George Lucas Educational Foundation

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Nashville Big Picture High School

Grades 9-12 | Nashville, TN

Advisory: 22 Ways to Build Relationships for Educational Success

Nashville Big Picture High School shares many ways to build intentional relationships with students -- strategies that can work at schools of any size.
Related Tags: Advisory, 9-12 High School
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Advisory: 22 Ways to Build Relationships for Educational Success (Transcript)

Derick: When you look at the whole big picture as one big thing, it's gonna be like, it looks super scary, but you take it like piece-by-piece, you can get through it.

Derick: Having the same advisor for four years, they get a relationship with someone that's not just a teacher, a real person. Being able to be an important part of their lives. And you can see the maturity level that they take, and you see them change. You see the growth in them.

Derick: It's stressful, lot of stuff going on, it happens. But you got it girl! You got it! You're smart!

Gary: Advisory is a small group of students, fifteen typically with an advisor. They stay with that advisor for four years. The advisor speaks a lot on the behalf of the student to community members or internships. The advisor is in constant communication with the parents. Anything that happens with that student, it's like it happens with you.

Alex: I'm doing poetry, songwriting, a short story. That's another thing that I'm pretty iffy about when it comes to these things.

Gary: So in that, just think about what gives you the best case scenario to be successful.

Alex: Advisory gives a chance to work on all of our schoolwork from the day. And our advisor, he will sit down with us and actually take the time to work one-on-one with us and make sure that we have what we need.

Laura: The most important thing in ninth grade advisory from day one is setting what the culture will be like. Teaching them how to manage their time, their projects, due dates, syllabuses. Reflecting, journaling, we do that every day. That happens at the very beginning. So whatever I'm doing that I want them to kind of take with them all four years, it's something I model every day.

Laura: Don't forget your reflections due Friday.

Student: Yeah, Mr. Brown was just talking about that today.

Laura: He talked about that today? Good.

Chae: Because of the relationships that you build within the advisory, people feel comfortable saying, "Hey, this is what you've done well in. And these are some things that you should work on, because they will help you be better." When a student can relate and they know that you care, that makes a big difference.

Laura: Just make sure you do the tracking for these two weeks.

Dexter: Okay.

Laura: And if it were me, I might pick somebody in here who will hold you accountable, and make sure that they check in with you every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Dexter: Okay.

Dexter: Advisory's important, because you could have people that will always help you. People that'll always support you. But if you fail, then they'll be there to pick up the pieces, and help me.

Laura: Advisory is so fundamental because as they move forward they see it as a family, they see it as people they can trust.

Gary: Everything good?

Zetty: Yeah, everything's fine.

Gary: Okay, mom's good?

Zetty: Mm hm.

Gary: Has anybody called home and said, "Zetty is killing it. Zetty is doing so much better?" No. Okay, I need to do that.

Gary: We have a very open and honest relationship. And really, there's nothing off limits, and I like to take that approach, because I know at the end of the day that I know the real student.

Gary: Okay, y'all, let's get it started. Let's get it jumping.

Gary: Every first Friday, we pick a menu, and every person has a responsibility. They bring in their food, and we eat together, and we hang together, and we laugh together.

Gary: Robert, the lasagna's good!

Robert: Thank you!

Gary: Did your mom make it?

Robert: I made it.

Gary: What?!

Gary: That's just my way of bringing them all back to this space, and refocusing our energy and hitting home the idea that we're a unit, and we're moving forward.

Robert: We've grown so close from freshman year. And whenever we have a personal issue, or school-related issue, we talk together as a class, and we try to help each other out all the time.

Gary: Make sure that you look at your exhibition date and time and put that in your phone and tell your parents about it.

Damon: He has given me the foundation to go out on my own and be able to succeed in everyday life. He's given me tools and wisdom that nobody else has given me.

Derick: You don't really realize the impact you have on students until you really spend a lot of time with them, you know, and you see the growth in them.

Gary: And what about, how do you feel?

Zetty: I'm happier that my grades are better.

Gary: Okay.

Gary: I have this fulfillment at the end of the line, and you see this finished work, you understand the growth that was achieved, and they understand that, and that's what makes the journey worth doing.

