With everything teachers do in a school day—leading class, grading homework, preparing lesson plans—there’s precious little time for one of the biggest factors contributing to student success: building positive relationships.
Nearly two years ago, teachers and administrators at Seattle’s Chief Sealth International High School started taking a hard look at disparities that existed in student discipline and academic success. Chief Sealth was part of an initial cohort of ten schools within the district that formed race and equity teams, with a goal of getting a better grasp on what contributed to those gaps.
“We wanted to create a stronger, healthy community for everyone,” said Heather Griffin, a 9th and 10th grade language arts teacher who serves on the school’s race and equity team. “To do that, we needed to get a better grasp on what was going on.”
That led Chief Sealth to connect with University of Washington College of Education professor Filiberto Barajas-López in the fall of 2015. Recognizing a deficit in existing data about school climate, they launched a deep dive to learn how students were experiencing school and think about how to improve that experience.
Later in the school year, the team convened ten focus groups of high schoolers representing different affinity groups (e.g., African-American boys, Native American girls, etc.). In particular, students were asked about their experiences as part of the school community, whether their classes were supporting them in achieving their post-high school goals, and their experiences and observations around school discipline.
“This type of work is hard to do,” Barajas-López said. “The day-to-day pressures of teaching and leading a school make it challenging to dedicate time to build relationships with students—especially those who are marginalized—to the point where they are comfortable enough to discuss their experiences.
“Teacher-led research that goes this deep is extremely rare, and it really shows how invested the school’s staff is in the success of their students.”
In analyzing conversations with approximately 60 students representing affinity groups who participated in the focus sessions, the race and equity team uncovered more about both welcoming and unwelcoming practices encountered by students.
For example, African American males and East African females both said feeling welcomed meant teachers talking with them about matters outside school work and showing respect for racial/cultural identities and beliefs.
At the same time, students in some affinity groups discussed experiences of uneven discipline and reported facing negative stereotypes and harsher punishment for their behavior.
Across every affinity group, a common theme emerged.
“We found over and over again it’s all about relationships,” Griffin said. “It’s about relationships between students, but more important, it’s about relationships between students and power figures like teachers and administrators.”
While the school continues to analyze information from the student focus sessions, it’s already moving to address some of the underlying issues.
Aida Fraser-Hammer, principal of Chief Sealth, said the school’s teachers are spending time discussing the issues raised by students and how they, individually and collectively, can respond. Chief Sealth educators also are working to strengthening relationships with one another.
“Right now we need to raise awareness and reflect,” Fraser-Hammer said, as the school determines what its next steps will be. Whatever those steps are, student voices will direct them.
“That’s where I see our work leading, to a massive movement on campus that involves all of us educators to address a need raised by our student voices,” Fraser-Hammer said. “Students want to have their teachers understand them so they can come to school and take advantage of the opportunity for education.”
Griffin said the school is also exploring the adoption of restorative justice practices rather than more punitive measures of school discipline.
“There are so many social forces behind whether our students can truly reach their potential and live a fulfilling life,” Griffin said. “We can do a better job, all adults can, of assuming positive intentions and interacting with each person we encounter as someone who has the potential to be great. Those of us who can need to try and take down the roadblocks in front of our students.”
Filiberto Barajas-López, Assistant Professor of Education
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications