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Building school climate: leveraging relationships and embracing alternatives to exclusionary discipline

As we celebrate educators throughout the month of May, we should shine a light on those who build positive school climates each day through their interactions with colleagues and the relationships they build with their students.

During my years of teaching, there is one student in particular who has challenged and inspired me, whom I’ll call Jane. As a sixth-grader, Jane was a strong young lady who wanted to pave her own path and didn’t appear to want adults guiding her along the way. Her independent spirit was something I admired, but it often got her in trouble. After taking my theater class, she showed an interest in the upcoming school musical. Despite her stubbornness, she surprised me with how well she took feedback. She brought passion to our practices and wanted to improve so that she could be the best actress. I harnessed her willingness for improvement as a way to initiate subtle conversations about her behavior. Slowly, as we built our relationship, her behavior improved.

Tara Lorence

Jane was in my homeroom the next year. Her attendance was spotty and she rarely came to class prepared. After multiple conversations, I learned that she was homeless. Her mom was struggling to find work and couldn’t provide a stable environment for her daughter. It now made sense to me why this child was so fiercely independent and why she didn’t rely on adults for anything, especially emotional support. Going forward I began addressing her behavior differently. Instead of punishing or excluding her from the lesson, I worked to redirect the small negative behaviors and encourage Jane’s positive behaviors. Over time, she began to say I was like a mother to her. This student needed a supportive adult and she found that in me. Even now she struggles with certain adult interactions, but I continue to encourage her for all she does well and challenge her when I know she can do better. All students have potential — the difficult, yet critically important, part is helping students realize that potential.

Jane has challenged me to think critically about my teaching practice and more broadly about how adults and students can improve school climate. As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, there is so much to appreciate in terms of who contributes to my school’s climate.

It starts with staff

Our positive school climate starts with staff. Our interactions exemplify for students how to positively interact with people of different backgrounds and experiences. When students sense discord between teachers, it affects how they think they should interact with their own peers. I’ve witnessed the way colleagues demonstrate trust and respect for each other and then see our students do the same.

We also create warm, inviting, and supportive classrooms, lunchrooms, offices, and hallways. The key is setting clear expectations with students and prioritizing connecting with them. Middle school can be rough. Taking the time to get to know each student makes a difference in how the student shows up in the classroom. This is why my colleagues and I have gone above and beyond to create positive school climate by attending or leading extracurriculars and celebrating achievements and birthdays in the classroom. We have started after-school clubs (with little or no compensation), given up lunchtime to work or mentor students, and connected with families through home visits and calls. Most important, we show our students we care, every single day.

Building relationships with students has also allowed educators at my school to empower students to lead in building school culture. Students are greatly influenced by each other. It’s important to give student leaders a platform from which to positively influence their classmates. Tapping into the leadership abilities of students, even those who might not yet think of themselves as leaders, is a proven way to keep them on track and even encourage them to mentor struggling students.

Restorative justice techniques

Another critical component of positive school climate is to embrace alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices; schools implementing restorative justice techniques have reduced suspensions 75 percent. The Legal Rights Center and Minneapolis Public Schools have used restorative conferencing and re-engagement planning to increase attendance, graduation rates, academic outcomes, and parent-school engagement among suspended students.

As state lawmakers continue to meet, I’d like them to appreciate teachers by helping schools like mine continue to build positive school climate. Legislators should require districts to provide training on restorative justice and trauma-informed responses. They should also make a meaningful investment in these strategies so educators have the time, training, and support staff to faithfully implement them.

As we celebrate educators throughout the month of May, we should shine a light on those who build positive school climates each day through their interactions with colleagues and the relationships they build with their students. And we should celebrate them by providing needed resources for alternatives to exclusionary discipline so educators are empowered to further improve their school's’ climate.

Tara Lorence is a fourth-year middle-school teacher in Columbia Heights.

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Comments (1)

The Power of Relationships

Thank you Tara for this informed post about the power of relationships in schools. As educators, we should continually look to design our schools around meaningful relationships with all students. What allows us to challenge our students to discover their strengths and find joy in learning is based on these deep relationships grounded in trust. Restorative justice and trauma-informed practices are excellent strategies to develop these relationships.