Gary: You feel like you've got it now?

Alex: Yes! I think.

Gary: Excellent!

Alex: Really? [laughter]

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A shy and quiet ninth-grade student, Harley didn't want to make friends when he entered Nashville Big Picture High School. He didn't think he could. "Freshman year, I didn't think I could really do anything," remembers Harley, now a Nashville Big Picture alumnus and a rising college freshman. "Now, I believe in myself."

On the first day of school, everything changed for Harley in his ninth-grade advisory when he met Michael, today one of his best friends. "He helped me to expand myself, talk more, and become friends with more people. I can now easily go up to somebody, shake their hand, and start a full-on conversation with them out of thin air," notes Harley. His confidence shows in his senior capstone project, a 20-minute documentary honoring his graduating class. "I interviewed every student, every teacher, and most of the staff that we have ever interacted with," recounts Harley. He also interviewed his peers about student voice and choice for Edutopia.

Relationships are the hub of advisory. Students stay with the same peer group of about 15 students -- as well as the same advisor -- throughout all four years. "Advisory gave me a place in school that I looked forward to," recalls Harley. "In middle school, I would dread every day having to be with those kids again, but at Big Picture, I looked forward to seeing not only the group of people I considered friends, but the group I considered family."

Students at Nashville Big Picture attend advisory Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (their on-campus days) for 15 minutes in the morning before classes and two hours at the end of the day. (They're off-site at internships on Tuesday and Thursday.) During advisory, they have individualized learning time where they work on projects and assignments for their classes; ten-minute one-on-one meetings with their advisor weekly (the frequency and time can change depending on their students' needs); and relationship-building activities, like family meals, problem-solving discussions, and games of Uno. 

Nashville Big Picture has a 95 percent attendance rate and a 98 percent graduation rate. "They want to be here because they feel welcomed," says Chaerea Snorten, Nashville Big Picture's principal. "They feel like they matter. They feel loved and appreciated."

If you want to create a culture where your students feel supported, appreciated, and safe to open up to you, here's how you can adapt Big Picture's philosophy of building intentional relationships, both inside and outside of advisory.

How It's Done

22 Ways to Build Intentional Relationships With Your Students, Even If You're at a Big School

If you can't fit advisory into the master schedule, you can implement a lot of what Big Picture does during homeroom, in your classroom, or during lunch and break periods. At the heart of advisory is building intentional relationships with your students. Here are 22 ways to do that.

1. Know your students' names, suggests Snorten. When you use someone's name, you're recognizing their identity. It's simple, but it helps your students know that they're being seen.

2. Recognize something that your students like. "Even something as simple as, 'I know your favorite color is green,'" recommends Snorten. "Or, 'I know your favorite football team is the Washington Redskins' -- anything like that. It's a talking point."

3. Notice something about your students. "'Hey, I love your blouse. It's really pretty.' That extends itself for a conversation," explains Snorten.

4. Ask your students about their experience in after-school activities. You can say something like, "’Hey, I know that you were able to go speak in front of the mayor. Tell me what that experience was like for you,’" suggests Snorten. “Or, 'You all had a softball game the other day. I understand it was pretty tough. Share some fun things about it.' These kinds of conversations are quick, and they don't take hours and hours to build."

5. If a student is late (or acting up), check in with them. "Instead of saying, 'Go to class,'" suggests Courtney Ivy Davis, Nashville Big Picture's school counselor and internship coordinator, "start a conversation, and say something like, 'Hey, I've seen that you've been late for the past couple days. What's going on? Do you need some help with anything?'"

6. When you're having conflict with a student, use that as an opportunity. As a teacher, you’re positioned to help students problem solve and work out their issues. The language that you use in these situations is key, and Snorten advises asking the following questions:

  • What happened with this situation?
  • Was there something that you could have done differently? What would the outcome have been?
  • What are resources that you can use to help you work through issues or concerns that you have?

Related Resource: 13 Common Sayings to Avoid

7. Have your students address you by your first name, offers Snorten. This helps humanize you to your students. You're not just their teacher or principal, but you become Miss Courtney or Mr. Gary who has two cats and loves to freestyle rap.

