How I Make Student Relationships a Schoolwide Priority

Growing up, I was one of only a few students of color in my community, and I rarely had a “champion” at school. I was a chatty learner, and my teachers didn’t always understand that I was talkative because I wanted to share my “aha” moments, gain their encouragement and feel inspired to keep striving. That’s why, now that I’m a K-8 principal, I center my leadership practice on making sure my students know that they’re surrounded by champions at school: educators who understand their needs, support their passions and promote their growth.

It takes a significant, intentional team effort to build that culture of trust with every student. Our teachers do so much to create community and spark inspiration during class, but to fully empower students, I believe we need to extend that sense of connection and care throughout our buildings. We need to systematically build relationships into staff and students’ days – even when those days feel so full. That’s why I want to share two simple ways I create space for student connection during the school day:

Morning Check-Ins:

The arrival period before school starts can be such a powerful time to start each student’s morning with a little bit of inspiration and care – and generate excitement for learning. That’s why I collaborate with my teachers and my admin team to use that time for connection: When we plan our early-morning supervision schedule, we brainstorm different activities that will speak to our students’ interests.

For example, we might plan a “superhero check-in”: When the first students arrive, the educators and staff scheduled for early-morning supervision will sit down with them and ask, “Who’s your favorite superhero, and why?” Every time a student arrives, one of the adults welcomes them into the conversation by asking that same question – and all the adults pass the students’ answers up and down the line, so every kid sees all the educators taking an interest in who they are. For students, it builds community – and for us adults, it gives us another puzzle piece that helps us understand each kid. Another day, we might ask students to share a favorite book character or athlete – or a goal they have for the day, or a challenge they’re working on. We try to mix it up, because we don’t always know what topics will make a student feel seen – and that’s exactly what we need to learn in order to promote their growth!

Lunchtime Quick Writes:

The lunch period brings a great opportunity for us to invite students to share their concerns and needs without pressure – and to show them we want to support their experiences. Every few weeks, my team and I go into the cafeteria before the first lunch period and set up “quick writes.” We put sticky notes and pencils at each table, and we write down a question like “If you could share one thing about yourself with your teachers, what would it be?” or “What’s something you’ve always wanted to tell Ms. Walker that she’s never asked you?”

After each lunch period, we’ll collect the notes and set out new ones. When we find out what our students are excited or worried about, why they feel supported or unsupported, we find out what we need to do to make school an affirming, inspiring place for them to learn. And sometimes, a student may tell us about a problem that they couldn’t find a way to share before: “After school, I have to supervise my siblings. I haven’t told my teachers why I’m not getting my homework done, but that’s why.” Or “I really don’t know English very well. I just use Google Translate, so it looks like I do.” Those are challenges that students won’t necessarily reveal in class – and once we’ve collected those Post-its, we can huddle with their teachers and provide support.

That’s why these systematic, schoolwide steps matter so much: They give us leaders and our teams a wealth of chances to show students that we are always listening, and we always care. If a student tells us, “I think maybe I’ve been talking too much in class,” we can connect with their teachers to make sure those relationships are strong. We can collaborate on ways to make that student feel supported, focused and inspired. We can send the message, “It’s okay that you love to talk about your learning. We’re your champions, and we’re going to make sure you can channel your energy into exciting new growth. Don’t dull your sparkle.”