One School’s Approach to Developing Engaging, Healthy Student-Teacher Relationships

Guest post by Tim Carver

Increases in our socioeconomic diversity and bullying data caused us to rethink how we do business at Urbandale High School (UHS) in Urbandale, IA. We decided to develop a new approach centered around three key areas that define our culture: advisory through connections, student management through relationships and responsibility, and a focus on learning through quality and continual improvement.

The Transformation

Recognizing that students were not feeling safe and demographics were changing, we built our student-teacher advisory focused around connecting students to students and students to teachers, thus creating our unique advisory structure, Connections.

Teacher Helping StudentConnections gives students a safe place where they can build a relationship with one teacher that they will connect with during their entire time at UHS. Connections groups are randomly selected, but each group is comprised of students from different grade levels, genders, and backgrounds. Each week Connections groups have activities focused on team building, school traditions and values, holiday celebrations, volunteerism, and academic planning.

While focusing on relationship building across the school through Connections, we also shifted our approach to management of student behavior. We went from a purely punitive approach to one focusing on building mutually respectful relationships with students and staff, along with students taking responsibility for behaviors and planning to do the right thing. Now, when referrals come to the office, we work with the student to take responsibility for the behavior and develop a plan of responsibility to avoid the issue in the future. We also get students and staff together with an administrator to have a dialogue.

Another key piece in our culture began five years ago when we shifted to focus on learning through Quality and Continual Improvement. We began learning at the district level around the work of W. Edwards Deming. In all parts of our system, we use cycles of learning through use of the Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) approach to improve processes and outcomes.

The Outcome

Since changing our approach, UHS has seen improvement in those areas that were of concern. We have seen very little bullying at all, and specifically a reduction in incidences of upperclassmen-to-underclassmen bullying.

As UHS has experienced the shift to becoming a much more culturally, racially, and socioeconomically diverse school, students have reported feeling safer and more connected than they did when we were more homogeneous. When a student knows someone else cares about them, it is much harder for them to feel like hurting someone else or themselves.

As you consider approaches to improving school climate and culture, how might you include a systematic approach to developing and maintaining healthy teacher-student relationships? Please share in the comments.

Tim Carver is the 2016 Iowa Assistant Principal of the Year. He is in his 13th year as an administrator at Urbandale High School and his third year as associate principal, where he oversees special education and other student management.

Author photo by Scott Pederson


  • Clint Ross says:

    Great ideas and very well written. We will look to incorporate these thoughts!
    Thanks for your work Tim.

    • Tim Carver says:

      Thanks, Clint! We feel this approach toward building positive relationships has been foundational to our culture at UHS.

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Very interesting program. Who develops the weekly activities, and when/how long are the weekly sessions?

    • Tim Carver says:

      We have a committee made up of staff and students led by our assistant principal who develops activities. Connections activities are done on Wednesdays or Thursdays when Connections class is 25 minutes long. Connections also meets on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, for nine minutes when students can informally check in with their Connections teacher as well as their other Connections classmates.

  • John Carder says:

    Great program Tim! We developed an Advisory period and are looking for ways to improve the program from its infancy. Might have to steal some of your ideas! Thanks for the post

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