Three large, blue banners hang from the ceiling in the entrance hall of Royal Spring Middle School.
Each banner displays a different word in all-capital letters. On the left, RELEVANCE. On the right, RIGOR. And in the middle is a word that is the driving force behind the school’s success: RELATIONSHIPS.
The relationships banner has hung in the foyer of the Georgetown, Kentucky, school since it opened in 2006 to serve as a daily reminder about one of its top priorities. But over the past three unprecedented school years, the emphasis on relationships has increased significantly and validated Royal Spring’s long-held belief that authentic connections between teachers and students leads to stronger learning.
“We have found as educators that the relationship must come first, and kids are not going to learn if we don’t have an established relationship with them,” said Heather Brown, Assistant Principal at Royal Spring. “Kids want to be here if they have a meaningful relationship with somebody.”
For eighth-grade student Sophie Norsworthy, her “somebody” is Language Arts Department Chair Celeste Lehr. Norsworthy and Lehr are paired together in Royal Spring’s robust mentoring program, which provides them opportunities to meet one-on-one on a regular basis to discuss a variety of topics related to school and life.
“Mentor sessions have become a place where I feel safe telling any problems or challenges I may be facing,” Norsworthy said. “They have allowed me to make a connection with my teachers that I may not have gotten the chance to have if we didn’t do them.”
In a recent national poll on the power of mentoring by Gradient Learning, 95-percent of teachers agreed that every student can benefit from a mentor. Lehr, who meets with all of her mentees at least once a week, said the benefits of mentoring go beyond academics and extend into all aspects of a student’s life.
Lehr is often asked what her “secret” is to having a well-managed classroom.
“My answer is always the positive relationships I build with students,” Lehr said. “When students know you care about them, it is a game-changer for everything, from behavior to work ethic.”
Royal Spring Principal Amanda Wands embedded a dedicated time for mentoring into the middle of each school day for all grade levels. It is called “WIN” time for students to address “What I Need.” But the time also meets the needs of teachers as they’re able to form real connections in a safe and friendly setting.
“We’ve always known the importance of mentoring, but these last few years have really had a positive impact on everybody because we’ve been intentional about it,” Wands said. “I think focusing on what you need and keeping it simple has been really encouraging. It’s helped us focus on all the great things that we have going on here.”
Norsworthy, who was in the sixth-grade when the pandemic first disrupted school in March 2020, said her consistent mentoring chats with Lehr helped her navigate—and thrive—amid the unpredictability of remote learning.
“Through these sessions, I was able to stay on track with the rest of my class, even though I wasn’t in-person,” Norsworthy said. “During meetings, my teacher would help with any work I was struggling with. Together, we could discuss and make a plan that would help me conquer the challenges I was facing.”
Lehr said mentoring “became absolutely essential” for teachers during remote learning. Not only did it further strengthen the bonds with students, it allowed them to spot potential problems with individuals that Royal Spring’s team could help solve.
“Without the mentoring piece, a lot of that falls through the cracks,” Wands said.
Brown has noticed that students are “letting their guard down a little bit” with mentors and expressing more personal feelings. She’s also quick to point out that their mentoring program hasn’t suddenly made Royal Spring free of disciplinary issues.
But the noticeable difference is how the sixth-through-eighth-graders now react when faced with such discipline.
“When things do go awry, or kids are in difficult situations, they are much more receptive to feedback,” Brown said. “That is because of the established relationships they have not only with teachers, but with administrators as well.
“It’s been an exhausting couple of years because of the pandemic. We were doing mentoring beforehand, but we need it now more than ever.”
As school leaders, Brown and Wands know that more long days are ahead as they prepare for whatever obstacles come next. But recently, Wands received an important reminder of what truly matters.
Late for a meeting, Wands was rushing through a hallway when she was stopped by a student who had something in her locker for Wands.
The student pulled out a note that said, “Thank you for always giving me courage and lifting me up when I’m down. I love you like you were my mom.”
She then gave her principal an arts-and-craft rose made out of tissue paper. Unlike a regular flower, this rose won’t wilt. Similarly, Wands and her Royal Spring team believe that the mentoring bonds formed in middle school will have a lasting impact on their students’ lives.
“Just by showing kids that you care, it can make such a difference,” Wands said. “Relationships matter.”