15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #2 Build & Maintain Student Relationships Before Academics

Building and maintaining positive relationships with students is absolutely everything. Without trusting relationships, teaching will be less effective, students will be less engaged, and much of what we do will be for naught. I made mistakes with maintaining student relationships this past spring, and have intentionally made plans to build and maintain trusting relationships come August.

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

When reflecting on relationships with students this past spring, I can pinpoint two major mistakes I made once we started distance learning.

First, I made the assumption that since I had already built relationships with my students that we could get right to the business of learning. Honestly, I was so worried about academics that I didn’t really think about our relationships. This was a huge misstep.

Second, I did not do nearly enough to put systems into place to allow students to maintain and continue to build their relationships with each other. My relationship with students is important, but I came to realize that my students’ relationships with each other were of even more importance. Students need me, but distance learning clearly showed me that they need connection with each other even more.

What I’ll Do Moving Forward As the School Year Begins

My fifth grade team and I have spent a great deal of time talking about changes we will work to actively make at the start of the school year to foster relationship building with students from a distance. It’s much easier in person, but we have a few ideas we’re going to try out at a distance.

Idea #1 Before the start of our school year, we are going to try to safely (with a mask and physically distanced) visit each of our students either outdoors at their home or at an agreed upon meeting place near their home. Since we know we are going to be teaching at a distance through a computer, we want to meet each student in-person to casually chat, answer questions they may have, and get to know them before the school year starts. This will take time, but the time spent up front will only support everything we will try to do in the future.

Idea #2 Schedule twice weekly Fun Zooms with our classes. This will look different with different age groups. With my fifth graders, this was a huge hit in the spring, and we did not do it nearly enough! We need more connection through fun and joy right now that is not attached to academics at all. For example, my fifth grade level partner Laura loved playing MadLibs with her class. This is something they all laughed around and connected on each week. Students really enjoyed sharing their outside interests as well- one of my students played his guitar for us, another often shared her drawings, while another just wanted to chat about her annoyance with her younger sibling. This unstructured, free, fun time was always a welcome experience for all involved. It really helped us stay and feel connected with each other. So, instead of doing this every now and again, we’re going to schedule it at a regular time twice a week during school hours. Some weeks, we may even do it more!

Idea #3 Create many opportunities for students to build and maintain relationships with each other. Before we sheltered in place, I had systems in my classroom set up for group work and different partnerships throughout the school day. Every single school day prior to March 13th, students collaborated with multiple peers on an ongoing basis. This fell by the wayside when we were in crisis mode and following an asynchronous teaching model this past spring. Well, my fifth grade team and I are bringing back regularly scheduled, real-time human interaction for our kids- and ourselves! This was sorely missed in the spring. In July 28th’s post, I’ll go into much more detail about how we are going to make this happen from a distance, but for now, here are a two of our ideas.

  • Daily class Zoom morning meetings where students will have rotating morning partners for small group and whole group discussion. In these meetings, we plan to have casual conversation, read alouds, and play a game or two to start each day. Students will be able to both freely ask questions, offer ideas, and share stories.
  • Reading, writing, and math partnerships or trios for each learning unit. After our synchronous whole group mini lessons each day, students will break off to independently work offline, but they will all have their Zooms still open and computers within earshot in breakout rooms so they can easily ask questions or collaborate with their partners when needed. This will also allow us teachers to pop in and out of break out rooms for small group instruction and conferring during independent work time. More importantly, it will give students the opportunity to collaborate on their terms when they feel that they need it.

Idea #4 Regularly seek out, listen to, and apply feedback from students. One thing we do not do enough of in education is ask students how we’re doing and what they’d like to see more of in class. We rarely ask them how we’re making them feel and what they’d like to see change in school. I did not do this in the spring, but have made a habit of it in the past. This can be done through a Google Form survey or even a casual class discussion in the morning meeting. When we invite students to let us know how we’re doing as teachers and how they’re feeling as students, trust has the potential to exponentially grow, and relationships tend to become much stronger. But, not only should we ask them their opinion, we should also apply what they tell us. That’s key!

Here’s an example of a beginning of year survey and a mid-year student survey from last school year.

