Before the pandemic, my colleagues and I started The Rooted Classroom: Building Deeply Rooted Relationships with Students to Experience the Fruits of Education by fellow Illinois teacher Monica Genta for our professional development book club. It’s one of my favorite things to do with my colleagues. Then, we were supposed to hear from her at a school improvement day as the keynote.
The pandemic halted all of our nerdy professional development dreams. Still, most of us read the book anyway and participated in discussions on Google Classroom.
Genta’s philosophy is where it’s at when it comes to teaching as far as I am concerned.
While recognizing the importance of growth, content, and learning, the most essential thing in any classroom, Genta says, is the teacher’s relationships with students. I am inclined to believe this.
“We must build deeply rooted relationships with kids. Period.”Genta 2
As a young teacher, I prioritized Common Core standards, test preparation, and assessment.
“Grading is a task that seems way more glamorous in undergrad.”Genta 37
“Kids dislike taking assessments more than teachers dislike grading them.”Genta 106
But what really transformed my teaching was getting to know students through their everyday writing. Soon, students came to hang out in my classroom during their study hall. They came to me to talk about things that were bothering them. All the while, their reading and writing scores were going up.
I attribute their success to their own hard work and dedication. But would students put that work and commitment in if I hadn’t shifted my focus to my relationship with them?
I doubt it.
Students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like.
“Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the foundation for all learning. Without deeply rooted relationships, the fruits that we try to harvest in education will end up being a disappointment.”Genta 4
I think about my experience as a student. I don’t remember all the content from my honors English 10 and 11 classes. But I remember my teacher, Mr. Miner, encouraging me to join the National Honor English Society and gifting me with a beautiful copy of War and Peace for my graduation. I don’t remember all the tips and tricks Mrs. Starr — my third-grade teacher — taught me, but I definitely remember her wrapping me in a big hug when I came back to school from having chickenpox or tearing up when I said “goodbye” to her on the last day of school.
“Meaningful moments stick.”Genta 10
That doesn’t mean every student will like every teacher, even when that teacher is dedicated to building a solid relationship with her students. But it’s certainly better than a teacher’s indifference, dedication to content over students, or powertrips.
Some educators feel like SEL education is one more thing added to full plates or distracts from that big test we wanted to give. But, as Genta notes, it’s those relationships that can spark inspiration in students to achieve their goals. For example, would I have felt like my tiny, shy self mattered if Mrs. Starr hadn’t hugged me when I returned from being sick? Would I have felt confident enough to pull my grades up if Mr. Miner hadn’t encouraged me to join NHES or take AP English?
Of course not.
“To build deeply rooted relationships with kids, sometimes you end up building houses and businesses in the process.”Genta 13
Teaching became more joyful for me, too, when I put in the work to build relationships with my students and their families. It’s not necessarily more work than the time I put in on all those test preparation assignments, assessments, and data collections. It’s definitely more fulfilling, though!
Genta offers several strategies throughout The Rooted Classroom that teachers can implement and adapt for their own classrooms. She encourages teachers to focus on:
“Communication: a sharing of ideas and feelings
Camaraderie: mutual trust and friendship
Compassion: sympathy and concern for the suffering or misfortune of others“Genta 5
Some of her strategies for fostering relationships with students include rolling out a fancy carpet on the first day of school, celebrating with food, running races, having hair gel available, and having talent shows.
“Food brings people together. It doesn’t really matter if it is a feast or a snack, when people share conversations over food, something really special happens. Stomachs and sols are nourished, and it’s a mutually beneficial experience. The reason? Because roots produce fruits.”Genta 52
One of my favorite strategies of Genta’s that I cannot wait to use is her “Mind-Blowing Facts” activity. On the first day of school, the teacher invites students to share a mind-blowing fact about themselves. Even if the fact is as non-mind-blowing as “I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” it gives the teacher a way into that student’s life to learn more about them.
“When we take time to get to know kids early in the game, they feel safe and loved and those are the key ingredients to building trust.”Genta 61
Genta points out that it isn’t just relationships between teachers and students that matter, but between teachers themselves! She writes about bringing her colleagues their favorite coffees or sodas to brighten their day. I’ve had the joy of bringing colleagues a coffee or two and vice versa. Once, I walked into my classroom only to find a coffee from the local coffee place on my desk from a colleague who got the more dramatic end of a tearful meltdown the day before. It really did forge a bond between us! I even remain good friends with colleagues who left my building, and it all started with a simple coffee. Of course, those coffees and sodas are accompanied with genuine trust and lifting one another up. Relationships can’t depend on caffeine alone; but, it’s a starting point!
“We are a team. We need to have each other’s backs. We need to support each other all the time.”Genta 76
Some of these activities might be too juvenile for my high school students; maybe an elementary teacher thinks they are too mature. Then again, my high schoolers love getting to do fun and silly things just as much as the next kid.
When I tell people that I teach high school students, they put their hand to their necks as if clutching their pearls and say, “How do you deal with teenagers?”
This question exasperates me. So, I take in a deep breath, smile, and say, “Believe me, teenagers are not the stressful part of my job.”
It’s true. The students are the best part of my job. They are funny, innovative, creative, brave, resourceful, kind, and compassionate people who make my day better. All I have to do is create opportunities in Room 207 for them to express this as much as possible.
“When we give kids the opportunity to be compassionate, they will exceed our expectations.”Genta 26
I do have a criticism (shocking, I know!). Genta says that schools need to “operate like families. Big, strong, healthy families” (142). I disagree — at least, with the word “family.” I think it can get toxic to think of our workplaces or learning environments as families. Family is a very sacred, intimate, personal thing. Not all families operate the same way; not every family’s definition of “healthy” is the same. We need to be careful about thinking about our learning and workspaces as “home.” Boundaries between the different areas of our lives are actually more freeing than thinking of them all as one space. Students need to have multiple places in their life where they feel like they can belong. Their family should be one (I know it isn’t always). School should be a different but equally loving and safe place for them. Teachers need to find work-life and home-life balance, too, lest they burn themselves out and settle for mediocre pedagogy! Let’s not conflate schools and families. They can be equally loving and safe spaces, but they will probably use different ways to make that happen.
Teachers are creative, problem-solving people. From this book, they can use anything Genta offers to inspire their own relationship-building activities to make their classroom a fruitful place to be.
My colleagues and I finally did get to hear Genta speak over Zoom on a SIP day in October. While we would have much preferred to be in person, I’m glad we finally got to hear from her.
Check out her website or her Twitter! You can order her books directly from her website, which I highly recommend. She also has courses for teachers, talks, and other classroom resources on her site. She Tweets the best stuff, often hilarious things her students say. Check it out!