Relationships: The Most Important Piece of Our Renaissance Framework

By: Sara Cowey, Activities Director, Leadership Teacher, and Renaissance Coordinator at San Mateo High School, San Mateo, California

Several months ago, I was asked to write an article about “Restorative Practices.”  I absolutely believe that Restorative Practices is an important tool to add to our School Climate and Culture tool box.  However, we are all experiencing the COVID-19 outbreak and are in the midst of the largest school closure in the history of modern education. So, I will still share insights about Restorative Practices and also suggest some tools that could be used online while we are teaching and learning remotely.

One of the main tenets of both Jostens Renaissance and Restorative Practices is to develop community, build relationships and connections – listen to, understand & empathize rather than to respond. In this moment of transition and crisis, we all need to take time to listen and empathize. As George Couros states in his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, “The three most important words in education are relationships, relationships, relationships.” (p. 68) Here are four ways to strengthen relationships that can be utilized during this time.

1) Community Circle

  • Build a community of trust, respect, vulnerability and equality (often the classroom community circle is the first place for the student to be safe and visible)
  • Change the way students and teacher relate to each other/listening to hear/perspective
  • Speak from the heart, listen from the heart saying just enough to be heard
  • Explore what’s under the surface
  • Discover everyone’s story
  • Students become visible – a simple check-in circle asking, “how are you feeling on a scale of 1-5” can communicate how that student is feeling and allow us to gauge our relationship with that student based on their answer
  • Everyone is equal in the circle

One of my colleagues hosts an in-class “family circle” once a week. I spoke with one of our students this week and asked about how it went with the new online format.  As with all our new virtual experiences, there was a “win” and a “wonder.”  Nine students checked in at the scheduled time.  They were able to see each other, check in and hear how everyone is doing. They know they are not alone, they felt a little bit more connected and a little bit happier. That was the “win.” For the two dozen other students, we are all left wondering, “are they OK?” Perhaps they were sleeping in, babysitting, doing other homework, or attending another teacher’s class meeting or virtual lesson. Whatever the reason, it’s OK and we will all keep reaching out and checking in with our students. “Are you OK?”

2) Use “Affective Statements”

This is one of the most important restorative tools that I carry with me daily.  I am mindful of the language, tone and timing of all my conversations. What does this look like and sound like in the online world?

  • “When you make noise during our Zoom lecture, I feel frustrated that you are not listening. Can you remember to hit “mute” so we don’t hear the dog barking?”
  • “I notice you are submitting your work rather late – is there anything we can do to support you with the assignments?”

Educators, counselors and administrators are checking in with the students and families about their basic needs for getting started: WiFi access, laptops and other electronic tools.  At this time more than any other, we need to loosen our “fixed mindset” about so many things we hold so dear.  A classroom teacher’s mind is often focused on the curriculum, grading, and deadlines.  We need to ask first and foremost, “Are you OK?” That deadline, that homework assignment, that Leadership Application that is two days late, “It’s OK.” We hope that our students and staffulty are all OK. We hope their families, friends and neighbors are OK. “Are you OK? How can I help you?”

3) Be Intentional about Creating Community

  • Create intentions for the day – gratitude, acts of kindness  
  • Explore values: The “Personal Mission Statement”
  • Clarify values with “One Word”
  • Get acquainted, story telling

There are numerous online tools being shared this month. It is truly overwhelming and amazing! Huge thanks to our Jostens and The Harbor family for opening up the resources to people all over the country.

Another tool is “Padlet.” We use “Padlet” challenges with our staffulty during the school year, so most of them feel confident using this tool.  You could share all kinds of “getting to know you” photo challenges: at-home workspace, pets, morning meal, exercise gear, water bottle stickers, favorite t-shirt – the choices are limitless! Have fun with it! Lastly, for student leaders, some of my favorite “capstone” assignments we do in our Renaissance class are Jon Gordon’s “One Word” for values clarification and Sean Covey’s “Personal Mission Statement.” 

4) Pause, reflect and be grateful

“There is honor in all work, in all tasks, but take it one step further.

Make what you do a labor of love.

Then your work will truly touch and change the world in the way you desire.

The work you do, whatever your chosen field, will be work that heals.”

– Melody Beattie

At the end of the year our Renaissance student leaders write a short testimonial about how much they learned about themselves, the students and the entire staffulty. Prior to being in the Renaissance class they were unaware of the amazing work (labor) that so many of our students and staffulty do all year long.  The Renaissance experience provides students the opportunity to be empowered, to learn about their school community, to lead, to LOVE and serve.  We are so appreciative of the people in the Jostens Renaissance community. We are grateful for all the speakers, trainers, coaches, mentors, student leaders and staffulty heroes.

Our Renaissance class has been apart now for two weeks as of this writing. They have all mentioned how much they miss school, each other and their teachers.  It’s been wonderful to read the reflections about their family, friends and staffulty members all of whom they acknowledge have helped shape them into who they are today. Stay rooted in love and as Dr. Darrin Peppard says, #WeWill be together again soon.


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