Driving Relationships

I don't own a garage door opener, so I park in my driveway to save a few steps after a long day at work. Living in an older neighborhood in San Jose, Calif., this is typical of most of my neighbors too.

The other night, as I pulled into my driveway, I was greeted by my neighbor who was doing some yard work. He asked how Zeke, my 5-year-old son, liked his new school. We chatted for a bit and as I walked inside my house, I was struck by how significant these informal moments are to the culture of the block I live on. My family deeply knows our neighbors--even though these relationships have been mostly built on quick, in-the-driveway conversations.

On the other hand, if I had a garage opener, I would likely drive in, close the garage door and never realize what I was missing. This gadget has made so many lives much easier, but has likely built divides between our neighbors and really shifted our understanding of our own communities--without us even noticing.

This year, Zeke started kindergarten at a dual language immersion school. My wife and I wanted him to have one year of Spanish immersion before enrolling him at a Rocketship school--the charter school network I founded in 2006. I can still remember our excitement when we finally learned of Zeke's acceptance after a few anxious months on the school's waitlist.

As the first day approached, we were told to come to the office to find out who Zeke's teacher would be. Once we arrived, we realized that "coming to the office" meant checking a print-out taped to the front office window. Instantly, it felt like the car had driven right into the garage with the door shutting quickly behind--no smile, no greeting, not even a wave.

Years ago, when I first started teaching, I set out building relationships with my students' families on day one. I was outside before school to say, "good morning." I conducted home visits with each family and together we transformed back to school night into a community meeting and pot-luck. Building parent investment was not about tasks to be completed in my classroom; rather, it stretched far beyond by focusing on developing relationships.

We built trust and strong connections over many casual, yet purposeful interactions. As these relationships developed, I was invited to family dinners, birthday celebrations, and more. We built relationships that continued to grow and quickly the Electric Turtles (our class name) began to take off in their confidence, motivation and academic success. I was no longer just a teacher; I was an extension of each of my students' homes. Parents entrusted me with their dreams for their precious children.

My classroom was the exception and unfortunately, not the rule. I've seen too many schools consider parents to be a nuisance--with posted visiting hours or cordoned off classrooms. Yes, we as teachers are a hard-working, time-strapped bunch, but imagine the lift that a parent can provide, especially if they know that their role is far more than cutting pieces of paper or chaperoning a field trip.

Rather, teachers should build authentic relationships--to know how parents are doing, their dreams for their child, and your role in that.

These kinds of relationships take time to develop--and they're built over many short conversations, check-ins and 'in-the-driveway chats.' We all can spare a few minutes each day to get to know the great people we're surrounded by--our student's first teachers. Because ultimately, with strong relationships, every student will thrive. Our daily work of teaching and learning will extend into the communal act of transforming lives and families.

Let's toss our garage door openers and build the relationships that matter.