The first day of school is special in so many ways. The energy, enthusiasm and excitement as students enter the doors of the school is palpable. The crispness of waxed hallways, fresh paint and eye popping “Welcome Back!” bulletin boards bring a sense of renewal after the summer break. On those first days, I hope you take a moment and hit the “pause button” – if only for a few seconds – step back, listen, watch. In that moment take stock of the relationships inside your school. It is the people and those relationships that makes your school a special place for teachers to teach and students to learn. As the new year begins, it is those relationships that will ultimately define the quality of the education and personal growth experienced by each student. It will also be those relationships that define the culture of your school.

Over the years I have observed a number of great strategies to build and grow the relationships needed to influence and sustain a strong school culture. Below are three of my personal favorites you may want to consider as the new school year begins.

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.

Every Kid, Every Day: Over the years I have been in many meetings where the question has been asked, are we sure every student in our school has a meaningful relationship with an adult in our school? We know it is important, but also know it is easier said than done. One of the best programs I’ve seen in my career was at Eastmorland Elementary School in Joplin, MO. The staff wanted to be sure their kids had 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 for the year to connect with on a daily basis. If nothing else, just to say, “Hi! How are you doing today?” This proved to be impactful to build a stronger sense of community inside the school.

Student Empowerment: As adults, we want to be empowered to make decisions and be a part of the problem-solving process. Our children and youth are no different. Service learning – hands on, curriculum based, student led, service projects grounded in relevancy – is a powerful tool to prepare students for the future. Your community wants and needs to see our youth problem solving and leading the way. And yes…even kindergarteners can be engaged and empowered. The schools with the strongest cultures have student empowerment built into the culture of their school and continuously seek out ways to keep students engaged in the school community.

Without question, you and your colleagues profoundly impact our children and families. It may sound cliché, but it stands true – your work makes a difference. It’s the development, management and engagement of those relationships that light the way to an outstanding school year.


About the Author:

CJ Huff is the retired Superintendent of Joplin Schools and Special Advisor for Education and Community Leadership at Safe and Sound Schools.