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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
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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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Karianne Patton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Although I am a first year teacher, and an elementary one at that, I can't agree with you more on this. I think it is so important to create a community of learners among our students, faculty, and parents. It is working together that will provide us with the greatest outcomes. When you said that schools must be a "nurting, caring, high-expectation place", it really caught my attention. I just recently started my master's program, and these things have been stressed over and over again. Coming to school for students is not just about learning their ABC's and 123's anymore. It is about learning who they are, and who they want to become in the world. It is our duty as educators to foster those feelings and to bring our students to their greatest potential. With our care, collaboration, and sense of community, we can provide our students with the most inviting environment and atmosphere to bring about their successes in all areas of life.

Lindsay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Bob: I think your envision schools sound wonderful. I teach in a public school and am wondering if you had any advise on how I could implement some of the things you do in the envision school into my normal public school classroom.


Mike Farrell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I recently have been taking on-line courses, and this subject of building "Relationships" with students is being discussed now. I read a Chapter in "On Being a Teacher" (Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler 2005) that discusses how important it is to build a good relationship with your students. It talks of getting to know them more on a personal level, and finding ways to let them know you really care-- something as simple as your body language, and truly giving the student your full attention when talking with them really can open the door to students understanding and knowing that you as a teacher are an advocate for them. This in turn opens the door to their trust, and then into them being a stronger "learner".

Lindsay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If only we could keep the students we work so hard at building relationships with longer then one year. (some even just a semester)


Megan Lavenduski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This topic is an important and often neglected one. So many times teachers are wrapped up in the teaching of the mandated curriculum to prepare for state assessments that we don't take the time to foster these relationships with our students. Time after time we see failure as grades on a test rather than the social alienation that is occurring in our schools. We wonder why they fail, but don't take the time to find out through realistically communicating with our colleagues, students and their families. I teach in an urban area where the classes are oversized and far from personal. I think your structures and strategies are wonderful. Collaborating with your peers and community set a strong foundation for student success. We need to focus on the root of academic problems which is often a child's need to feel worthy of our love and attention. We also have to foster these relationships in a way that don't place us as an authority figure telling our students how to solve problems, but as a facilitator who is there to guide them to find a solution themselves. We can start this by practicing active listening in our classrooms and building strong, positive relationships with our students by getting to know each one on an extremely personal basis.

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