Building strong relationships with all students in a classroom is the goal of a new online learning program for teachers designed at the University of Virginia's Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). The program, called Creating Opportunities through Relationships (COR) and freely available at www.corclassrooms.org, aims to address a problem some K-12 classrooms are facing — students who struggle to stay engaged in school due to a rising number of discipline referrals and a lack of support within the school community.
Jason Downer, director of CASTL, research associate professor at UVA's Curry School of Education and lead developer of the COR program, said the COR approach to addressing this issue is all about building strong relationships. "Research has shown that a strong relationship between teacher and student can serve as a motivator for staying engaged in school. It gives students a secure base."
A growing body of evidence also indicates that building such a relationship is sometimes hampered by the personal biases teachers bring into the classroom about certain students or cultural groups. Often, the presence of such implicit bias — attitudes and beliefs that operate unconsciously — becomes evident in the ways teachers unequally observe and discipline students in the classroom. Although almost one in ten students experience some form of suspension during their secondary school years, that rate is often dramatically higher for males and students of color, said Anne Gregory, associate professor at Rutgers University's Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology and a co-developer of COR. "In just one year across the nation, for example, nearly one out of every four black students in middle and high school are given an out-of-school suspension."
To reverse this trend, Downer and Gregory, joined by other educational experts in the fields of educational equity, teacher-student interactions, and instructional design, teamed up to develop the COR online learning program. As part of the program, teachers observe classroom scenarios, analyze their own practice, and hear from experts in the field of teacher education and educational equity.
Downer said the program, designed for elementary and middle school teachers, focuses heavily on improving teachers' daily interactions with students in the classroom. "The goal is to help teachers promote a safe and engaging space for all students through their classroom interactions," said Downer. He emphasized, though, that the program goes further. "We want to help teachers develop a self-awareness of the beliefs that they bring with them into the classroom." Downer said when teachers are more aware of their beliefs and in tune with their observations, they can better pick up on a student's real strengths and areas for growth.
An initial evaluation, in which over 160 teachers completed the online learning modules, showed promising findings. After completing the COR modules, over half of the teachers reported paying more attention to the nature of their classroom relationships and interactions. Others reported paying more attention to interactions that would promote students' sense of safety, happiness, and engagement in the classroom. A number of teachers reported engaging in perspective-taking, which meant they were more likely to put themselves in the shoes of a student or check the accuracy of their assumptions about a student or classroom situation.
The learning modules were particularly useful for teachers who were newer to the schools they were teaching in, as well as for teachers who reported having higher levels of conflict with students in their classroom. "One of the most promising findings is the fact that teachers who participated in COR reported an increase in closeness with their most challenging students," Downer said. COR participants also reported an increased awareness that they might bring stereotypes into the classroom that affect how they view and teach students of color.
Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education and a lead consultant on COR program development, said establishing effective relationships is critical in today's school environment, "We know that establishing effective relationships with students and managing a classroom are the most important and challenging aspects of the work of an early career teacher. They are the reasons why some teachers leave the profession in the first few years." He noted that helping teachers establish strong connections with their students not only improves learning, but helps promote overall job satisfaction for new teachers who too often leave the field due to the stress they experience early on in the classroom.
Despite the promising findings, Downer cautions that learning experiences like COR should still be viewed as a launching point into a complex topic like relationship building. "Most teachers, especially those starting out in the field or those who may be faced with particularly challenging classrooms, may benefit from additional follow-up through coaching or peer observation." Still, the COR modules provide a way to reach new teachers entering the field and gives them concrete ideas for establishing a more positive learning environment.
The five COR learning modules, free and publicly available, can be taken by any individual, but can also be used as a professional development program by school districts or larger professional organizations. The COR online learning program, funded by Atlantic Philanthropies and the William T. Grant Foundation, is available at www.corclassrooms.org.