The Four R's: Relationships in Twenty-First-Century Schools | Edutopia
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The Four R's: Relationships in Twenty-First-Century Schools

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

What structures and systems does Envision Schools use to prepare students for success in college and their futures in the twenty-first century? We focus on four guiding principles, and the second concerns relationships and how we build them among students and educators. Read a previous post of mine that defines the principles and reflects on the first one, rigor.

Our schools are small, personalized learning environments. Class sizes are also small, and teams of teachers and peers provide students with academic and social guidance.

Remember the coach that spurred you on to athletic achievement that you never thought you could attain by yourself, or the teacher for whom you would do anything because he or she understood you so well? We believe schools need to be designed to intentionally create more of these experiences for kids -- school must be be a nurturing, caring, high-expectation place where students feel well known, well supported, and well connected to their peers as a community of learners.

We employ the following structures and strategies to achieve this goal:

  • Our multigrade, interdisciplinary teams of teachers have planning time together.
  • We have an academic advisory program for students.
  • We hold biannual student- and parent-advisory conferences.
  • We hold community meetings.
  • Academic and emotional-support programs are a part of our Response to Intervention Program.

Teams of core subject-area teachers, including instructors in art and digital media, share the same group of students for two years. In the lower house -- grades 9-10 -- the classes are blended. In the upper house -- grades 11-12 -- the team of teachers loop with the same students through a Junior and Senior Institute.

By teaching the same students for two years, teachers get the opportunity to know their students well. This approach is especially helpful in jumping off to a fast start in the second year. The teachers also have common planning time, which they use to plan projects, coordinate their curriculum, look at student work together, and discuss the learning and engagement of individual students. (A teacher leader plans and facilitates this effort.) Teachers can then collectively target students for more support within the classroom and possibly plan for other interventions outside of the classroom experience (such as tutoring or counseling).

In addition, the teacher team helps students build their own learning-community teams, each of which has a name. For instance, one school has four teams: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The students take courses, work on projects, go on field studies, visit colleges, and solve problems together. Many of the students describe their school friends and teachers as family. One student explained to me, "It is not as if we always get along. We are like a family. We might have disagreements, but we know that we will always be there for one another."

We believe that being in a safe learning community, where students are known and supported as learners and people, allows students to reach for and achieve more academically rigorous learning. Students will strive for excellence because they do not want to let down their teachers or peers. It is a cultural shift.

Having students feel supported is a good outcome, but we don't think it is enough. If we don't use these strategies and structures to increase student learning, we have just made kids feel better without preparing them for the twenty-first century.

In my next blog entry, I'll provide more on building relationships through the academic advisory program, but please share your thoughts about this post.


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Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a novice teacher currently learning in my master's course about the importance of establishing meaningful student and family relationships. Pressures of teaching the curriculum at the district's mandated pace have made me feel like I had minimal time for building positive relationships with my students. However, I'm learning just how important the relationship piece is to the whole scope of teaching. Creating a rapport of trust, support, and acceptance with each of my students will positively influence their success. To foster positive relationships, my principal set aside the first 20 minutes of each school day for "morning meetings" in each classroom. This daily ritual has helped to develop a warm sense of community and opened opportunities for me to learn more about my students. I've also found lunch, recess, and the morning arrival as valuable times for developing student relationships. My school also has teachers loop between grade levels so that they retain the same students for two years. Most of the teachers at my school have discovered that this practice is powerful for building relationships and meeting students' individual needs.

Kelly Hampton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The concept of having relationships as a focus in school settings is one that I am afraid, in this day and age of increased emphasis on test scores, we are losing in many of our public schools across the country. Which brings me to the question, "Are we really teaching our students or has our system of education become a system of regurgitation?" I have long maintained, and am thrilled by your post to see that you obviously feel the same, Bob, that learning can not take place unless there is vulnerability, and there can be no vulnerablity without trust. Students will never trust their teachers unless we take time to build relationships with them. Our job as educators is to achieve Results by making the Rigor Relevant, which is impossible without Relationships. The concepts presented in this post almost seem like a dream environment, although I agree completely with the other response that discusses how relationship building needs to begin at a much earlier age.

In the state of Michigan, many high schools are going to the trimester concept to accommodate for the new graduation requirements. This has been a tragic change for those teacher-student relationships that are so critical to learning. There is simply no time.

