Climbing the Ladder

We all want to feel cared for and valued by the significant people in our lives. As teachers, that means not only building professional relationships with the other adults in the school, but most importantly with the students with whom we have the opportunity to serve. As classroom teachers, we hold a great deal of influence over our students simply due to the fact that we work with them up to six and a half hours each day, five days a week. For many traditionally disenfranchised students, teachers hold sway over their life trajectory, influencing the access and achievement in school.

In classrooms across the U.S., the school year began full of optimism and expectation. Teachers and students both (not to mention families) carried hopes and expectations for a fresh start, another year in which students would learn and achieve at the highest levels. Savvy teachers worked hard to create classrooms where students would have the opportunities to learn from one another’s varied experiences and perspectives. Many classrooms have created spaces where teachers have shown they value students’ lives and identities in a variety of ways.

So, by now, teachers have the foundational elements of strong relationships with their students in place. They likely know a bit about what their students’ interests are, what they do on weekends, where they fall in the sibling order of their families or how they feel about being an only child. These are all important starting points to building the life-altering relationships that will drive their students’ achievement upward this year. But now what? Where do they go next?

The process of building relationships with students lives metaphorically on a ladder. The foundational elements described above are the bottom rung. From that bottom rung, savvy teachers move to building trust and rapport with their students to creating partnerships with their students to tackle specific learning challenges to, ultimately, building a classroom with a sense of community and connection that is supportive to all learners.

Let’s unpack a few activities that savvy teachers employ at each of these rungs:

Building trust and rapport. Savvy teachers …

  • Listen to a student authentically and ask questions for exploration
  • Are vulnerable – share a challenge they had as a learner, or new skills they’re learning and how they’re managing the difficulty

Creating partnerships to tackle specific learning challenges. Savvy teachers …

  • Determine, with their students, what barriers there are to meeting a particular academic benchmark
  • Set small, achievable academic goals with their student to reach that benchmark, with actions for them to take and actions for the student to take
  • Believe the student can reach the goal, and articulate that repeatedly along with how the student will have to reach beyond past performance to do so
  • Write it down so there is an ongoing record of what is occurring in the partnership

Building a classroom with a sense of community and connection that is supportive to all learners. Savvy teachers …

  • Frame classroom activities around an asset-based growth mindset. For example, effective teachers may have students write and continually update a narrative about their identity as learners (a counter-narrative if they’re struggling students)
  • Integrate whole-class centering activities that create space for students to share their cultural assets. For example, a class may participate in reading poetry about achievement and then responding, or will work to establish rituals for academic talk and social talk in the classroom

We both work with educators across the country, and it’s hard to find a teacher who wouldn’t want a strong, positive classroom culture that supports the learning needs of all students. Some teachers are at the beginning of their career and they’re pulling every tool out of their toolkit to reach their students. Others are veterans whose tried and true methods have gotten through the years. Regardless of the amount of experience, every teacher can take a look through the strategies we’ve outlined and see what they can do to push themselves from foundational relationships to a classroom culture that helps students grow and achieve.

By Michael Prada, Chief Program Officer and Nataki Gregory, Associate and Partnership Manager, Charlotte

Click here to read Michael’s post on our blog about the difference between nurturing and showing care to students.

Click here to read Nataki’s article on Project L.I.F.T.’s blog about how Project LIFT’s professional development and CT3’s programs benefit the educators and students of Charlotte, NC!

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