Curriculum Approaches

The Art of SEL, Episode 5: Relationship Skills

In the fifth episode of The Art of SEL, Jonathan explores relationship skills. Relationship skills are important because they allow us to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and navigate settings with new people. Jonathan brings on art teachers Lauren Suveges and Pilar Biller to discuss their ideas and beliefs about relationships and how those skills can be developed in the art room. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Jonathan: How do you make friends? This was what was swirling around in my daughter’s head one summer when she was five years old. She was going to start kindergarten in the fall. And one night on a walk in our neighborhood, she turned to me and said, “How do you make friends?” It took me a minute to consider her question and the trepidation in her voice. She again started, “I mean, how do you even begin?”

I told her about meeting people that like the same things you do, or those people that are kind and welcoming. Then there are people that make your whole face smile. And you will find people you just enjoy laughing with. And then there are those that you want to stand up for and will stand up for you. I assured her, you will make friends.

Sometimes it happens when we least expect it, where we turn around one day and realize we found a friend on a random Tuesday in October, and didn’t even notice it at the time. She again stopped in our walk. “Dad, do you still make new friends?”

I thought back over the friendships that have stood the test of time, those friendships that were situational, the new friendships that feel like they’ve always been a part of who I am. And yes, even those friendships that have somehow ended in pain. What was she doing to me? I smiled as we headed up the sidewalk to the house. See, for all of these friendships, there is most certainly a story.

Hi, I’m Jonathan Juravich. And today we’ll be diving into relationship skills on this episode of The Art of SEL.

Like that summer night, it can be hard to put into words the skills necessary to forge new relationships, but let’s start with a definition. An adapted definition from CASEL states that, “Relationship skills include the ability to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups.”

I think that when most people hear the term relationship, they think of a romantic connection or a close friendship. But in fact, there are so many different kinds of relationships that we navigate, even on a daily basis.

Besides our personal family and friends, as art teachers, we establish connections with our students and our colleagues, with the parents of our students, with that guy who can get us some really good cardboard, the barista we see first thing every morning.

Well, now I’m actually just describing my relationships. But our students, they are also navigating just as many wonderful and complicated connections to other people. Providing students, and honestly ourselves, the space and opportunity to support others and be supported is essential to our human development.

Today, I’m going to talk with two art teachers about their strategies and beliefs about relationships. Lauren Suveges works with middle-schoolers and Pilar Biller is a high school art teacher.

First, Lauren Suveges. She is the art teacher at Siuslaw Middle School in Florence, Oregon. And honestly, Lauren was the very first person I met on my very first day of undergrad. When she enrolled in graduate school, we famously took a cross-country trip from Pittsburgh to Eugene, Oregon in a Ford Focus with a goldfish named Gulp who happened to live for many glorious years afterward.

Well, if you could choose a single descriptive word to explain how you are feeling right now, what would that be?

Lauren: At this moment, hopeful.

Jonathan: Yeah?

Lauren: Yeah.

Jonathan: Let’s just lay it out there. We’ve been friends for like, oh gosh, 20 years. Whoa, 20 years.

Lauren: I was thinking about doing this and I did the math and I was like, oh my gosh, I met you when I was 18. And here we are, 20 years later.

Jonathan: Yeah. And who knew we’d both end up in art education though,

Lauren: I know, right? It was like the furthest thing from what I thought I would, I didn’t even think of it as an option for myself. And so, yeah, it’s funny that here we are.

Jonathan: Here we are. And it’s the importance of those relationships that may change, that may be different than how they started. But why is it important that art teachers focus on those relationships with their students in their classrooms?

