Safe and Sound Schools
A Sandy Hook Initiative for Safer Schools

Teacher and StudentIt’s that time of year. Schools across the nation are opening their doors to greet millions of students whom are a reflection of the future of our country. It’s an exciting time of year that, in my opinion, can be described in one word…fresh.

New paint, waxed hallways, and eye-catching bulletin boards will welcome back anxious and excited teachers and, of course, anxious and excited kids. Walking into the physical environment of school on that first day is always a memorable experience.

The word fresh could also be used to describe the social/emotional environment of our schools on the first day back in the classroom. Front and center are the relationships, both old and new, that ultimately shape the learning environment of the school. Everyone (And I do mean everyone) from the bus driver who greets kids in the morning to the teacher and principals that say goodbye in the afternoon plays a role in the creation of the quality of the learning environment.

As the new year begins, it is specifically those relationships between children and adults that will ultimately define the quality of the educational experience for each child when the year ends. Therefore getting off on the right foot is so very important. Over the years I have observed a number of great strategies to build the kind of trusting adult/child relationships needed for real learning to occur. Below are three of my personal favorites.

Front Porch Visits: One of the most impressive relationship building strategies I have encountered as both a parent and school administrator is the utilization of “front porch visits” by classroom teachers prior to or shortly after the start of the school year. I love the terminology. Unlike a “home visit,” which can be intimidating and inconvenient for some families, the “front porch visit” is exactly as the name implies. The teacher schedules a time to drop by and have a visit sitting or standing outside the front door as opposed to going inside the home. This simple gesture of good will brings down barriers and gives teachers the opportunity to start building a relationship with the children and parents early. It also gives teachers a chance to see first hand where each child is coming from before entering their classroom each day. That experience alone not only builds relationships, but also provides perspective that can help in the development of everything from individualized instruction to discipline plans.

In School Mentoring: As a school wide initiative I have to give kudos to Eastmorland Elementary in Joplin, Missouri. A few years ago they realized that their kids needed adult relationships inside the school beyond just the classroom teacher. Eastmorland’s solution? They identified all the adults in the building (Cooks, counselor, nurse, secretary, remedial teachers, custodians, principal, etc.) and assigned each adult a small group of students to touch base with on a daily basis. If nothing else, just to say, “Hi! How are you doing today??” This proved to be a fantastic way to build a greater sense of community inside the school.

Student Empowerment: At the foundation of every relationship is trust. Some of the most effective schools empower students by giving them leadership roles to take on special projects and organize initiatives. One thing I have learned after 20 years in the education business, kids of all ages are capable of doing amazing things when given the opportunity. As adults, we all have a desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Children are no different. Whether it happens inside or outside the walls of the school, adults can serve as a facilitator of service learning activities that give students a chance to make a positive difference. Whether it be projects like Mexico, Missouri’s second grade popcorn project that raises funds to send special needs kids to summer camp or in Pea Ridge, Arkansas’s Pea Ridge High School “Can”struction project to collect canned food items for needy families, kids can make a positive difference when given the opportunity.

Regardless of your school community’s approach to building relationships with students, the important thing to remember is that those relationships most definitely matter. Today’s myriad of social and emotional challenges faced by our youth means we need far more adults involved in the lives of our children on a day-to-day basis. Taking an internal approach utilizing the human capital you have available inside your school can go a long ways towards filling that void and setting an example for the rest of the community to follow.


CJ Huff is the retired superintendent of Joplin Schools in Joplin, MO. He is recognized nationally in the field of community engagement and 21st century education programming. 

 

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