Caring, Trusting Relationships in High School Matter Now More Than Ever

Building relationships with students is critical—especially during remote learning. Here’s how schools across the country are doing just that.

By Anna Sudderth

You may need to hear this reminder: We can accomplish hard things. All of us. And your students can do hard things. Every single one of them.

In fact, students need you to believe in their capacity to do extraordinary and challenging work—so powerfully, so transparently—that they never doubt their ability to make impactful, positive change in this world. Students need you to value their lived experiences, tapping into their innate talents to push them to be their best selves. After all, it is our students who are now entering an era of ambiguity, ready to rise up as our “sense makers” and creative problem-solvers and build a more just and equitable future.

Now, repeat this mindset to yourself, or send it to an educator friend who might need to be reminded.

Because at the end of the day, there is an inextricable connection between rigorous learning and caring relationships. That’s why Caring and Trusting Relationships is one of our six XQ Design Principles. When we know our students well enough to push them to the edge of their proximal zone of development, we see them succeed in ways we never imagined. When we come together as school communities to help our students envision, measure, and achieve ambitious goals, we see our students fly into their vast and boundless potential.

In this article, we’ll focus on developing powerful mindsets to help learners understand and achieve their fullest creative potential. We’ll answer:

  • How can pervasive trust and belief in a learners’ ability help them achieve at the highest levels? 
  • How do we create learning environments that allow students to take risks and encourage students to learn from mistakes?

Now, let’s get started!

How Can Pervasive Trust and Belief in a Learners Ability Help Them Achieve at the Highest Levels?

Across the country, XQ schools create learner-centered environments that value, trust, and affirm their students’ abilities. These schools know that in order to help students achieve at their highest levels, educators need to believe in their students’ academic capabilities because of teacher expectations and beliefs about students matter. XQ schools do this by challenging students with learning experiences that meet them where they are, while also providing students with high-quality feedback and intentional support to help them craft and meet their ambitious, long-term goals.

At Elizabethton High School—an XQ school in Elizabethton, TN—educators provide students with rigorous challenges by connecting them with real-world partnerships. For example, when teacher Alex Campbell saw a TV segment about a virtual reality firm in Mississippi called Lobaki, he immediately thought of his students. He believed in his students’ abilities, and he saw the opportunity Lobaki could offer them—so he picked up the phone and called the CEO of the company. Thanks to this bold move, Lobaki ultimately hired two Elizabethton students for paid internships, providing them with invaluable opportunities for personal and professional growth. One of those students, Skyler Hilton, described what the opportunity meant for him. “There’s nothing like real job experience,” said Skyler, now 18. “I grew up in a poor family. If this job didn’t pay, I never could have done it. I’ve even been able to save some money. … And I’ve learned and progressed so much.” In fact, Skyler’s success with Lobaki was so impressive, he was hired on full time after graduating from high school. 

Similarly, Washington Leadership Academy (WLA)—an XQ school located in Washington, D.C–embodies a culture of deep trust and high expectations for all students. WLA serves mostly students of color, a group that has been proven time and time again to feel ‘less valued’ by teachers and as a result, less likely to get critical feedback about how to improve. By challenging students with a rigorous course load consisting of high-level STEM classes and four years of computer science, WLA trusts that students will succeed within a demanding environment and achieve beyond their perceived limitations.

This approach held true even during virtual learning. Once shelter-in-place began, the WLA team took a step back to ensure that they were not only prioritizing their students’ basic physiological needs through free-and-reduced-price lunch but were also staying vigilant in collecting important data about their students’ learning trajectories. Amidst fears of learning losses from the ‘coronavirus slide’, WLA took a comprehensive, data-driven approach to document student engagement, growth on assessments, and state standards being covered (or missed) for each student during remote learning. 

This emphasis on tracking student learning is a core tenant of how WLA provides all students with rigorous learning challenges. “If we don’t know what students are learning, we don’t know how to better support them,” says Christina Moore, Director of Student Services at WLA. Educators at WLA used this data to provide all students with the appropriate level of challenge, in the form of differentiated small groups and intensive 1:1 support. 

Educators at WLA also maintained relationships with students during virtual learning through weekly emails to address negative thought patterns, cope with anxiety or depression, and practice gratitude. Molly Graham, a social worker at WLA, explained the importance of these supports:  “We want to support students by not letting them lose their ground or backslide. We want them to remain engaged in learning because I know they have goals to graduate, attend college, and become successful in their careers.”