As a special education teacher, I have the benefit of working with my students for sometimes their entire high school careers. My general ed collegues, though, often only see students for 12 weeks, and then no more. It is virtually impossible to build any kind of quality relationship with students when you have them for 12 weeks.

I also believe that the same applies to administrators, as I have long considered the teacher-student relationship to correlate directly to the administrator-teacher relationship. I believe that when administration takes the time to actually foster and build relationships with the staff in his or her school, that the work environment is a much happier place. Happier teachers make happier students and the results across the board are better!

Chris Goode's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also agree that building a strong personal relationship with students is key in gaining their respect and trust. Once you've gained their respect and trust the teaching aspect is a little easier. When students know that you you care about them as people they are more likely to cooperate and be more accepting of the tasks and work you ask of them.

Chris Goode's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree that building a personal relationship with a student is a key factor for you to be a successful teacher and them being a successful learner. By building personal relationships with our students we gain their trust and respect. If your students know that you care about them as people they wil be more open to the tasks and work you ask of them. I teach middle school students at an alternative school and have found that getting through to students is much easier when you know them better and let them knou you better.

Colleen Strenge's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an elementary math support teacher and I work with kids up to four years in a row. It's not always easy when you have that challenging behavior problem, but I've noticed that when I don't give up on trying to form a positive relationship with them, they usually turn around. I have had the opportunity to witness their social and academic growth and tell them and others that they have shown growth over the years. Sometimes kids just need a positive relationship with someone over the long term to want to stay in school and keep trying. I'm all for looping, or giving kids the opportunity to have a realtionship with a teacher over the years. I've seen the positive impact it can have on kids, especially the ones that may be the hardest to get along with at first.

Dana V's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Bob, Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. It makes me view looping in a more positive way.

Chris, I am in complete agreement with you. During my student teaching in an 8th grade math class it was hard to just walk in and tell them what to do. After I had been with them for about 2 weeks I was able to build a relationship with them. With that relationship there came multitudes of mutual respect. Positive relationships are one of the most important things we can do to better our class and to provide a safe learning environment. This past year I taught fifth grade and the relationships were a huge part of how my class was run. Students felt comfortable to answer questions, talk with me about hard topics, and share with me their fears of moving onto middle school.

Again, thank you for this article, response, and posting it to your blog.

Patricia Tomlinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed your blog. As a K-8 teacher,I was lucky to have taught looping classes all througout the 1990s and found them to be much more successful than one year classes simply because of the community of learners that was built. My classes actually contained two or more grade levels depending on the year. The year I had three grade levels my third graders had been with me for three years. Later, when I went up to the middle school some of those same students joined me in a 7th/8th grade self-contained class. That was quite an experience to have students I taught to read as well as speak English as first graders now be part of my class again. I would love to have the opportunity to participate in looping classes again. The model that you have described for your high school sounds so supportive of students.


Charlie from Georgia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have prided myself at being an "open book" sort of teacher. What you see is what you get. My students know what my philosophies are, my hobbies, my passions (sports, music, etc.), my experiences as a kid, you name it. Of course I leave out inappropriate or personal information, but for the most part my kids really know who I am and what I am all about. I also make it a point to know as much as I can about my kids. It doesn't take very long for the majority of my students to have nicknames. What does this all mean? They respond to me, they want to participate, work, question, and interact in class. I get more comments during the year (as well as at the end of the year) about how much a certain child loved coming to school because of my class. You can't measure that with test results, but you can bet that child has been positively impacted in an educational sense.

john grace's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I see where you are coming from about schools being nurturing and providing a more comfortable environment for students. All it needs is for people to keep thinking outside of the box more. Educators today have to be concerned with environment and quality of life,not just test scores. Your model for your students will really work. It's awesome.

Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your article struck a chord with me. I just finished teaching a straight sixth grade class after back-to-back split classes. I had multiple students for two years in a row. There is nothing like following and being instrumental in your students' progress for multiple years. This process allows you to develop the type of close, supportive, nurturing relationship necessary to educate the youth. This type of relationship is not easily developed in a short period of time. I feel a sense of loss for the coming school year as all of the students I had for multiple years have graduated and are off to the junior high.

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