Culture of Caring: 3 Ways to Put Relationship First

When teachers intentionally set about creating a culture of caring, the more successful we will be.

By Amber Chandler

This morning my son learned to tie his shoes. You could hear our celebration over the rumble of our window air conditioner all the way down the street. Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of announcement I’d make on Facebook. Why? He’s nine years old, and most of the posts people would see about him are about his coding, Youtube channel, or  co-writing product reviews with me. Regular proud-parent stuff. However, of all of his accomplishments, this one is the most complicated because it didn’t happen within the expected (and the accepted) timeframe, and it led me to reflect on mommy wars, the undue pressure social media places on parents, but also the impact a judgmental attitude can have in the classroom. Educators, me included, need to be careful with how we generalize about students and instead teach everyone to be cognizant of varying talents and experiences of other students in order to build relationship skills.

The Collaborative of Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning (CASEL) approaches relationship skills as a competency that is both how we treat others AND how we respond. Here’s their explanation of this competency: “The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. The ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.” As we head back to school, there are a few ways we can normalize the differences between the students we have in our class while also building a positive class culture:

Stand Up/Sit Down

This is a quick activity that I usually do during the first few days of school, and I change it up each year to match the most recent fads–this year I added bottle flipping, dabbing, and the meme obsession to the list. There’s a mixture of preferences and talents, so I’m bound to catch everyone with something they either relate to or like. I always try to imagine my most challenging students and make sure there’s a few slides that would be applicable to them. Normalizing differences and sharing similarities is a first step to creating a climate where students value everyone as a part of our community.

Free Pass Card

Everyone has something they just don’t want to do. Each 10 week quarter of school, I give out a “Free Pass Card.” It can basically get you out of anything either temporarily, if it is academic, or permanently otherwise. For example, if a student simply forgot to study, a “Free Pass Card” can allow the student to reschedule their quiz within the week. If it is something non-academic, like being asked to do me a favor or do something in the classroom, the student can permanently pass. Last year I had asked a student to run something to the office for me. He pulled out his “Free Pass Card,” and I just asked someone else. The rule is, I don’t ask any questions, but most kids tell me their reason later anyway. John didn’t want to go to the office because his mom was the substitute secretary that day, and he found it mortifying. What does this have to do with relationships? Everything. By giving students an “out” occasionally, I’m demonstrating my flexibility and modeling for my other students what this looks like.

Embrace Rehearsal

Some students are ready to roll no matter what I ask of them. This can be very intimidating to the majority who are up against all those other kiddos who make it look easy. I’ve incorporated “rehearsal” into almost everything. In the beginning, this is particularly important. Once a child doesn’t feel safe because you’ve put them on the spot, it is nearly impossible to win that child’s trust. Not to mention, you’ve modeled a behavior for your class that isn’t acceptable behavior in their relationships. Sometimes students who struggle need a chance to rehearse before they present their ideas to the class, and some students process better when they are socializing. I use ability groups on occasion to allow me to strategically develop skills that are lacking. You can read more about it here, but the major takeaway should be that if we allow students a chance to get ready without putting them on the spot in the first place, we’ll create an emotionally safer classroom where learners eventually feel comfortable taking academic risks.

These are only three ways that we can put our relationships with students first. It isn’t that we, as educators, ever set out to make our students feel uncomfortable, but when we intentionally set about creating a culture of caring, the more successful we will be. Most teachers call their students “my kids,” and I’m no different. This year, as I meet my “new kiddos,” I’m going to try to remember that my own brilliant, interesting, amazing son couldn’t do something that most kids could (I can’t help bragging, I’m his mom after all!) It breaks my heart to think that for one second his teachers might make a false assumption based on one weakness, and I’m vowing to check my assumptions outside my classroom door this year.

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4-8.