These strategies from WLA carry well beyond virtual learning. Back in the classroom, teachers can support student achievement by monitoring student progress closely and giving students frequent opportunities to reflect on their own learning. By partnering with students to set learning goals, teachers can provide all students with the appropriate level of challenge. This personalized attention also shows students that adults care about their learning, and are willing to do whatever it takes to help them succeed. Teachers can also build trust by making social and emotional part of their in-person classroom routine. By creating environments where students feel seen and cared for as people, teachers empower students to take academic risks.

How do We Allow Students to Take Risks and Learn From Mistakes for Personal Growth?

When we actively cultivate our students’ growth mindsets to learn from their own setbacks, students can treat failure as feedback for learning, or a ‘First-Attempt-In-Learning’ as some of our school leaders like to say. This approach is especially powerful when students have the ability to guide their own learning—evaluating their progress and setting their own goals.

At Iowa BIG—an XQ school in Cedar Rapids, IA—teachers encourage students to see failure as a step towards progress. Iowa BIG students learn through tackling real-world projects alongside community partners. These projects aren’t guaranteed to succeed. For example, a group of students working to refurbish a shelter for homeless families found asbestos in the building and had to abandon the project. While the students were initially disappointed, educators helped them see their failure as an opportunity to learn, and apply their insights to their next projects. And students know they won’t be punished for trying and failing, as long as they try again—instead of grades or GPA, Iowa BIG students demonstrate lessons learned and skills gained. Trace Pickering, executive director and co-founder of Iowa BIG explained, “Once kids recognize that we don’t punish failure, we begin to see that their fear melts away.” 

There’s a name for this approach to learning: competency-based education. In competency-based education, students progress through content based on mastery of material, not time spent in seats. Students can take risks, fail, and learn at their own pace. At XQ schools, educators use competency-based approaches to facilitate meaningful, engaged learning

For example, at Washington Leadership Academy, students are empowered to advocate for themselves when they need support. Educators tell students when, how, and where they can reach out for support—but taking action is up to students. For instance, to prepare for the AP Computer Science Principles Exam, computer science teacher Jordan Budisantoso offered his students opportunities to schedule time using a free workplace appointment tool, to engage in virtual peer feedback, and seek out coaching in both 1:1 and small groups.

Similarly, at PSI High in Sanford, FL, educators increased student agency during virtual learning by giving students access to a high-level view of their course sequences, so that students could see where their work was heading and move forward at their own pace. “Out of 190 kids, 186 were highly engaged,” reported PSI High Educator Angela Daniel. “We think it was because students know where to find certain aspects of the course [if they want to move forward], and there are so many avenues to connect their learning.” 

Students also direct their own learning at Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS) in Indianapolis, IN, a school where grades aren’t fixed. This emphasizes a competency-based approach, where mastery of skills takes precedence over more artificial measures of success: if a student gets a “C” in Algebra one year, they have the opportunity the following year to show concept mastery through new work. Students thrive under this approach, taking the time they need to improve grades in past courses and be “the best version of themselves.” 

One common denominator in all of these examples: trust, coupled with care. A trusting, caring approach means reminding your students that you are invested in their learning, progress, and growth. Trust is providing high-quality feedback, so students can continue to create opportunities for their own learning journeys. Trust means providing adequate scaffolding through structures like office hours, academic coaching sessions, counseling, and self-reflection so that students can lead their own learning with capability and confidence. 

Trusting students to lead their own learning encourages concrete, lifelong skills of self-regulation, persistence, and self-advocacy. These are the kind of skills that students need to experience to master. With trust, educators can step out of their students’ ways when needed, empowering students to step into the driver’s seat.

Learners for Life

If we want our students to reinvent the future, we must not only guide our students in creating their own learning pathways but, ultimately, let their individual capabilities surprise us.

More than ever, we’re finding that the spirit of becoming a “Learner for Life,” one of XQ’s key Learner Outcomes, is rooted in critical skills like self-direction, self-management, and social agency. We prepare students to be lifelong learners when we provide them with opportunities to document and reflect on their learning, and when we believe students can cultivate an enduring curiosity and recognition of their potential to affect the world around them.