Nearly 1.3 million students drop out of U.S. schools every year – this means 7,000 students every school day lose hope for a better life and give up on school and themselves. According to the August 2009 Issue Brief published by Alliance for Excellent Education, if schools in the United States graduated all of their students from the class of 2009 – the nation could have benefited by nearly $335 billion in additional income over the course of those students’ lifetimes! When students drop out of school, everyone loses. How do we transform this educational cycle of loss into one of gain?

Improving Student Learning through Building Relationships

Student learning occurs when many effective teaching strategies are implemented, but the foundation on which this learning takes place is built on creating a culture where trusting relationships among all stakeholders abound. Thiessen and Cook-Sather (2007) acknowledged that having even just one adult in the school who knows and cares for them is critical in preventing students from dropping out. To improve student learning, educators must recognize that relationships and caring are at the heart of teaching and learning (Nieto, 2010, Noddings, 1992; Valenzuela, 1999).

In today’s climate of standardization and high-stakes assessment, educators are often so constrained by rules, regulations, and testing that creating a culture with strong relationships with students, parents, and other stakeholders seems impossible. But the need for supporting students through positive relationships is more critical than ever as educators are challenged to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population of students. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that 50% of public school students will be a racial or ethnic minority by 2040. Added to this diversity is poverty. In 2008, the National Poverty Center reported that nearly 1 in 5 children in the U.S. live in poverty, and this number is increasing as the nation’s unemployment rate continues to grow. It is imperative that we remember that building caring relationships is critical in order to create a positive school culture that results in improved student performance. We must become BRAVO educators.

BRAVO educators are committed to Building Relationships with Actions that Value Others. In other words, we do not just talk about caring and supporting students to improve learning. Instead our actions demonstrate that we value them because we make time to get to know students and use our knowledge as educators to support their learning. When BRAVO educators commit to supporting student learning, they talk with students, listen to them, and connect with them in a variety of ways that emphasize the following three areas: upholding high standards for all, personalizing the learning environment, and demonstrating culturally responsive teaching.

BRAVO Educators Uphold High Standards for All

BRAVO educators uphold high standards when high expectations are verbalized for all students. We ask a student to continue working on a paper because we know he or she can do better. When a student needs help, we find time to meet, perhaps during lunch, to provide one-on-one help. We ensure that the curriculum is relevant, while still being rigorous. For example, if the struggling student is an athlete, we seek ways to connect the curriculum content to sports. Upholding high standards means that we empower students and give them opportunities to make choices. Instead of only being allowed to show competency by writing a 10-page report, students can choose between writing a report, giving an oral talk, creating a mural, or engaging in a debate. When BRAVO educators give students the opportunity to make choices, we acknowledge that we value their ability. In this way we communicate a high standard and contribute to trusting relationships while supporting students to achieve their potential.

BRAVO Educators Personalize the Learning Environment

When BRAVO educators personalize the learning environment, respect and caring for the individual needs of all students is demonstrated. This brings us to the complex notion of equal treatment versus equitable treatment. Equal implies that all students are treated alike. But, students have different needs; they learn at different rates and in different ways. To personalize the learning environment means that we respect the differences that students bring into the classroom and care enough to implement strategies that improve learning opportunities. Students should be treated the way each of us would like to be treated – equitably, not equally. BRAVO educators find ways to personalize the environment, such as adopting classroom rules that emphasize treating others with respect, involving students in designing class activities, and implementing a variety of instructional strategies that incorporate group work, music, art, and physical movement in addition to lecture and standard paper and pencil activities.

BRAVO Educators Demonstrate Culturally Responsive Teaching

Today’s student population is more diverse, yet in many ways, that population has also become more separate. Black and Latino students have become more segregated in impoverished school districts than at any time in the last 30 years. The segregation of White students is so pronounced that it occurs even within majority Black and Latino school districts. Consequently, as our world and the students in our schools become more diverse, they attend schools that are becoming less diverse. Understanding the importance of culturally responsive teaching, suggests that BRAVO educators must confront our own personal biases, as well as biases on the campus, and acknowledge and affirm the positive presence of cultural diversity.

BRAVO teachers confront personal biases by examining and identifying our own prejudices. Until we understand where we really stand on important issues like “respect for all” and “appreciating diversity” we cannot begin to understand how we must change in order to create a campus culture that values all students. When we recognize our own biases regarding cultural differences, we can begin to examine institutional biases that exist in clubs and activities on our school campuses. Reviewing school data for trends that suggest groups of students are being excluded from certain activities will identify areas that should be targeted for improvement. This examination of self and our institutions is not done to exacerbate feelings of guilt, but to encourage our own personal and professional growth.

Acknowledging and affirming the positive presence of cultural diversity is a necessity for BRAVO educators. We acknowledge our commitment to culturally responsive teaching when we ask reflective questions, such as:

  • What do I know about the cultural experiences that my students bring to school?
  • Do I observe student group behaviors that differ from expectations in school?
  • How do I integrate cultural diversity as a building block in my classroom to improve learning for all students?
  • How do my actions demonstrate my belief that difference is not deficit?

The school campus provides an excellent environment to understand the ignorance and hurtfulness of prejudice, bias, and bigotry. BRAVO educators contribute to this understanding when they build affirming relationships and provide opportunities for students of all cultural backgrounds to interact and make positive connections with others. As young people are supported in building valued relationships with others from diverse backgrounds, our common humanity is acknowledged and strengthened.

A recent study by Harris (2005, 2006, 2009) of 91 award-winning principals and superintendents identified effective leadership strategies that focused on three important beliefs for creating a positive learning culture:

  • We is more important than me,
  • People are more important than programs,
  • Student learning results in successful schools.

In other words, when educators work together as a team where caring relationships are valued to meet the needs of individual students, successful school cultures result. Margaret Wheatley (1999) wrote, “We live in a world where relationships are primary … Nothing exists independent of its relationships” (p. 69). When BRAVO educators build relationships with actions that value others, student learning results. When students are learning, they stay in school and graduate. Thus, the educational cycle of loss becomes one of gain … for everyone.


Nieto, S. (2010). Language, culture and teaching: Critical perspectives. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. New York: State University of New York Press.

Thiessen, D. & Cook-Sather, A. (2007). International handbook of student experiences in elementary and secondary school. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Wheatley, M. (1999). Leadership and the new science. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

Sandra Harris is currently professor and Director of the Center for Doctoral Studies in Educational Leadership at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. She has been a teacher, principal and superintendent in public and private schools for over 35 years. She has authored or co-authored 15 books related to improving K-12 schools. These include BRAVO Principal (2004), BRAVO Teacher (2005), Managing Conflict (2008), Examining What We Do to Improve Our Schools (2010) published by Eye on Education, Best Practices of Elementary School Principals (2005), Best Practices of Secondary School Principals (2006), and Learning from the Best: Most Effective Practices of Award-Winning Superintendents (2009).