When speaking with school leaders across the country this year, a common theme quickly emerges.
“The connection between students and teachers is vital,” said Patrick Duffy, Director of Secondary Education at John Rex Charter School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
“Through all phases of the pandemic, mentoring has been the most beneficial part of school for us,” said Tara Drouhard, Principal at Rhodes School of Environmental Studies in Cleveland, Ohio.
“We know that authentic relationships truly drive meaningful learning,” said Sherrie Gibelyou, Principal at Concordia Christian Academy in Tacoma, Washington.
All three school leaders believe students learn best when they have a genuine rapport with a teacher—and the unforeseen events of the past two years have greatly intensified that belief. They all saw daily examples of their students and teachers being able to keep close tabs on one another despite the physical distance between them during remote learning.
Then, whether returning to their campuses in a hybrid model or fully in-person, each school continued to rely on their mentoring programs to further establish bonds of trust between educators and learners.
“Mentoring really helped us have a smooth transition back because as everybody returned to the building, they all had that one adult here that they had a close relationship with,” Drouhard said. “Even in a virtual space, they had kept that connection. Now they’re able to check in more easily, or just see each other in the hallway. That has really helped us set the culture for this school year.”
Mentoring, one of the pillars of the Summit Learning program, allows each student to have a dedicated time each week with a trusted adult at their school. During these mentoring sessions, students are able to set goals and touch base on their academic progress. Perhaps more importantly, students have the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about any aspect of their life.
“I think those real discussions outweigh any academic piece, honestly,” Duffy said.
When Duffy joined John Rex (a K-8 public charter school) in the spring of 2018, he shared his personal philosophy about student-teacher relationships with his new colleagues. It’s a philosophy that Duffy formed as he thought about his own childhood experience and the teachers who made a difference in his life.
“No matter how good your lessons are, and how much hard work you put into teaching, that doesn’t mean it will be remembered,” Duffy said. “Later in life, most students only remember a few teachers and it’s always the ones that they connected with the most. That connection piece in mentoring is what will outlast anything that ever takes place in a classroom.
“But it still helps a lot in the classroom because mentoring drives a kid to do better. It will keep a disengaged student a little more engaged and display those positive behaviors that their mentors have instilled in them.”
Gibelyou has also seen the correlation between authentic student-teacher relationships and in-class student engagement at Concordia Christian Academy, a K-12 school located 35 miles south of Seattle. Gibelyou said students feel more empowered to set and reach their academic goals because of the valuable encouragement and guidance from their mentors.
“Our teachers build strong connections by spending time with each student, capturing important information about how they learn and what is important to them,” said Gibelyou, adding that Summit Learning’s mentoring program “has allowed us to take the way we build relationships to a whole new level.”
At Rhodes School of Environmental Studies in Cleveland, mentoring has played a pivotal role since the school opened in the fall of 2017 for grades 9-12. The school, now in its fifth school year as a Summit Learning partner, held its first high school graduation ceremony in 2021. As Drouhard watched RSES’s first senior class accept their diplomas, she reflected on the importance of student-teacher relationships and how much each student grew year-after-year to set a strong foundation for the school.
“Our Class of 2021 were the guinea pigs for everything we do here,” Drouhard said. “They learned alongside the teachers about time management, planning skills, and goal-setting. And thanks to them, it makes me really excited to see how our current seniors and juniors do this year and next. Everything is in a great place now.”
One of Drouhard’s goals in the coming months is to provide the Class of 2022 as “normal of a senior year experience” as possible amid the ongoing pandemic. Duffy has similar priorities for the K-8 students at John Rex, which is located near several outdoor learning opportunities in downtown Oklahoma City that students utilize for enjoyable and educational elective classes.
“I think it’s crucial that we let kids be kids during these uncertain times,” Duffy said. “They only have a certain amount of time to be kids before they have to get thrown out into the real world. There’s a way to balance education and fun, and we’re here to help them do that.”