Building ties with students

Student success in school depends on relationships. Research on at risk learners is very clear: an adult who takes an interest in helping that student increases their opportunity to graduate. But it is not teachers alone who must take an active role in a student’s life. Every member of the school community needs to help students become successful.

A school that has developed a strong and sound example of relationships between all members of the community and students is the Rochester , NY International Academy.  Designed as a first school for refugee students to the United States, RIA has developed a standard among the entire community within the school for relationships. This characterization starts at the top with the principal, Mary Diaz. She leads the school by example. Her daily routine includes greeting students as they arrive on campus, and saying hello to fellow staff members during the day as walk arounds happen to each classroom, the gym and the cafeteria.  Mary and her staff ensure that students are greeted with warm smiles, and have people to care and talk to throughout their day. An urban school, RIA provides a safe place for students as they transition from their war-torn homelands to the United States.

Another school that does relationships right is Wellsville, NY Central School District. This rural community near Pennsylvania helps students see success beyond the school system. The school has developed a college and career mindset, and ensures that all students have someone they can turn to during their searches for colleges or careers. It is a place with technology, innovation, and an unwavering demand for excellence. The Superintendent at Wellsville Kim Muller, sets the expectation that all students will be successful, and helps her administrative, teaching, and support staff see that in every child. For a smaller, rural community, Wellsville has a lot to offer its students and their families in terms of building relationships.  At school, the students know they have resources in teachers, principals, and support staff.

In Watervliet, at the Elementary school Mrs. Kathy Grill works closely with her students, reading to them each and everyday after lunch. The fourth graders love her attention to detail, provide suggestions for books, and work with their classmates all because Kathy reads to the class. Kathy also volunteers at the public library for her district. She provides a friendly and smiling face for students who are living in deep poverty and a transient environment. Kathy tries to be the one stable and constant force for her children in school.

As a former member of New York State Education Department’s office of school improvement, we would visit schools that were often under review for poor academic performance. What were evident on many visits were the broken relationships between the students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the district officials had created an environment which did not support student engagement and learning. One of the first recommendations the review team often made involved developing better relationships between the students, teachers, administrators, parents and the district. A resource that many teachers use is Wong & Wong’s work The First Days of School.  There are so many tips and tricks to build a relationship that will support student engagement and academic achievement throughout the year. A simple one, greeting a student by their name is easy, and critical for success.

I want to close with an experience I had as a teacher in Rural New York State. Brand new to the district of 200 students, and fresh out of college, I was assigned a senior economics section of class. One of my students, the youngest member of his family, and a basic training graduate, did not like school. He had come to school that year, ready to graduate, and to serve in the Army.  Early in October, a disagreement between this student and the principal arose, and the young man dropped out of school.  Needless to say, before NCLB, this was bad, but to his parents, it was the Worst. Thing.  Ever.  Later that week, I saw him in the only fast food place in town. I sat down at his table, and we talked for 5 minutes. When I left him, I asked for the school’s economics book back and I joked the district would make me pay for it if he didn’t return it. About two weeks later, he re-enrolled in school and graduated in June.  When I finally did get his book back, he wrote me a small note: “Mr J., Hey here is your book back. Thanks for asking for it. I came back to give it to you.”

If I had not asked for the book back, would this young man have come back to school?   I hate to think of the alternative.

Wong, H. K., & Wong, R. T. (1998). The first days of school. Mountain View, CA: Harry K.

Casey Jakubowski is a PhD student in Educational Administration at SUNY Albany. His research interest includes rural education, social studies education, and teacher mentoring.



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