Idea #5 Allow students to get to know you, too! As teachers, we often make efforts to get to know students, but we should equally make an effort to allow students to get to know us. My students know me almost as well as my friends do, but in a more professional manner, of course. They all knew I was a massive Pearl Jam and San Jose Sharks fan, had a fear of flying, loved singing (poor kids heard me break out into song often!), and that I despised ants more than any other creature on Earth. These things may sound trivial, but opening up and allowing students to get to know me only made our relationships stronger. One rule of thumb I try to follow each year is to connect with each student around something outside of school. For example, with my students Eddie and Nicholas this year, we talked hockey all the time. My student Angela and I shared a fondness for cats. Elsa and I connected over a shared music interest while Vince and I talked ramen. You’d be surprised how much there is to discuss about ramen (unless you’re a ramen lover like Vince and me!). Making a point to find an outside of school connection with students goes a long way in relationship building, trust, and connection.

I’d love to hear some of your ideas for building relationships with students. What have you done in the past that has worked well? What are some new things you plan to do in our new teaching and learning landscape moving forward?

Further Resources

  • Book: Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Gholdy Muhammad, particularly chapter 3, Toward the Pursuit of Identity. My fifth grade team and I are reading and discussing this brilliant book over the summer. We are really examining how our literacy practices impact our students and what we should do differently. Chapter 3 is all about inviting in and honoring students’ identities in the classroom. By acknowledging and honoring our students identities, they will more likely feel safe, more likely trust us, and we will more likely be able to better build relationships with them that are authentic. I cannot recommend this book enough!
  • Book: No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships (disclaimer: I have not read this book myself yet, but I have learned a great deal from Heinemann’s Not This, But That series and heard this is a great new book, so it is high on my to-read list!)
  • Blog Post: Building Student Relationships Online from the NCTE Blog

Post #3 is coming up tomorrow! Tomorrow’s writing will explore the mistakes I made in the relationships with my students’ caregivers this past spring and how I plan to effectively communicate with students’ caregivers once the new school year starts in just a few weeks’ time.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #1 Prioritize Myself

I bet some of you are reading this thinking I’ve lost my mind. Prioritize myself? But, we’re in a global pandemic! I’m a teacher! I must prioritize my my own children, my elderly parents, my students! Now is the time to take care of others! I’m fine. Well, I now have a different take on it.

Image: Huddart Park, Woodside, CA. Lyrics by Linda Creed, 1977, made famous by Whitney Houston, 1985

When we prioritize ourselves, we’re not only modeling self love and self respect to those around us, but we’re also better equipping and positioning ourselves to take care of our children, parents, students, and even other members of our community. When we don’t prioritize ourselves, we can potentially develop unhealthy stress, unhealthy habits, and even an unhealthy mental state. In March and April, I actually fell into a really difficult, painful, unfamiliar mental space, which I learned was a type of adjustment disorder. Because of this, I realized I was not fully capable of taking care of others, so I needed to make a big change. Indeed, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. But, even though it sounds beautiful, it’s just not that simple. It’s not easy to get there and stay there- in fact, it is extremely difficult and often requires uncomfortable commitments and outside help, which eventually helped me. If it seems overwhelming or impossible, I urge you to seek help outside of yourself. It made a huge difference for me. In addition, perhaps reading about my mistakes from the spring may help a bit.

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

As soon as our shelter in place was called back on March 13th here in California, I jumped into what I thought was productivity mode. I sent my classroom families daily emails, spent hours trying to create perfect instructional videos, monitored my classroom discussion board at all hours, called my own parents to lecture them about staying home, and joined every single social Zoom to which I was invited.

I eventually learned those daily emails to classroom parents became more of a burden on them than a help, the videos I tried to perfect were actually more effective the simpler they were, my students were not using the discussion board at all hours so my constant monitoring was unnecessary, my parents were already making good choices for themselves- my frantic calls only frustrated them, and that I needed to pick and choose which Zoom events to join- Zoom fatigue is real!

I completely burnt out, and in doing so I left no space for self love and joy for myself, let alone for those around me. During the past couple months, I’ve been taking a new approach, and will continue that approach as the school year starts.

What I’ll Do Moving Forward As the School Year Begins

There are three simple steps I’ve adopted and will continue to apply to show love to myself as I officially start the school year on August 10th.