Lauren: I mean, if you just think back to our teachers, right? We had such strong relationships with our instructors at the college level. And those are people that have changed my life. I would be a different person without them. And I think that as art teachers in particular, we get the good fortune of teaching in a subject that has so much heart to it, that has so much emotion to it. I mean, I love my math teachers. I have been supporting sixth grade math this whole year. I love to answer a statistical question correctly, it gives me great joy. But it’s like a different kind of joy, right? When you get the right answer in math and you love that concept, it’s different than putting yourself, like your self into a piece of art. And so I think that we just have this unique role with our students to help them be self-expressive. And if we don’t build the relationships with them, they’re not going to get to that space for themselves. And so as an art teacher, it’s crucial to build relationships with them. So they feel safe to be themselves with you.

Jonathan: That’s safety. Because I think about the fact that, yeah, there’s some art rooms where I bet there’s some absolutely beautiful work happening, but maybe it is just surface level work because they don’t have that trust with their teacher.

Lauren: Absolutely. And any teacher of course can create that safe space. But I do think, I mean, obviously I’m biased to that. We are particularly inclined to provide that for our students. And especially now, this year, this time, all of our students need that space to feel safe and comfortable. And so, creating those bonds with them is of the most importance.

Jonathan: So then, we understand it’s important, right? We’re here for it. But how can art teachers really and authentically support students as they learn about relationship skills? Right?

Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. I think, I mean, my biggest thing, I provide them with a lot of choice. And so, I think the more that you provide choice in your art space, the more you get to know your students, because at every angle, at every level, at every project, they’re able to interject something of themselves. And then you remember that, right? You can ask them how their dog is doing or what happened yesterday with their grandma. You start to understand their lives in a different way, because they’re getting the opportunity to put that personalization into their work. And so you can build off of that. And that knowledge of them.

Jonathan: I had a group of kindergartners and we were talking about grandparents and creating these family portraits. And I shared that my grandparents were no longer with us, but I was still going to include my grandparents in this image. And a kid raised his hand and talked about how his dog died. And I was like, this is real life for them. They understand it. Well, what I wasn’t prepared for is the next kid that raised his hand and shared about their dog that passed away. And then the next hand that raised and shared about the neighbor’s dog that passed away.

And at that moment, normally I would have shut it down and be like, let’s get back to work. But for some reason, on this particular day, I was like, every kid wants to share something and you know what? Every kid did share a story about a dog dying, including the kid that talked about visiting the grandfather and the farm dog needed to be put down. Graphic detail to the point where all kids eyes were wide, the kindergarten teacher pick them up. And I was like, I don’t know what just happened. We talked about life, death, and dogs. Here we are. Right? And it was about those relationships. They felt like this was a space where they could authentically share their story, no matter how graphic.

Lauren: I had that the other day, my sixth graders, they were in need of a therapy session. They did not give a hoot about my PowerPoint presentation on color theory. That was not what we were doing that day. They had to share. And what did they share? I mean, we covered some stuff in that. We have a small, rural, low socioeconomic population. There’s a lot of trauma in our community. And that day we were doing that. Like, we had to. I mean, they just needed it, you know. And I do think that it shows the power of the relationships of the art room to give them that safe space to talk about it. And you know, some days, yeah, you got to wrap it up and move along because that’s in the best interest of the whole group. And then some days you have to talk about everybody’s dead dog.

Jonathan: I know. And you realize-

Lauren: Like you do.

Jonathan: You do, and you realize that Okay, color theory can wait until the next time.

Lauren: Absolutely.

Jonathan: It’s okay. Even though we may see them for a limited amount of time, we’ll get to it next time.

Lauren: Absolutely. One of the other things, and this was brought on more so because of online learning, I give them a lot of surveys this year or forms because one of my biggest things with online learning has tried to be to meet every kid where they’re at and where they’re at comfortably communicating. And so of course, you know, there’s this huge debate. Do we make them turn on the cameras? We can’t make them turn on their camera. You know, all that kind of stuff. Hello, have you tried to teach 30 people on a camera looking at you? It’s hard. So, one of the things that I’ve tried to offer more so this year, our surveys where they can communicate with me privately. And so, asking things about their preferred pronouns, their nicknames, why they are here, what they want to do, what do they want to learn about all that kind of stuff has really helped me get to know them.

