Guest blog: Why a ‘relationships first’ strategy matters

By Kris Davidson, Principal, Gage Elementary School, Rochester, Minnesota

The following article first appeared on Next Generation Learning Challenges, a community of forward-leaning educators who are working in their communities and together as a network on the most urgent challenges in public education today. The story is authored by Kris Davidson, a member of the administrative team at Gage Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota. His career in education has included 10 years as a classroom and reading teacher and 16 years as a school administrator. Having the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of others is the purpose of his work.

Gage Elementary School is one of the most diverse elementary schools in Rochester, Minnesota. Gage has traditionally had the highest number of multi-language learners at the elementary level in Rochester Public Schools, and a district-wide Spanish immersion program is offered for the K-5 grade levels. The student body is extremely diverse, including a range of ethnicities, languages, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and learning styles.

Creating a strong sense of community on our campus is vital to the success of our students, staff, and families. Despite the daily challenges of the last few years including distance learning and then the ongoing COVID-19 mitigation protocols and disruptions, Gage Elementary follows a norm that has been, and remains, our guiding principle: relationship building. Simply put, when we know our students as individuals, we are better equipped to build a positive campus culture and impact our academic outcomes.   

Particularly at the start of a school year, putting relationships first is our strongest lever to understand our students, their families, and our greater community—and to set ourselves up for a successful year ahead. While this has been the work we’ve been doing for years, we don’t take this for granted. Each new year, our staff comes together as a team, whether they work in the classroom or in the cafeteria, to deliver on our mantra of “everyone supports anywhere they are needed.” 

Setting this foundation of support for our students begins by forming direct connections with them. Here are five effective ways to build a “relationships first” culture at our school:

1. All adults are here to serve kids.

On our campus, we don’t believe in hierarchies or titles. We work hard to ensure that our students know that any adult they encounter at Gage Elementary loves kids—period—which is foundational in establishing a sense of family. There isn’t a staff member here who doesn’t know our kids.

2. Authentic communication—inside and outside the classroom.

Part of really knowing our students is modeling how to be an authentic communicator. For example, one of our 5th grade veteran teachers, Malachi Johnson, says that his “goal number one is letting them know who I am and letting them know I care about who they are. I share who I am authentically and honestly by telling them things I like, things I don’t like, and things that make me mad.” When he notices that certain students aren’t sharing in class or responding when he shares personal things about himself, he makes it a point to find them outside of the classroom and engage in conversation.

3. Start the day by checking in.

The students at Gage Elementary have a “soft start” to their day to help them transition into their schoolwork. Students arrive at school greeted by a staff member—every door is manned each morning—and then they have breakfast in their classroom. From there, teachers employ a variety of strategies to ease into the day. Carise Miller, a 4th grade teacher, typically holds a daily morning meeting to allow the class to talk and build relationships with her and with each other. She will take what she learns from this sharing time to build personal anecdotes into academic lessons. “As I get to know the kids, I make jokes and put them into the lessons so that they are involved in the learning process,” she says. “I really try hard to combine the relationships and the teaching together.”

4. Use a communication tool, such as Along.

Some students may be naturally shy or quiet, or simply unwilling to share much about themselves when they’re around other students. Both Johnson and Miller find that using Along, an online teacher-student connection builder, allows them to establish relationships with these students. “It is super fun watching some of our quiet kids get excited and engaged,” says Miller of using Along. “I learn a lot more about these kids as they become more willing to open up. For kids who have a harder time in a large class environment, I love that Along is a private, one-on-one way to talk to them.”

5. Be kind humans.

Particularly at the beginning of a school year, using a variety of relationship building strategies sets the stage for a productive year ahead. Ultimately, our goal is for our students to think to themselves, “That’s my school. Not, ‘that’s where I go to school,’ but ‘that’s my school and those are my people.’”

That feeling of belonging has to be cultivated. By focusing on relationships as part of our daily strategy and routine, across our entire school team, we can look beyond the daily challenges happening in the world around us and create a school environment full of positivity. At the end of the day, just being kind humans helps our students. When we engage in real conversations and show our true selves, we’re creating more than just a place for learning—we’re creating a community.