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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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Jason Young's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work in a small High School with a population of 800 students. We have an advisor period much like Megan's. We've changed it a little by introducing what we call a freshman academy. The academy introduces incoming freshman into the mainstream high school life. As a freshman they have what we call an introductory advisor that will help them get acclimated to their environment. As a sophomore they will have an advisor that will stay with them for the rest of their high school carrier.

We meet daily and at least once a week we discuss issues of the school. We've done this for years and I love it. Yet... Next year our new principle is changing the schedule due to a new Tennessee state law that requires students to get 90 minutes of physical exercise per week. This law I'm afraid will destroy our sense of community we've worked so hard to create.


Sean Brooks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If a program like this is going to exist, it must start at an earlier age. Waiting until high school to teach students about forming relationships in a positive way is too late for most. By this time they have their own definition of what a relationship is and most times it involves physicality. First we must teach them the definition of good vs. bad relationships. Some professional relationships are not positive and can only cause more issues and an unwillingness to learn down the line. While teaching them the true meanings, we can establish a solid foundation for future learning in these relationships, along with teaching them the importance of professional relationships for advice, mentoring, etc.

Theresa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that teachers need to build good relationships with their students. I teach in a high school that is currently under a trimester system. In the trimester system, every 12 weeks you change students. This can be very frustrating unless you have the students for more than one 12-week course. I have taught under a semester system and miss the connections that you can make with the students that you have for an entire school year.

Courtney Lilla's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I strongly believe in group work and I have my students participate in it often. I have found if I have them evaluate each other anonymously, I get an idea of who participated and who did not and it helps the students who may be frustrated to express themselves. You make a great point by sating in the real world it is almost impossible to work alone. There always needs to be some sort of collaboration.
Courtney Lilla
Burlington High School

Lila's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that having a student for more than one year is beneficial. Being a new teacher, I have not experienced this yet, but I can see the pros. The teacher has a chance to build a strong relationship with the child and truly get to know him or her. The teacher can then make sure that lessons include students' interests and learning styles. Hopefully children would feel comfortable and trusting of a teacher after a year. The teacher would know the student's strengths and weaknesses, and interventions that worked. Knowing families and background information would also be helpful. I can also see cons to having a student for more than one year. If a student and teacher did not have a good relationship, then they would dread another year with one another. The teacher may also have preconceived notions about the student.

I also think that collaborating with colleagues and other professionals is very important. My school does not offer much time for teacher collaboration, but I still try to work it into my schedule. Exchanging ideas and information has really helped me to increase student achievement. Talking with my colleagues also allows me to receive support and encouragement. They remind me that everyone has good and bad days, and they help me get through the rough times.

Lindsay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We have a similar thing to your advisory called PODS. We also stay with the same group of kids for 4 years but we only see these kids for 30 minutes every other week. It's hard to get to know them when you only see them a couple times a month (if they show up).

Bridgette Ryans's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I had an opportunity to loop after my first 5 year of teaching. I taught my students first as 5th graders then as 6th graders. It was amazing to say the least. I knew my kids they knew me. They knew what I expected, required and demanded. I saw fantastic results with my students in regards to their academic growth. these were the best two of the best years I had in the classroom.


Jere's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that looping with teachers is a great idea. My niece liked it when she was in 1st and 2nd grade, and i think it would be great for all levels students in Special Education.I teach in a 7th grade Special Education Behavioral, Emotional, Learning Disorder Self-Contained classroom. I have my students for one year and then they move to a new teacher. The school I teach in goes from 6th -8th grade. I think that it would be great for my students to loop, because like you said they do not have to get to know a new teacher again. Students that are in Special Education already loose enough with out having to get to know a new teacher. By the end of this past year my students know what I expected of them, so they were finally confident in themselves enough to actually produce what they were really capable of producing.

About your comments on advisory. Right now I currently HATE advisory at my school. There is no real direction on what is suppose to be done in advisory, so it is kinda a fee for all, and when you attempt to do something productive, the students either do not participate or they think it is a joke, because there is no grade for it. Do you have any ideas of things that can be done in advisory that the students will like, I will like, and will actually benefit my students in the long run?

Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am looking at this from an elementary view point, but I feel that many of the principles still apply. My school does not loop at this time, but I feel that it would be highly effective for students as well as teachers. In the primary grades, the bond between teacher and student is so important. Not only is it helpful as far as knowing individual students on a personal level, but it also sets the stage for the rest of the academic career. I believe that a solid relationship between student and teacher in the primary grades may possibly influence the rest of the relationships students have with their teachers. I also feel that the looping process helps teachers to have a better understanding of how the curriculum flows. Teachers know where students are coming from, and where they need to go. I do see how the problem of having a child with behavior issues two years in a row could affect a teacher's motivation, but children (especially in the primary grades) are growing and maturing at such a fast pace, that one year's problem could be another year's reward.

Amanda Mayo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm currently reading 'On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension' by Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler and it talks quite in depth on building relationships with students and how important it is. As a second-year teacher I hadn't quite thought about what all it takes to build an effective relationship with a student. From reading this blog I can see that there are several benefits, both to the teacher and the student. Also, it sounds like the teams of teachers would be able to build solid relationships with each other and thus have a good base for advice and help.

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