“Relationships Matter More”

I hadn’t felt so nervous since the summer before my first year of teaching. I was certainly driven. I just didn’t know exactly how to be an effective online teacher and the thought of managing classes in a hybrid model in the midst of a pandemic was honestly making me a little crazy. So I searched for opportunities to learn. I hit the jackpot with A.J. Juliani’s online master course on adaptable learning, joined the #LeadLAP #GritCrewEDU connecting with courageous leaders from all over the country around anti-racism, and learned from my own building and district colleagues and administrators.

In fact, the title of this post is in quotes because it came from Natick’s superintendent during our first ever virtual opening day. Our hashtag has been #relationshipsmatter for a few years now and I’ve passionately written about the difference it has made on my experiences with students and colleagues. Now, in this challenging time, one extra word is holding power well beyond the moment it was heard.

Teaching eighteen groups of middle schoolers online is hard. The preparation can be exhausting and it’s simply not the same as face to face. Yet with a heavy focus on relationships, we have been pushed to creatively find avenues to build them. I show up every morning with the same drive that has kept me running to school for seventeen years; connection. This post highlights a few ideas inspired by my summer that have helped shape my fall. This post is about the importance of reaching students in a time where worry, sadness, and disconnect can so easily take the lead. There are things we try we choose to change and some we hold onto forever.

Co-constructing Joy

I am passionate about creating a space where students feel empowered and in that space, I want them to count on joy. I want students to look forward to showing up even from a screen, because it’s human beings that appear one by one in their own perfect squares carrying imperfect stories. Every minute matters. If we do not design an environment students and colleagues look forward to joining, we cannot expect to build relationships or make the impact we desire.

My joy game changer this fall (which can certainly be done in person) is playing student selected songs as they enter class. It’s simple yet so much of what we do to connect with kids and adults doesn’t have to be complex. It just needs to have purpose. In September during our phenomenal ten days of PD, I jumped on the idea of “walk in” songs. I take requests on a Google Form and because I wear headphones and a mic, I can also pretend I’m a DJ.

The difference it has made so far has been awesome.

  • Students know I care about them and their interests.
  • I’m learning more about them and occasionally when it’s Mrs. Bartley’s choice, they certainly learn more about me.
  • It provides a bit of suspense because students don’t know what song is coming or who selected it until they join class.
  • Students will even dance right on the screen even at 7:40 in the morning, even seventh graders, even in front of each other. (Of course I dance too.)
  • My personal favorite-students learn about each other and their diverse interests.
  • It can open up unexpected doors. I have a student who uniquely requested a song by a violinist. I asked her if she would be interested in inviting my friend, Lourds Lane, into our class virtually to play the violin live. Her reaction was priceless and after our next class she played the violin for me and I sat in amazement.

Music is powerful. Regardless of our roles and the ages of the people we serve, we can use it to bring people together, honor their uniqueness, and create joy.

Running a Classroom “Audit”

My “classroom” is still evolving and my hope is to have students become my designers. After learning about classroom “audits” I realized how much awareness we need to have in setting up our rooms even when they are virtual. The message we send our students and colleagues by what we “hang” on the wall and how much we encourage voice is critical. They need to see who we are and need a chance to see themselves and who they can become. My next step with the help of students is to incorporate books and videos as I did in my digital learning office.

A.J. Juliani introduced me to the classroom “audit” strategy in his course. This post from tolerance.org about the role classroom culture can play in anti-bias education is incredible. You can click on “Classroom Culture” to find classroom audits and other powerful strategies and practices. If you haven’t explored the potential in No Place for Hate, an Anti-Defamation League initiative, I highly recommend checking it out and I’m excited to participate in next steps for our school. Our “No Place for Hate” symbol was created by a current sixth grader last year.

One slide in our classroom is devoted to quotes submitted by students. They have been highlighting influential people of color who inspire them.

Reframing Time Lost as Opportunity to Gain

I know it might sound simple, but if we don’t capitalize on technology’s superpower of communication, we risk missing out. In my last post, Choosing to Passion Up Even When Things Feel Down, I wrote about my passion for using video to communicate with colleagues as it lends itself so beautifully to being human. I see students through a Google Meet half the amount of times I would have seen them in person. I miss them and it matters to me that they know I care. So every week off week, I send them a quick video. It gives me a chance to throw a few reminders at them, but students are juggling a lot. What I am most interested in is reminding them that I am here for them and that I think they’re rockstars.

In addition, emails, phone calls, and office hours are helping tremendously in getting to know students and families. When we see even the challenging moments as opportunities to build and strengthen relationships, it can change the conversation. And there’s nothing like giving students a chance to get to know each other. In Natick, we are lucky in that we can take advantage of platforms like Flipgrid, Padlet, Seesaw, and more so students can share their voices in a variety of ways and on their own time, respond to each other, and feel seen, heard, and valued.

Asking Four Questions Every Day

To build and maintain strong relationships with students and colleagues I have learned I need to have a pretty good one with myself. Every day, I ask four questions. The last one is certainly the most difficult for me but I am getting better. I tend to be extremely hard on myself and can’t help but reflect after every experience with students and colleagues. “Am I giving myself grace?” has allowed me to give myself permission to move on knowing I am doing the best I can. Perhaps the most powerful thing I have naturally begun to do is keep these questions in mind before class begins.

Two months in, this strange school year somehow feels better. I took a breath, learned from others (including my students), and am comfortable knowing I still have a lot of learning ahead. During this incredibly stressful time in our country, I am so grateful to be physically and emotionally okay. When we have that fortune maybe the greatest lesson is that if we try just a few new ideas that stay true to our why, we can remain empowered to make an impact. I was honored to join podcast host and author Timmy Bauer in this episode of “The Literacy Advocate” podcast to discuss my story this fall where relationships matter more.  

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