Fostering Caring Relationships: A Must for School Safety Reform

School safety has once again become a hot news topic. Students, teachers and parents are mobilizing to make their collective voice heard. We need change! Lets’ grow our voice!

This blog entry is not about gun policy (which is significant and in need of change).  Instead, it is about relationships between students and teachers. School relationships is a topic near and dear to me as it was the focus of my graduate work. I fully admit my bias: I view people’s experiences with and within schools through the lens of relationships. I wholeheartedly believe (and the research that I’ve done highlights this) that teaching and learning happen within the context of relationships. While most people will agree with this, it certainly is taken for granted that high quality relationships occur in school. Just because teachers and students are in a classroom together does not insure that high quality relationships are being developed. It is time to begin prioritizing how to support high quality relationships in schools.

What is a high quality relationship?

From my qualitative research study, educators believed that relationships can and should inform instruction and they most certainly affect students’ learning. Therefore, fostering caring relationships with students was believed to be the underpinning for a meaningful learning experience. While academic achievement is one of the pillars of our education system, I argue that we must continue to focus on the whole child. We must not separate the heart from the mind.

How can a teacher foster a caring relationship with students?

The research participants’ responses uncovered the following three relational behaviors as ways to foster caring relationships with students.

  1. Establishing relationship boundaries
  2. Knowing students a people and as learners
  3. Building a dependable and safe learning environment

Establishing relationship boundaries is a deliberate act on the part of teachers to establish their role as caring. This requires transparency in their intention to establish this role through words and actions and, most importantly, taking into account the students’ boundaries. In other words, teachers need to consider how students perceive them (or teachers in general) by eliciting information from them. Simply ask students: What can I, as your teacher, do to show you that I care about your success?

When students are given the opportunity to express their views and experiences with teachers and school, we send the message that their voices are important, that they are respected. They are viewed and treated as active participants in their school experience. We also collect invaluable information to support how we might engage each student in a caring relationship.

Knowing students as people and as learners is another deliberate act on the part of teachers to become more receptive to students. This is critical to creating conditions that respect and nurture each student. One participant shared, “You get to know kids like you get to know your own children…It just seems to me that that’s your business to find out.” One way to get to know students as people is to be more attentive to behavior changes, to read students so to become more receptive to their needs.

It is easy to get caught up in the pressures of deadlines and learning tasks. I wish for administration to encourage teachers to pause daily and take notice of students’ well-being, and to provide the time within the school day for teachers to address any concerns. An immediate, simple task a teacher can try is taking a mindful moment before beginning the lesson. Try to pause and take a breath to focus one’s attention; while breathing out, scan the room to take note of students’ body language. What stands out? Is someone absent again? Is someone sleeping, agitated, melancholy, overly exuberant? Ask: What is going on with each of my students today?

Building a safe and dependable learning environment begins with teachers showing up every day. Students learn to trust that their teachers will be there in school and support them. When partaking in their mindful moment, teachers can ask: How am I going to respond to show I care?

The way in which teachers respond or do not respond sends messages to students about whether the classroom is a safe place to take risks, to trust themselves, and to be a friend to their classmates. Teachers deliberate effort to build a safe and dependable learning environment requires them to establish relationship boundaries and know their students as people and as learners. It also requires them to build a community of co-learners (teacher-students and students-students). One of the easiest and most effective ways to do this is modeling caring behavior. How did I model kindness and care for my students today?

How to support teachers’ caring relationships with students?

Being deliberate in connecting with students is a psychological and emotional commitment, one that can trigger teachers’ vulnerability. No one wants to fail or be rejected. Promoting high quality or caring relationships in schools cannot fall solely on the teacher. The teacher is a whole person too! Administration must prioritize the well-being of teachers, so that teachers can support the well-being of their students. Providing teachers with time and support to practice mindfulness and compassion cultivation can support their skills in the three relational behaviors. Providing teachers with time and a safe environment to share their experiences with colleagues around these three relational behaviors can nurture a caring professional community.

I urge our school leaders, teachers, students and parents to access their courage to promote deeper connections in schools. Over time the benefits will be a more caring and compassionate community, one where people are growing both their hearts and minds. Let this be our future.



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