I’ll have to go back and look through them again and kind of think about them in relationship to my students’ personalities. But I do hope that it offered the space to my students that don’t want to share more publicly in front of the class, a way to communicate with me. Because I think that’s really important to give them those ways of communicating with you without making it awkward for them, or just giving them that level of that they might need. So survey communication has been big for me.

Jonathan: And I think about this research they did recently was on collecting data, right. It holds true that if we want to know about our students’ experiences, we have to ask them.

Lauren: Absolutely.

Jonathan: We can’t just be like, meh, let’s move on. Like, this is not what I had planned.

Lauren: No, my first year I just, I mean, I know we’re not in college, but I just gave them evaluations of me. I made an evaluation form, I asked them what I did right, what I did wrong, what could I change, what would you tell a student that was interested in taking art? I posted this on my Instagram awhile ago. Sometimes we just forget to ask them. Right? If you want to know how your class is going, I need to ask them. So, again, it goes back to those things that are sometimes so simple that they’re so simple that we forget to do them. Right? Or maybe we don’t want to know.

Jonathan: Oh yes. Oh, so true.

Lauren: Right? But I mean, I’m the facilitator of their experience. Right? I am not the sage on the stage, although I like it sometimes. I’m the facilitator of their experience here. And so if they’re not having a good experience that is also on me. It’s not always on me, but it is the space that I’m creating. So yeah, I think one of the big things is if you want to know how they’re feeling about stuff, you just have to ask them.

Jonathan: Right. Well, and I think immediately, like us, right? I think about immediately, we think of friends when we think of relationships. But it’s not always about friendships. Sometimes it’s just about functioning with other humans.

Lauren: Yeah. Like today who’s going to rinse the Breyer while the other person wipes down the mono print plate?

Jonathan: Right. Right.

Lauren: You have to figure that out. And if Susie Q is not washing her Breyer correctly, the next kid is going to hear it inappropriately. I mean, building relationships in the art room is also about building a functioning workspace. Which is why teaching art is so complex because you’re trying to inspire them, you’re trying to offer them ways to self-express, but you’re also teaching them, how do I cooperatively clean up a space when I may never do this at my own house or apartment or wherever, you know? So it is like building and fostering relationships on so many levels. They’re like a little art team.

Jonathan: You’re right. We don’t often think about those responsibility with like taking care of materials as part of relationships. But as you said, rinsing the Breyer correctly is also being thoughtful and mindful that other people share this space and we have to be thoughtful about them and their work, [crosstalk 00:14:58] what they’re going to create. And you know, why create chaos for other humans when you could put things back where they belong. I mean, we don’t think about those as relationship skills, but they really are.

Lauren: They absolutely are. I think that those little things add up to big things and it affects how you are in a group meeting when you’re out of college, out of high school. I think all of those types of skills are so transferable and important to sort of build into them while they’re younger.

Jonathan: I know that you do things with a classroom mascot and some of these, I don’t even want to call them tricks, but these strategies that you have for your students. So, can you explain some of those things that you do that is building relationships?

Lauren: Absolutely. I mean, I think as a teacher, you have to do stuff authentic to you, right? So you can’t just go do these things if this isn’t how you are. Right? Because they know, they know when you are not being authentic. We have our beloved Swampy who is a screen print or a paste up of this animal creature character that I got from a friends who also collect street art. I love street art and murals and stuff. And so we study that a lot in my classes. And so, Swampy has kind of become our unofficial mascot. And so, in my room Swampy is thinking thought bubbles of the Studio Habits of Mind. So I incorporate the Studio Habits of Mind in my teaching a lot. And we talk a lot about how Swampy utilizes those. So like, what’s Swampy thinking about today?

Oh, he’s observing. Right? But then I have ridiculous stuff like cats. I like cats, I don’t love cats. Right? I do, but I don’t have 12 cats. I think they must think I have 12 cats because they just like that that’s this quirky thing about me. And so I just play it up, you know? So for COVID stuff, I have cats printed all around the room. And at the end, when I have to clean, while they’re still in the room, I’m like go to your cat and they pick their favorite cat. We go stand at it. So while I’m scrubbing the tables, they’re at their cats and I’m asking them questions from the day. So, I think it’s just, when you find something that works for you and it feels very natural and the kids respond, how do you play with that?