NUMBER 1: Start each day doing something I love and put a HARD STOP on the work day to fully engage in other aspects of life. For me, this means brewing a pot of coffee and going for a quick 15 minute walk or run in the neighborhood before I do anything else for the day. I find I am happier the more I move. I’ll be teaching full distance come August, so intentionally moving before sitting down at the computer each day is critical. Plus, walking into the house to the smell of fresh coffee after a short workout is just heavenly. Running, walking, and coffee is not for everybody. What brings you joy? What might something you love to start the day look like?

Also, working until after 8, 9, sometimes even 10pm did nobody any favors in the spring, including myself. So, I made the intentional choice to put a hard stop on my school work day at 3pm. My workday starts at 7am, so putting a stop to it at 8 hours is more than reasonable. Of course flexibility will be necessary to accommodate occasional meeting needs and other events, but for the majority of each week, my work day will stop at 3pm, and I’m not hiding it. Stopping the work day at 3pm will allow me to better take care of myself, enjoy my family and friends, and engage in the things I love outside of work. Plus, it will also keep me refreshed and allow me to be my best self for my students at the start of each new school day. Later in this series, I’m going to discuss time management and how I will actually make my 3pm hard stop a reality. Look for that post on Tuesday, August 4th.

NUMBER 2: Say no and own it. One of the most effective ways to practice self love is to embrace the act of saying no. For many teachers, myself included, saying no to a request is extremely difficult. The last thing we want to do is let anyone down. However, saying no to the things that may drain our energy or use up precious after-school time will only open up more possibilities for the things we value and love.

For the school year ahead, I have personally promised myself that I will say no to the the following in order to open up space for more things that I love.

I will say no to…
– Any requests to sit on a district-wide committee- after all, I have other smart colleagues who will gladly fill in.
-School work on the weekend- whatever it is can wait until Monday.
-Any social events that might be more of an energy drain than an uplifting renewal- I’m looking at you, Thursday afternoon Zoom happy hour.
-Any favors or extras for those not in one of my inner circles: family, close friends, trusted colleagues, etc. I know I cannot be all-things to all people, so I won’t even waste my precious energy trying.

Much of this may sound harsh or uncaring to some, but that’s ok. I’m trying to focus on loving myself so I can be the best teacher, daughter, friend, sister, colleague, and self that I can be. I’m ok with saying no, and the people who matter the most to me will be ok with it, too!

NUMBER 3: Name what brings me joy, what drains my energy, and act accordingly. The simple act of writing down the things that bring me joy and the things that drain my energy has been incredibly helpful. I placed my simple t-chart list in a space where I will see it often. I’m consciously making an effort to do more of the things that bring me joy and less of the things that drain my energy.

When we were first ordered to stay at home, I spent way too much time on the things listed here than drained my energy. Not only that, but I allowed myself to feel guilty when I indulged in the things that brought me joy. As soon as I decided that guilt had no place in my life, I started feeling much better. Now, I have no issues with sitting in the backyard for hours at a time reading, binge watching The Walking Dead (there’s something about a zombie apocalypse that oddly makes me feel better about our current situation), or going for a hike with my phone turned off. Creating my joy and energy drain list really changed things for me. I highly recommend making a list of your own- and, I’d love to see it!

My joy/energy drain list. I’d love to see your list as well!

As the school year is quickly approaching, it is more important than ever to to completely love yourself by not working obscene hours, embracing the gift of saying no, and naming/acting upon what brings you joy and drains your energy. After all, learning to love yourself, indeed, is the greatest love of all (cheesy, I know, but it’s true!). As soon as we can embrace loving ourselves, we will have so much more to offer the other people in our lives as well- our family, our friends, our colleagues, and our students.

Further Resources

Post #2 is coming up tomorrow! Tomorrow’s writing will explore the mistakes I made in the relationships with my students this past spring and what I plan to do to build positive relationships with my students once the new school year starts in just a few weeks’ time.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

So, I took a risk…

This school year, I took a risk (which is so unlike me) by taking a slightly reduced teaching contract so I could open up more days to bring my deep love of literacy education to teachers in other schools and districts across the Bay Area and other parts of the West. I love teaching kids, but I equally love teaching teachers- I feel so incredibly fortunate to be able to do both. My schedule is already completely full for the year. Day one of working with teachers is this Monday! I am so excited for the opportunity to work with the teachers at Laurel School in Menlo Park… I’m looking forward to sharing these great books and discussing different ways to kick off and make the most of reading workshop for all students. I’m so grateful for this opportunity.  And, I’m now booking for the summer of 2020 and the 2020-21 school year!