Rock of Relationships – Relationship Centered Learning

Going back to school mid-pandemic necessitates that we continue to practice what we preach – Connections Before Content! 

Our mission at NEDRP is to train and support teachers with intentional GTKY (Get To Know You) strategies that proactively build and sustain relationships with students in a non-lesson-based approach. Our tools allow teachers and students to connect utilizing a structured, organized, timed activity in less than two minutes. The goal of our connection tools; 60 Second Relate Break, Two Minute Connection, and 90 Second Spark, is to Cross-Connect – student to student, student to teacher, and teacher to student.  Our tools have been pioneered by educators,  for educators. With that said, schools are bringing back students virtually and in-person in the middle of a pandemic.  Safety is the number one concern. Tensions are high, and everyone faces countless unknowns as we navigate in unchartered waters. I have never been more proud to be an educator. My heart swells as I observe how districts, campuses, and teachers are continually adjusting to meet their communities’ needs.  Educators are reminding the world how resilient, determined, and flexible they are in spite of the fact that they are, and underpaid. School leaders are navigating with eyes wide open. The pandemic has only increased the number of unique crucial and critical daily decisions and therefore compelled more collaboration and conversations in professional learning networks than ever before. I believe that educational leaders will learn from these unique circumstances and ultimately emerge as trailblazers unfortunately, this pandemic has broken their stride. This return to stride is what I would like to address. In my experience, pre-pandemic, the reality of connections before content was at best, a philosophy that most educational leaders would post to social media,  quote on the bottom of emails, shout as a reminder at the end of a faculty meeting, or put on a t-shirt. How do I know this you ask? I  know because I led a campus where I was guilty of all of the above! I know the pre-pandemic pressures associated with academic success, standardized testing, disproportionality, attendance, and the overall culture of the campus. In spite of the fact that I knew the intrinsic value of relationships and connections, it was easy for me to push them to the side.  due to the lack of any accountability in our school systems for connections. Fast forward ten years, and I am determined to make a change. I have spent the last five years outside of the pressures of a campus leader. Still, I have experienced the same attack on this relationship first ideology, both pre-pandemic and during the pandemic,  when attempting to lead campuses and districts in relational practices. In my experience, there is an immense difference in those campuses and districts that make relationships and connections a priority and those that do not.  These committed leaders have two-feet in with this approach, despite the pressures of the educational system and lack of accountability tied directly to their name and the campus rating or success. Now, let’s talk about the insane amount of stress as educational leaders prepare and plan an unprecedented return to school in the middle of a pandemic. This return is not as simple as reopening schools and expecting to start back where we left off six months ago. .  We have to reimagine what classrooms will look like in person and virtually. This reimagination of schools and classrooms is the perfect time to finally put connections before content.  We can rewrite our previous scripts as district and campus leaders.  We can decisively put what we have been saying for years into action, and at last, recognize this is the right thing to do.  Now is the time! While it is a perfect time, I caution that it is essential we consider our societal surroundings and the needs of our students who are returning from a.prolonged absences from a classroom setting  Over the last six months, we have been compelled to traverse our way through the confusion of COVID-19, political debates, racial tensions, cultural differences, financial crises, and traumatic home experiences.  Therefore, educational leaders are challenged to be creative in the effective and efficient development of the reimagined school setting. After addressing the significant issues surrounding safety protocols and virtual learning plans, district and campus leaders persevere in the search for initiatives.  These initiatives must meet the social and emotional needs of their staff and students, provide safe platforms to address racial inequality, support critical conversations surrounding cultural differences and diversity, and offer necessary care for students experiencing trauma. All of these initiatives are imperative to the reimagined classroom! I am pumped as a difference-maker in education to witness these powerful platforms rise to the top of district priorities. My main concern is that the majority of these initiatives tend to be lesson-based. Let me break this down.  If we circle back to the beginning of this blog, we led with Connections Before Content.  Any initiatives that are lesson-based are formalized into a type of content. The content may not be the typical content associated with classroom curriculum,  but make no mistake,  lesson-based programs are t simply another form of content camouflaged with a colorful cover and a catchy title. To be completely clear,  I am NOT against lesson-based curriculums.  These initiatives play a vital role in helping close a variety of gaps for the majority of our students and must be an integral part of our student success.   My point is  – lesson-based curriculums blend relationships; they don’t build them. Remember the breakdown – Connections BEFORE Contentnot Connections WITH Content. I acknowledge that other educators may not see this equation with the same lens. My point of view has been approached with, “relationship building is a natural outcome of these curriculums.” While most lesson-based programs come in the package of “curriculums.”, I maintain that these lesson-based curriculums blend relationships; they don’t build them. What about Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)? I have been reminded many times that “social and emotional learning has a relationship-building competency. How can an outcome not be associated with building relationships if we are doing SEL?”  I would agree that building relationships are a direct bi-product of social and emotional learning initiatives. If you are a district or campus currently utilizing any SEL initiative, please look directly at your materials, guide, or curriculum.  Are these SEL areas being addressed in the form of a lesson?  If they are lesson-based, then we can assume that your staff is unpacking a social and emotional lesson for your students at a particular time of the day. Hence, another version of the content.  How do we not see this? If you take a deeper dive into SEL, you will see the fourth competency of the five is Building Relationships. Have you ever wondered if educators whole-heartedly agree that Connections need to come Before Content, then why didn’t SEL move Building Relationships to the first competency?  Or, make this competency portion of their visual pie larger than the other competencies? If you discuss this with most SEL practitioners, they will remind you that the outcome of building relationships is a direct bi-product of the SEL lesson. The students can be discussing and working through competency five, Responsible Decision Making, and building relationships. What if there was a space that existed that was before SEL? I am not devaluing or trying to compete in the SEL space. This reasonably new area has been way overdue in education.  CASEL has excellent success and data to support this initiative. What I am asking school leaders to consider is, what if there were an option that could allow your staff and students to build and sustain connections in the classroom that was not rooted in a lesson-based curriculum and allowed classroom communities to build relationships prior to discussing trauma, race, diversity or content?  Our format of using Get To Know You (GTKY) structures intentionally minimizes the possibility of trauma and other deep-seated conversations emerging too soon in the relationship-building process. What if we could reimagine a school setting where we were able to layer relationship-centered learning before social and emotional learning intentionally? #rclb4sel This strategic plan could lead to the necessary conversations in the reimagined classroom that intentionally and strategically put Connections Before Content. I believe it would be fundamental to start a mid-pandemic school year with a concrete approach that focuses on building relationships in a structured, organized, timed GTKY methodology first.  Then, shift to creating a learning environment that allows for genuine and sincere in-depth crucial conversations to occur based on our students’ social and emotional needs, race, culture, diversity, and trauma. Educational leaders, as schools reopen in the middle of this pandemic, I challenge you to evaluate what initiative are you bringing to your campuses that do not encompass relationships being built around a lesson-based curriculum or community building circles?  Educational leaders now is the time!  Your students, staff, and communities are counting on you to reimagine their classrooms by taking the premise of Connections Before Content literally; build your school on a rock of relationships, not the sands of initiatives.


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