And then I have bad day cat day. If you’re having a bad day, you can have this little cat at your desk that’s just ridiculous looking. I have recently implemented the No drama llama. Like if you are starting to cause some drama in my chat bar or my room, you are getting the No drama llama. It’s just a way to diffuse relationship issues that arise in a way that isn’t confrontational, but they know what I mean.

Jonathan: It’s so interesting how much you use humor to build these relationships. I love the fact that it’s like, yeah, you like cats, but you don’t have a house full of them. Right? And yet you build off of these thoughts of middle-schoolers. It’s now created, I don’t know, transitions, it’s created procedures all because of these quirky fun.

Lauren: Yes. Fun. You want them to have fun sometimes. I mean, we get serious of course, but I think especially middle schoolers, the year I first started teaching, I thought they were older than they were, you know? And so I definitely have interjected more silliness and more fun, more so than I did at the beginning because they’re still young.

Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah. And honestly, building off those relationships, if they see an adult having fun and being playful and just being authentically humorously themselves, hopefully they’ll see like, oh, this it’s okay. Right? It’s okay to not play it off cool all the time. Well, and we’ve kind of alluded to the fact that our kids are going to grow up to be adults, much like us. And they’re going to have relationships. But do you think us, as adults, as art teachers specifically, that we need to work on our own relationship skills as well?

Lauren: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think they’re pretty much… I mean, have you been to a staff meeting? They’re basically like being in a class. We’re the worst. We are not the worst, teachers are the worst. But yeah I mean, of course, if you are not building and honing your personal relationship skills, you are not being the most successful teacher that you can be. If you are not working on how to work with people that you don’t necessarily get along with, you are not approaching your life or job to the best of your ability. So I do think that, well, we talked about it a little earlier. There’s so many transferable skills that we learn at school and in particular the art room, that translate to adulthood and we’re not exempt from that.

Jonathan: Pilar Biller is the art teacher at Damonte Ranch High School in Reno, Nevada. She shares some unique considerations about relationships that aren’t based on friendships necessarily, but prepare students to receive feedback and for a world outside of high school.

So Pilar, if you could choose one descriptive word to express how you’re feeling right now, what would that word be?

Pilar: Well, I’m very happy to be here with you. So there’s that. But I feel like there’s just a lot of mixed emotions right now. And so, I am feeling hopeful as we get through the end of this school year and I’m looking at next year. But I’m also really tired and I feel spinning my wheels, I guess, a little bit. And as we, as we were trying to get through the end of it. So I’m feeling a lot of things.

Jonathan: Hmm. I know it’s hard to just pinpoint it to one. Hey, what’s one emotion you’re experiencing? Right? Because all of them.

Pilar: Because all of them. Feeling a lot of different emotions. Yes.

Jonathan: I think so often when we think of relationships, we think of friendships, right? Like, I’m your friend. I mean, you’re my friend, right Pilar? So I think about these relationships we have, but it’s not always about just everyone being friends with one another. Right? I mean, it’s about how we interact with everyone.

Pilar: Very much so. And I think a lot of it is, and especially in the older grades too, it’s a little different because with the little ones, you’ve kind of focused on that. We’re all friends, you know. In the upper grades it’s more about cooperation and collaboration. And so, I think through some of the unique things that we have in art, such as giving peer feedback, critique, I tend to call it feedback.

So as far as modeling goes, with peer feedback, it’s a perfect opportunity because you need to teach the students how to give feedback that is helpful. And so in order for it to be helpful, it can’t just be, yeah, I like it or I don’t like it. It’s really about the why. And thinking about the goals of the artists, the goals of the assignment, and then sharing your opinion or sharing what you see with the artist in a way that is compassionate and helpful. We always go back to that. Is this helpful? You know? And did you elaborate on what you mean by that? And so, those communication skills become very important and that’s something that our students will benefit from their entire life.

