Gradient Learning students

Creating a culture of authenticity

One of the most important things I’ve learned as a counselor is that students who are acting out are usually hurting or angry because of what is going on outside of school.

That’s why I’ve focused so much time and attention at De Zavala Middle School in Pasadena, Texas, on creating a culture that values authentic relationships with students. When we make the effort to get to know our students, we are also making school a safe space and creating opportunities to motivate them to succeed.

At De Zavala, many of our 5th- and 6th-grade students deal with socioeconomic challenges, especially in these post-COVID years. Our students may not have the emotional skills to work through their home life challenges in addition to the social changes they are starting to face with their peers.

When working with a student, our inclination is not to immediately lay down the proverbial hammer and dole out consequences. Instead, we get on the student’s level and really try to understand what’s going on.

Part of that strategy involves building a culture of strong relationships between our teachers and students. It’s up to us to teach them the value of connections. I’ve seen it time and time again—when the relationships are strong on our campus, the kids show up with more purpose and are far less likely to end up in the principal’s office for disciplinary reasons.

We start planning how we will model strong relationship-building before students even set foot on campus at the beginning of each school year. Last summer, for example, I worked with our administrative team—led by principal Melissa Garza—to bring Along to De Zavala. We chose Along, an offering of Gradient Learning, after looking at several tools because it offered a free and easy way to build connections through its library of reflection questions and related classroom activities.

By giving teachers and students the opportunity to reflect together through Along, they were able to get to know each other as individuals. We also liked that our students were given choices of how they interact with their teacher on Along.

De Zavala Middle School's principal Melissa Garza and counselor Jana Petty
De Zavala Middle School's principal Melissa Garza (left) and counselor Jana Petty (right).

"Feel Good Fridays"

Prior to the 2022-23 school year, we onboarded our staff on Along during some of our professional development time. Then, we took a specific approach to help easily integrate the tool into homeroom teachers’ lesson plans.

I created a customized calendar for our staff that is sent via email, which suggests when to send their Along reflection question and when to do the corresponding classroom activity. We found consistency by sending out a reflection question every other Monday and by doing the corresponding activity every other week during what we call “Feel Good Fridays.”

"It’s up to us to teach them the value of connections."

The counseling staff, which includes myself and Laura Zamora Bejar, periodically model Along activities during our regular staff meetings. It’s another opportunity to demonstrate how easy these classroom activities are to use in class, and how it helps keep teachers excited about ongoing relationship building.

Making a difference in the hallway

So far, we’ve seen both teachers and students responding positively to Along. One student shared that they were pleasantly surprised to see that their teacher recorded an Along reflection question at home. When they saw a teacher outside of school, it made the teacher seem more real as a person.

A teacher told me recently that a student opened up on Along about their dog who had died, creating an opportunity to share sympathy.

It’s these small interactions that can lead to big impacts in our hallways. When we consistently show our students how to form relationships, we not only provide them with valuable life skills, we also make it easier to allow real conversations to happen.

I’m excited to see how our school can continue to transform when every student feels like they have a trusted adult in our building who is in their corner.