One of the most important things I’ve learned as a counselor is that kids who are acting out at school are usually hurting or angry because of what is going on outside of school. That’s why I’ve focused so much attention at my school—De Zavala Middle School in Pasadena, Texas—on creating a culture that values authentic relationships with students. When we make the effort to get to know our students, we are also making school a safe space and creating opportunities to motivate them to succeed.
At De Zavala, which is a middle school servicing 5th and 6th graders, many of our students are dealing with socioeconomic challenges, especially in these post-COVID years. Our students may not have the emotional skills to work through their home life challenges in addition to the social changes they are starting to face with their peers. When we are working with a student, our inclination is not to immediately lay down the hammer and dole out consequences. Instead, we get on the student’s level and really try to understand what’s going on.
Part of that strategy involves building a culture of strong relationships between our teachers and students. It’s up to us to teach them the value of connections. I’ve seen it time and time again—when the relationships are strong on our campus, the kids show up with more purpose and are far less likely to end up in the principal’s office.
We start planning how we will model strong relationship building before students even set foot on our campus at the beginning of each academic year. This past summer, for example, I worked with our administrative team led by principal Melissa Garza to bring Along to De Zavala. We chose Along after looking at several tools because it offered a free and easy way to build connections through its library of reflection questions and related classroom activities. By giving teachers and students the opportunity to reflect together on the Along platform, they could get to know each other as individuals. And, we liked that our students have choices when it comes to how they interact with their teacher on Along.
How we integrated Along
Prior to the school year, we onboarded our staff on Along during some of our professional development time. Then, we took a very specific approach to help easily integrate the tool into homeroom teachers’ lesson plans. I created a customized calendar for our staff that is sent via email, which suggests when to send their Along reflection question and when to do the corresponding classroom activity for the next several months.
We found consistency by sending out a reflection question every other Monday and also on doing the corresponding activity every other week during what we call “Feel Good Fridays.” The counseling staff, which includes myself and Laura Zamora Bejar, will periodically model Along activities during our regular staff meetings. It’s another opportunity to demonstrate how easy these classroom activities are to use in the class, and helps to keep teachers excited about ongoing relationship building.
Opening doors of communication
So far, we’ve seen both teachers and students responding positively with Along. One student shared that they were surprised to see that their teacher recorded an Along reflection question at home. When they saw a teacher outside of school, it made them seem more real as a person. A teacher told me recently that a student opened up on Along about their dog who had died, creating an opportunity to share sympathy.
It’s these small interactions that can lead to big impacts in our hallways. When we are consistently showing our students how to form relationships, we’re not only providing them with valuable life skills, but we’re making it easier to allow real conversations to happen. I’m excited to see how our school can transform when every student feels like they have a trusted adult here who is in their corner.
Jana Petty is a counselor at De Zavala Middle School in Pasadena, Texas. She is a former middle school science teacher.
Read more about how Along is making a difference at Rochester Public Schools and at Thompson Intermediate School.