Jonathan: Okay. So this is crazy, but I have never thought about relationship skills and critique or peer feedback in this way before, but that is exactly what it is.

Pilar: It is. When the students have to share their work through exhibition or through, we do a portfolio review, they have to learn how to talk to people that they don’t know about their work and get the feedback from people that they don’t know. And that’s really important skill to develop as well. And so, the portfolio review is where people in the community, so our school board members or we have had people from the library association, parents, they come in and the students are all set up in the room with their art that they’ve created over the year. And they have prepared sort of answers ahead of time for it. We’ve all talked about the questions that the portfolio reviewers might ask and they prepare their responses. And then we talk also about shaking hands and about nerves and how you navigate all of those things when you pretty much put your heart out there on the table for someone else to respond to. And those experiences are amazing. The students come out of there with such a high and feeling really successful while learning how to start a relationship with someone else, I think.

Jonathan: Hmm. But do you have any other specific lessons or creative experiences that you do that focus on relationships? Like really intentionally?

Pilar: Love, love doing Humans of New York and we call it Humans of Damonte Ranch or well, we switched it to Artists of Damonte Ranch. But it’s along the same lines because the Humans of New York is a web site that you can go to and they’ve actually published some books as well, just on interviewing people that you don’t know. And so, starting out this idea what the intermediate art class. So they’ve had a little experience and their art skills are a little stronger and teaching them how to interview someone where it’s not a conversation, but you’re simply listening and recording and then prompting. So, you ask questions, but we’re not sharing. So, really talking about how you don’t turn their story into your story, where you respond and say, oh yeah, my brother did that too. And that’s a conversation right? Where you are doing an interview and really listening, what does it look like to be an active listener?

And so, teaching those things, even to sophomores and juniors in high school, those are really helpful. Because they’re still nervous, maybe even more so as adolescents, to sit down and share their story with someone that they don’t know. And so, how do you make that person feel comfortable enough to tell you about it? And students have done incredible with these interviews.

And then they create a work of art based on their partner’s story. So there’s a new kind of level of pressure there where they feel like I really want to do it for them. Going through that process of having those feelings about someone who you don’t know, is builds those… What is it?Because it’s empathy, but it’s also just this wanting to do good for someone. You know? Building that idea of wanting to do something well for someone else. I think that builds that kindness. And so then they share their works of art and it kind of builds a little bit of community within the classroom because we put them all out at the same time together at the end. And we look at them and say, what is it that you see here? And this is us, this is our class and these are our stories.

Jonathan: And we did this with the art teachers I work with. Currently we have 17 elementary art teachers in our district, in our department. And we’re like a family, but like a family whenever we’d get together for meetings, everyone talks over each other, no one waits for like uncle Bob at like a big dinner to stop talking before they talk. Right? So it’s just like that with this group of teachers. And I did the same practice you did where I paired them up, they interviewed one another, listening and then they create a piece of artwork.

And we were laughing, we were crying, even though we feel like we’re so close to one another we had learned things that day, that we didn’t know. Like the person who is a twin that had never had her own birthday party, even as an adult. And so we threw her a surprise birthday party that year. Or like the person we learned who was really struggling with her own kids at home while being here with kids at school. I mean, it was beautiful and the work was beautiful too. But I mean the whole experience, we grew together in our, in our relationships.

Pilar: And just kind of drives home the point that, because we have this freedom to create the curriculum, there’s no reason why they can’t be making art around these ideas while building these relationship skills. It really is just something that has to be made a priority. The teacher needs to make that choice that this is how I’m going to bring art to the students, but in a way that helps them grow in different areas of social and emotional competency. Well, that portfolio review is one of the ways, as far as maybe relationships, again, that aren’t about being friends, but about sitting down with someone and communicating with them. So, it’s part of my curriculum that I developed is how to do a solo exhibition. And sometimes they’ll do them together so they’rE maybe duo exhibition. But they’re very nervous.