8. Know that it takes time to build relationships. Whether the role of advisor is new to you, or your advisory group just graduated and you'll be starting over with freshmen again next year, remember that building relationships takes time. "It takes time to get through your students' walls," says Derick Richardson, a math teacher and advisor. "I have an awesome young lady in my advisory. It took a few years for her not to blow up on me whenever we had conversations revolving around conflict. Now I know how to present things to her so she can receive it."

9. Be open, honest, and vulnerable with your students. "There's nothing off limits," says Gary Hook, a Big Picture history teacher and advisor. "I'm honest with them, I'll say, 'Hey, I had an argument with my wife this morning. I'm sorry if I'm in a bad mood. We're going to get through it.' I'll say that, and it disarms them, and they may say, 'I had an argument with my mom this morning, and I'm feeling …' I like to take that approach because, at the end of the day, I know the real student versus a false personality. We get in touch with the human side of one another."

10. Bring your personality into your advisory. If you walk into four advisories at Big Picture, you'll notice that each one is different, and each one reflects the advisor’s personality. In Hook's advisory, for example, they'll sometimes have freestyle Fridays. He has been a fan of hip-hop since he was ten, and now he uses hip-hop as an avenue to connect with and engage his students; they challenge him to freestyle rap battles. "I'm pretty much undefeated," he says. Another Big Picture advisor ends each advisory with a game of UNO, which has become an ongoing tournament.

11. Help your students learn that not knowing the answer is OK. "The number one thing that students think about is not wanting to appear as if they don't know something," says Laura Davis, a history teacher and advisor. "That's a big hurdle to get over, getting them comfortable with asking for help."

12. Guide your students to become resources for each other. "They learn who is good at computers, who is good at art, who's good at organizing, and who is good to practice their presentations with,” says Davis, “and that is a life skill." Help your students recognize their strengths -- as well as the strengths of their classmates -- so that they can support each other and know who they can reach out to for help.

13. Make sure you take care of yourself. Staying balanced is necessary, says Hook. As a teacher, you’re always thinking about your students. The same is true for being an advisor, and maybe even more so. When considering your students' needs, don't forget your own in the process. If you're burnt out, you won't be able to be fully present for your kids.

14. Create advisory expectations with your students on day one. "The most important thing in ninth grade advisory, from day one," emphasizes Davis, "is setting what the culture of the room will be like. What are the expectations for the students and for the adult?" Have your students create the classroom norms, but allow yourself veto power. Be clear on each expectation and what that looks like. If be respectful is an expectation, what would being respectful look like?

15. "Whatever happens in advisory stays in advisory," stresses Davis. It's important to include confidentiality in the advisory expectations so that your students are comfortable sharing their feelings, struggles, and successes in a safe space.

16. Focus on teaching your students skills with long-term benefits. "Teaching them how to manage their time, their projects, due dates, syllabuses, and multiple apparatuses of online tools -- that's extremely key," says Davis. "Reflecting, journaling, we do that every day. That happens at the very beginning. I want them to take these skills with them all four years. These are things I model every day."

17. Check in with each student for ten minutes. If you have an advisory or homeroom, use some of that time to check in with your students one-on-one. "We talk about school, internships, life, and things they want to let me know," explains Davis. "If you're in a school with 500 students," adds Hook, "and you don't have the ability to connect with a small group, start having conversations about how to do that. Could it work if you add 15 minutes to your day, or if you take ten minutes away from your lunch?"

18. Do something fun. "If you have a homeroom of 36 kids, what could you do tomorrow to build relationships?" asks Davis. "Do something fun to get your students to start slowly breaking down their walls."

19. Let your students do walk-and-talks when they're having a hard day. When Davis' students are having a difficult day, she lets them leave class momentarily to walk with her (while someone covers her class) or with a peer so that they can share what's on their mind. "I think that's really important for kids to know that they have a supportive group of peers -- and an adult -- that will listen," says Davis.

20. Use family meetings to resolve conflicts. If there’s an issue, "we gather in a Quaker Circle and talk about what has happened and where we move from here," explains Davis. "It prevents the 'he said, she said,' dialogue. Anyone can call a family meeting. I can, or the students can."

