s not always about an activity, but authentic conversations to really get to know students.
Sharing Time for Students
Start small! Students share easier in partners or small groups at the beginning of the year. This builds trust. Then, as students feel safe, it’s easier to share in larger groups. There is a level of trust that needs to be established to share in a large group around emotions and vulnerability.
Roses and Thorns
Share one rose (a positive/happy/exciting thing that either already has happened or that the student is anticipating). Share one thorn (something that was not pleasant, or that the student is worried/sad/nervous about or not looking forward to). Prior to this activity, provide students with some time to reflect on their own.
Three Stars and a Wish
Students can write down three things that they are excited about and one wish for the future OR they can write down three things they are good at or like and one thing they would like to learn more about. This activity can be used in a variety of ways.
Students can respond to a question or prompt individually and then partner up to share.
Use emojis with feelings or a chart that has feelings that students can identify with. This will give teachers a glimpse into what the group is feeling and individual students.
Hopes and Dreams
Students write their hopes and dreams for the school year in class or within a google slide if students are learning in a virtual setting.
Sometimes we think of surveys as a way to gather information at the beginning of the year, but what about a bell ringer question that students can answer and share throughout the year? This provides insights and allows peers the chance to get to know one another. Virtually this could be accomplished by raising a hand to share or using an app such as MentiMeter or IdeaBoardz.
This will allow students to calm their mind and body. This has shown to reduce stress, improve well being and mental health. A few examples are breathing exercises, body scan and guided meditation. Again, this can be used in the classroom or a virtual setting.
It’s often difficult to remember when a student shares a sport or favorite movie and jotting down some things may help plan for activities that are a match for students’ likes and it will also show those that you may not know much about. This would be a cue to gather more information.
10 by 2 Activity
Take the time to connect with 2 students a day for 10 minutes. This time allows for better conversations and a system where you have the chance to catch up with each and every student.
With some schools remote only and some in a hybrid model it’s important to keep the doors of communication open.
This year things will be different and we have to get creative with how we connect with students in an ongoing way. There are many ways to connect with students in school and connect remote students with the “live classroom”. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways:
- Send notes, letters, cards and emails
- Make phone calls home for positives
- Newsletters once a week
- Create Videos (Tutorials or Screencastify) so students and parents/guardians can see you when teaching Asynchronously.
As we enter this school year we have to think about the needs of our students and meet them where they are at. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” During this time of uncertainty, our students will need our support more than ever. Building relationships in an ongoing manner is essential as we work through this extraordinary time together.
P.S. We have stayed connected to the Senior Leaders at The Model Schools Conference (International Center for Leadership in Education ICLE) and they have coached us every step of the way. We have expanded our Mentor Program [which they started after their fellowship] to the Junior High School. In fact, they are meeting this week to get organized for the year and assign Mentors. The best news yet, we received a grant for this coming school year to add materials for Mentors to use with Mentees as they build relationships. It was funded through the North Syracuse Education Foundation (NSEF). We are working on how it will look this year with COVID but happy nonetheless. Our work from three years ago has expanded and continues!