Why Relationships Matter: Reflections from a Former Teacher 

Cathleen Donohue, Graduate Research Assistant, CERES Institute 

“Education is a relationship business… One thing we learn from mentoring is that relationships matter. Relationships matter more than anything else.” – Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

Secretary Cardona’s statement at the National Mentoring Summit underscores the importance of relationships in education, especially during a time when the national discourse on education is dominated by an emphasis on learning loss.

As a former high school teacher, I witnessed firsthand how students who did not have relationships within their school community struggled to feel a sense of belonging and ultimately, did not want to go to school.

Ultimately, we want schools to be places youth want to go to. It seems obvious, but with the competing demands educators face, we oftentimes fail to prioritize the very thing that matters most to kids.

A critical component of educational attainment and social-emotional growth is providing the opportunity for youth to experience a connection with their teachers, peers, and community. When youth experience a lack of connection it can result in isolation, disconnection, and a reduced sense of purpose.

The competing demands of test scores, benchmarks, and graduation rates, among other things, disincentivize schools from scheduling intentional relationship-building activities. The need for connectedness and relationships is the impetus for the Relationship-Centered Schools Initiative is an effort by MENTOR National in collaboration with CERES to support and districts and schools in developing and strengthening their focus on creating relationship-rich environments.


What is a relationship-centered school?

 A relationship-centered school, simply, is any school that prioritizes a relationship-rich environment for its students to learn and grow.

First, a relationship-rich environment provides all youth with the opportunity to build meaningful and healthy relationships that matter, in school and beyond. A relationship-rich environment consists of formal mentoring relationships, informal mentoring relationships, connecting/networking relationships, and learning relationships.

Formal mentoring relationships are created intentionally, pairing youth with another person or group of people.  Meetings are set up and ideally the pairs or groups meet for at least 8 hours each month.

Informal mentoring relationships are organic, and with people youth see regularly in their school and community.

Connecting/networking relationships provide youth with the opportunity to establish relationships with people they may not see regularly that can connect them to resources and opportunities.

Learning relationships are people youth interact with to expand their learning and worldview. For example, they may consult a learning relationship as they conduct research or ask questions for assignments.

Second, a relationship-rich environment centers relationship building and connectedness at the center of the student experience. A commitment to a relationship-centered culture means that schools dedicate resources to building relationships.

This dedication needs to be visible in ways ranging from the way students are greeted in the morning to curriculum planning. Schools must commit to a relationship-centered culture.

What takes place during the relationship-centered schools initiative?

Working with a state mentoring affiliate, the first step when a school engages in the relationship-centered schools initiative is to build excitement and buy-in among administrators, educators, staff, and students. Nothing will change or improve in a school if those in the school aren’t invested.

After there is buy-in and a clear understanding of what a relationship-centered school is and the academic and social/emotional benefits of a relationship-rich environment, they begin a landscape review. During the landscape review, they collect insights through school records, surveys, interviews, focus groups, and facilitated discussions to understand what is already in place and to assess the strengths and challenges of establishing a relationship-rich environment.

A school next uses the insights from the landscape review to inform a design lab. During the labs, facilitated by the mentoring affiliate, educators and students co-create an action plan that includes the strategies and tactics to foster a relationship-rich environment. Importantly, action plans are inevitably not one-size-fits-all.

From the design labs, schools work with the mentoring affiliate to put the action plan into practice. As a part of this implementation stage, schools (or an outside partner) monitor the progress of their relationship-centered schools strategy, to understand what is efficacious and needs to be improved.

Now more than ever, we have a need and an opportunity to make schools a place that kids want to be. We can do this by not only prioritizing, but actualizing our commitment to relationships and connectedness.

As Secretary Cardona remarked during the Mentoring Summit, “can’t recover learning loss when young people are lost.” He followed by saying, “Students need to have relationships in their lives for them to meet their potential, to reach their potential.”

Cat Donohue is a second year master’s student at Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development in the Child/ Adolescent Mental Health Counseling Program. 





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