Two Mississippi Teachers Use Strong Relationships to Support Student Success

By: | 08/30/2021
Categories: Instruction, Leadership

At Leakesville Jr. High School, part of Mississippi’s Greene County School District (GCSD), some outstanding teachers are leading the charge toward significant learning gains among Grade 6 students. Educators have built relationship-rich classroom environments―an objective that begins at the school level―that make students comfortable enough to take ownership of their learning. As a result, they’ve observed a number of positive learning outcomes.

Phyliss Taylor, a Grade 6 math teacher, and Michelle Odom, a Grade 6 English language arts (ELA) specialist, are two teachers who exemplify the school’s successful approach. Each teacher has a unique way of helping students achieve their goals, but both are consistent in their beliefs that students must own their learning and that challenging, engaging (and fun) classrooms are the ideal learning environments for success.

“These two teachers do a very good job of developing relationships with their students, and each does it in her own way,” Marty Noblitt, principal of Leakesville Jr. High School, says. “Their personalities and teaching styles are different, but they have this really important thing in common―they make sure to develop great relationships with learners. They are both excellent teachers, and their biggest draw is that their students know how much they genuinely care about each student being successful.”

Encouraging Student Questions Creates the Right Environment for Learning

Students increase their comfort level through questioning.

Both teachers encourage students to freely ask questions in the classroom, an important piece of student engagement and ownership of learning. According to Taylor, this open environment helps students get comfortable and feel more capable in the classroom. “I try to create a culture [in which students] come in and feel comfortable, [in which] they’re ready to work and feel good about it,” she says. “I don't want a student to come in and be scared or nervous. I want them to feel capable of getting up and asking questions.”

As a 30-year teaching veteran, Taylor has learned that strong relationships are the key to earning students’ trust and respect. Once students are comfortable in the classroom, she increases their growth by implementing motivational techniques, including offering treats and recognition for lesson completion and assessment achievements. This goes hand in hand with the open environment for students’ questions, as learners proactively ask questions to gain the required information to do well on their assignments. “We keep a poster on the wall with progress markers to show students’ growth,” Taylor explains. “Students want their names up there, and it’s unbelievable what they will do to make sure that they pass the lessons. They are constantly asking questions to make sure they get up there.”

Encouraging questions increases students’ understanding and accountability.

In Odom’s ELA class, student questions are not only encouraged―they are an expectation. Odom and Taylor each use i-Ready as a personalized instructional tool in their respective classrooms, and Odom takes advantage of i-Ready’s ability to support the full range of ELA learning. She uses longer passages, close reading, and next-word lessons to personalize instruction for students according to the pace at which their reading comprehension skills are progressing. She ensures students know they should ask questions when needed, to check that they understand the material as they progress, another strategy that increases students’ ownership of their learning.

“Students’ i-Ready instructional time is normally spaced over three days each week, and I monitor them as they work,” Odom says. “I explain to them that if they’re in the middle of the tutorial and there’s something they don’t understand, they should ask me to explain the concept. If they miss a question or make a mistake, they know to say something so we can work on it together.”

Odom’s students know that asking questions is a tool they can use to ensure their learning remains on track. Her relationship with her students helps them feel comfortable to speak up in class, and they understand the results will be impressive learning growth they can showcase―something every student wants.

Teachers Build on Students’ Progress by Increasing Ownership and Engagement

Monitoring, motivating, and reflecting help teachers and students succeed together.

Leakesville Jr. High School and GCSD, as a whole, have seen impressive gains in student achievement, and Taylor’s and Odom’s classrooms are certainly no exception. Consistently monitoring growth is the key to success, according to Taylor. It not only indicates which students may need additional support, and in which areas the support is required, but it also helps teachers reflect on how to improve their practice. “When I don’t see growth, I need to know what happened,” she says. “I need to know from my end because I need to grow as well.”

When referencing the data provided by i-Ready Assessment, Taylor describes how the detailed information gives her helpful context so she can support students’ learning while continuing her efforts to make sure they understand their progress and take ownership. “When a student’s score drops on a particular assessment, I love how i-Ready has the built-in feature that shows—according to a student’s current progress—whether they are likely, somewhat likely, or unlikely to meet their learning goal," she says. "Especially when a student is still rated as likely to achieve their goal, this can be a huge motivator. When a student drops by a few points but still has a great opportunity to meet their goal, it gives me a couple of ways to keep them motivated to do better the next time.”

Discussion about learning increases ownership and sustains motivation.

After an assessment or a particular learning checkpoint, it’s essential to have a dialogue with individual students about their growth, Odom states. This helps them understand how they performed and why, and it gives the teacher an opportunity to make sure the student feels confident in the next steps.

“I think having those conversations means a lot to students because they want to know the results,” Odom says. “They want to know if they’re showing growth. We look at our goals, including our i-Ready learning goals, and we review the student’s progress according to the goal tracker. It means a lot, especially for [students] at the middle school age, because they are starting to grow up. They’re starting to really take ownership.”

The students are highly invested in performing well. They get excited about their successes and, like anyone, can be quite disappointed when they feel they didn’t do their best. This is when a teacher can make a tremendous difference by showing the positives in their growth and how much potential lies inside every learner. Odom explains how she is able to speak with students, encourage them to see the positives, and help them feel enthusiastic about the next stages of their growth.

In the end, the results bear out that when students feel comfortable in their learning environment, are engaged in their learning, and understand they have ownership over the process, achievement soars. “We try to create an environment at our school where students feel safe and happy," Noblitt says. "They want to be at school." Clearly, this foundational mindset has been a strategy for success at Leakesville Jr. High School.

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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