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Relationship Building and the Gravitational Pull of the Red Jacket


The red jacket we put on every day has a gravitational pull that draws students in. Their past experiences with City Year corps members have taught them that the red jacket symbolizes trustworthiness, respect, and kindness.

This year, the pandemic has called the importance of human connection and relationships to the forefront of our communities. Although challenges have surfaced in this new age of learning, doors have been opened for new and creative opportunities to build relationships with students, and those of us in the red jacket have even more reason to live up to what our students have come to expect.

Here are some of the important lessons I’ve learned so for this year from my 5th graders and partner teachers at The Middle School at Parkside:

Lesson #1: A Leap of Faith

In such uncertain times, it is easy to be paralyzed by a fear of not knowing. I have found that it is important to take a leap of faith and jump in ready to face challenges as they arise. There are times when I do not know the answers to students’ questions; however, by acknowledging this, I can build a stronger foundation for our relationship. It opens a channel for communication while granting me an opportunity to model vulnerability and a growth mindset. After these interactions, students feel more comfortable coming to me with questions or saying that they do not know how to handle a situation. As adults, we often put on a facade that we are all-knowing; but by modeling these skills, I am able to assist students as they navigate the same uncharted waters.

Lesson #2: A Balancing Act

Juggling hybrid learning requires intentionality when it comes to relationship building. To be successful in engaging all of our learners, I balance my time between the fully-remote and hybrid students. During the class period, I make sure that I respond to any questions students may have, both in the meeting chat and the physical classroom. This allows me to not only assist in all my students’ learning, but to also provide opportunities for them to ask follow-up questions.

I hold Leadership Lunch specifically for fully-remote students in order to support their socio-emotional learning, meeting with two groups of students during the week. At the beginning of the year, it was a struggle to get some students to attend group, but with help from my Impact Manager, I was able to add an Among Us theme to group that drew the students in. On Mondays and Fridays, I spend my time engaging in-person students in activities during their enrichment period. As we transition to fully remote learning, we plan on using this time as an open-for-all hangout time.

Learn more about how City Year’s holistic approach of developing relationships with students and integrating social-emotional development into academic interventions is working for students and schools in this recent study from John Hopkins.

Lesson #3: Consistency

Consistency within the classroom is vital to creating relationships with students, as it illustrates that you can be trusted and counted on. This includes investing consistent effort and energy into saying good morning to students every day, asking about how their day has been going, and engaging them in discussions about their likes/dislikes. As a result of my dedication to my students, I have received the same from them. My students have begun to assign myself and my partner teachers points every day for our actions. If I am late coming outside to play soccer, that is –200 points, and if I help them with a question, I am awarded +400 points. Although this seems like a game at face value, the students are giving me feedback on my consistency in how I show up and interact with them on a day-to-day basis.

Learn more about City Year’s relationship-rooted approach

Lesson #4: Students as a Valued Team Member

Student autonomy is another crucial part of relationship building, since you allow them to have a say in their learning and how they build their relationships. My 5th grade teacher team often encourages feedback from students about what they enjoy/dislike about assignments or how class is structured. By using polls and questions on our daily check-in form I can ask students about their ideas on what we should do and incorporate it into the school day to improve our time together. During the week of Veterans Day, a student made a comment in class about a family member who was in the military. My teachers and I took note of this and made a lesson about Veterans Day. The students took full advantage of this lesson and so many shared their own stories that we went over our class time. When students can talk about topics that are important to them, it makes relationship building more meaningful.

Lesson #5: Embrace Laughter

One of my favorite lines about building relationships is that students do not learn from people they do not like. By carving out time to allow students to have fun together and by engaging in these activities yourself, you are seen as both fun and trustworthy. Although it is important to remember your boundaries and set expectations with the students, it is equally crucial to learn how to engage in play and playful discussions. This includes being able to laugh at yourself for your mistakes and actions. If you ask any of my students about my soccer skills, you will probably get a response involving the words “bad”, “horrible”, or “embarrassing” (and admittedly, they aren’t wrong)! By engaging in these activities and allowing my students to make fun of me, I am able to get them to seek me out to talk or even, play another game of soccer.

I’ve already learned so much from my students and teachers this year; I can’t wait to continue growing alongside of them.

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