21. Host family meals. "Every first Friday, we pick a menu, and every person has a responsibility," explains Hook. "They bring in their food, and we eat, hang, and laugh together. That's just my way of bringing them all back to this space, refocusing our energy, and hitting home the idea that we're a unit, and we're moving forward." Family meals initiated from a holiday brunch. Hook's students loved coming together to cook for each other, and they came up with the idea to have a family meal to celebrate all of the birthdays for each month. Hook begins each family meal with a lesson or philosophical question, like discussing what is wealth, or what traditions the modern American family no longer follows and what's the impact of that. "Sometimes they entertain my questions, and they want to talk about it," says Hook, "and other times, they're just like, 'Oh, gosh, here he goes again.'"

22. Reflect on your practice. At the beginning of each school year, as well as bi-monthly with their professional learning community, Nashville Big Picture's staff looks at how they can improve what they're doing. "We don't just sit in one place," says Ivy Davis, "and say, 'Hey, this works,' and leave it that way. No, we're always looking at, 'Is this still working? Do we need to keep it? How can we enhance this?'"

Building relationships is one of the most critical elements at Big Picture, says Snorten. "That's key because it's the catalyst. When a student can relate to you, and they know you care, that makes a big difference." Nashville Big Picture has cultivated a relationship-focused culture, and advisory allows them to deepen those relationships.

Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

joannamoneyhon's picture

I received my bachelor's degree in counseling. My title now is Home bound Instructor. I now have a masters in special education. Know your students' names: I have learned that it is very important that I remember names. I need to know how to help my student who is no longer allowed on the school grounds because of his or her behavior. That's where I come in. My school system pays me to teach these student. I commend your school's culture of prevention. I thing about introducing you advisory to my school system, but I don;t want my feeling hurt, because after all, I am only a home bound instructor.

wittyg's picture

Hello. I really enjoyed reading your article. I agree that the tips given are very important aspects to know when working in any learning environment. Student trust plays a tremendous role in how well students learn and how much effort they will put in towards work. Wonderful advice and tips for any educator.

Yanglish's picture

I truly enjoyed reading your article. Thanks for nice collection of ways to build relationships with students.

Taranpreet Kaur's picture

Great article. Really good tips for the teachers like me who will be restarting their career after a break.

Thanks again.

Brian Kissman's picture
Brian Kissman
Brian Kissman is passionate about innovative best practice for all things literacy and learning.

When I work with teachers, I encourage them to think about a critical triangle for their professional growth - Content, Methods, and Rapport. Obviously, building relationships is key to the power of rapport and the social and emotional grown of students, which research tells us are key factors to a student's academic achievement. What do you think about the following Traits of Conversation to support Rapport and the growth of relationships:

1. Be Respectful
Appreciate others' thinking. Encourage others to participate in the conversation.
Take the conversation seriously. Disagree politely.

2. Be Prepared
Focus on the topic, activate background knowledge, and make connections.
Prepare for conversations about shared reading by generating questions, making
notes, and marking passages. Participate and contribute to the conversation.

3. Be An Active Listener
Look at the person speaking. Ask questions based upon what others have said.
Build upon and add to what others have to say.

4. Be Clear
Speak clearly so that others understand. Speak in complete sentences.
Express thoughts precisely and with details. Support thinking with evidence.

5. Inquire and Probe
Ask multiple, open-ended questions. Investigate, examine, scrutinize, and analyze
others' thoughts and ideas.

6. Show Comprehension
Exercise cognitive processes, meta-cognition, and comprehension through the
elements of literature in order to demonstrate understanding.

7. Check Understanding
Examine thinking. Listen to the inner conversation. Reflect upon and communicate
how thoughts have changed. Share with others when understanding breaks down.

8. Control Self
Take turns and give others the opportunity to speak. Monitor contributions to the
conversation in terms of how often and how much. Listen without interrupting.
Use wait time. Pay attention to volume and tone.

Cagri Kanver's picture
Cagri Kanver
Real estate advisory services

I see the list also focusing on building connection with families. That is the biggest part ignored nowadays

Gregory Jensen's picture

Great resource! Thanks for this article and video this will help me with relationships with students in the future.

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