They know it’s coming. And so I say, it’s all right, I’m going to teach you everything you need to know. And we will brainstorm ideas, what are different places. So there’s a series of lessons that teaches them how to plan for this. And there’s a packet that they fill out for their planning. And when they decide on the venue, there is an agreement in this packet between the artist and the contact at the venue. And it sounds very fancy this venue thing, but really it’s a doctor’s office, or it’s at the library.

Or sometimes when students are especially concerned, we will do it in our school library, but they still have to follow the whole process about going and sharing their portfolio first, here’s the work I do. I want the kids to think about it. Is this a good match? Is my art appropriate for this venue? And so we go through a lot of conversations about how to accomplish this. Oh, and part of it too is they have to set up some way of getting feedback from the viewers. And sometimes they’re really creative with it. Some of the times they’ll put out a guest book where people can jot things down, but sometimes they have little notes that people can put in a jar. We had one that was just kind of recorded because it was a one-night thing. And so they are really creative in the ways that they get to the end, that they solve the problems, that they do to fulfill for the assignment.

Jonathan: It’s amazing because I think when we stop and think about it, relationships are throughout that entire process. I mean, their relationship with you, their educator, and then the things that we don’t often think about as adults within the art world is like, okay, I have to be brave enough to reach out to somebody. I mean, some of us still don’t even like ordering pizza on our own. Right? But like, reaching out to a venue that, you’re right, matches the type of art they create when they feel comfortable showing their work in, inviting people to attend, all of those skills are, yeah, they’re very personal individual skills, but they’re about engaging with other people. I mean, Pilar, this is awesome. I’m like, Hmm, how can I do this with fifth graders? Maybe not, but, you know.

Pilar: Well, you could actually-

Jonathan: You could, right?

Pilar: Like in the school thinking about where would you want your art to be placed and you have to go ask permission and, you know, setting it up. It can happen. It’s just about finding the opportunities.

Jonathan: Well, okay. So now my mind is all over the place and I’m thinking about the little tiny art shows that my students do-

Pilar: That’s so great.

Jonathan: How amazing would it be to have fifth graders create their own little tiny art shows? But maybe they talk to different teachers in the building about putting their tiny art show up and display in their classroom or talk to the recess aid about putting it outside or in the cafeteria. I mean, there are such possibilities, even with a large number of kids to pull something like that off.

Pilar: And if they’re working on them together too. If you have them in groups and then they have to go do that together, they have to navigate those relationships as well as the relationships with the people in the building. And so, I think that’s a great idea.

Jonathan: So what now? What do you do with this information? Well, here are three things to consider

One. You know that person you’re thinking about right now? Call or text them. As soon as this episode is over call or text them just to say hi and make it a practice to do the same thing as other people pop into your head throughout the day.

Two. How do your procedures and expectations foster relationships within your classroom? Is it in the seating arrangement, the cleanup plan or time to reflect and learn from one another? What is one modification you can make to focus on relationships in this way?

Three. Make it authentic. Relationships can’t be forced as hard as we may try. We have to be fully ourselves. How can you use your humor, your love of cats, your own unique self to invite students to a space of trust and support?

And how am I feeling right now? Grateful. I am full of gratitude for the friends and family that continue to support, encourage, challenge and love me and who also remind me to laugh. I’m also grateful for those challenging relationships that have taught me about loss, forgiveness and the need to move forward. As we navigate relationships and our own self-awareness we strive to make responsible decisions. I hope you’ll join me next time for a conversation about responsible decision-making.

This has been The Art of SEL, part of the Art of Education University Podcast Network. Tim Bogatz is our producer and Amanda Heyn is our executive producer, and all of our episodes are engineered by the loyal Amy Juravich. Thank you so much for listening. If you like what you hear, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you want more information on art and social-emotional learning or anything art education-related, please check out

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.