So just how important are relationships when it comes to delivering the best outcomes for students? For many of us, the answer is simple. Being a people person is one of the qualities that drew us to the profession and, although love of subject and passion for pedagogy may also be motivational drivers, it’s those moments of joy that we often experience in the classroom that keep us there.
Yet periodically a “debate” will erupt where the importance of these relationships is brought into question and we’re told that all that really counts when it comes to increasing student attainment are expert subject knowledge and outstanding pedagogy.
A discussion opened up on Twitter (where else?) recently in response to an article by Tom Sherrington where he outlined “Nine key threads for maximising learning.” It’s a really interesting article and I’d definitely advise all teachers to take the time to read it but the one thing that appeared to divide opinion in some quarters was that there was no explicit mention of the importance of relationships.
‘Periodically a “debate” will erupt where the importance of relationships is brought into question.’
This prompted a poll where over 93 per cent of the 1,203 respondents stated that they felt that relationships were either the “most important” or a “very important” factor in relation to teaching and learning. However, the associated comments revealed a more stark divide and highlighted a huge discrepancy between what many teachers actually define as positive relationships.
The truth is, these debates are misleading and hopelessly binary. If you’re really going to bring the most out of your students, you’ll need a strong command of your subject, a clear understanding of pedagogy and outstanding relationships. We could spend all day contemplating the chicken and the egg and trying to determine which actually comes first but each of them has an absolutely critical role to play.
Consider for a moment these three archetypes; you may even have worked with people just like them:
Teacher A: a charismatic bag of tricks and “everyone’s favourite teacher.” The kids look forward to every lesson and Teacher A is able to cut a few corners because they know they’ll behave for them.
Teacher B: savant-like subject knowledge and admirably high expectations. Constantly frustrated when the students don’t share those high standards or their passion for the subject.
Teacher C: steady personality, sound subject knowledge, diligent planner and works hard to keep abreast of latest pedagogical research. Now I’m not going to ask you which of them is going to achieve the best outcomes from their students (although I’m sure you’ll all have an opinion!) but the point is that each of them would be a better teacher if they could learn a little from their colleagues.
“Your lessons don’t have to be a performance, you don’t have to be naturally charismatic.”
Teacher A may inspire loyalty and admiration from their students but, if they don’t take a leaf out of Teacher B & C’s books, those same students are going to be really disappointed when results day rolls around.
Teachers B & C could no doubt plan some incredible lessons if they put their heads together but, with a little more effort devoted to building relationships alongside that process, they may find that they’re met with an even more engaged, confident and enthusiastic audience.
Here’s the rub though, and it’s the thing that almost always gets misrepresented whenever this debate inevitably rears its head. When we’re talking about building positive relationships, we’re not actually talking about Teacher A at all. Your lessons don’t have to be a performance, you don’t have to be naturally charismatic and you certainly shouldn’t ever aspire to be “everyone’s favourite teacher.”
“It’s about getting to know each individual, figuring out their motivational levers and developing trust and respect.”
What building positive relationships actually revolves around is developing a much deeper and productive connection with your students and their families. What we’re really talking about is getting to know each individual, figuring out their motivational levers and developing trust and respect so that they not only accept your guidance but also feel safe enough to be honest with you when they’re struggling and need support.
It means making sure that you understand what success looks like for each individual and ensuring that you recognise and reward it in the manner that’s most suited to each of their needs. It means establishing home-school partnerships that enable you to elicit a positive response, whether you happen to be delivering good or bad news.
And it means figuring out the dynamics of your group, forging a cohesive and supportive unit and finding a way to make your lesson content relatable to them so they too come to share your love of the subject.
All of these things are the real building blocks of establishing positive relationships. If you can put the time into developing those things, as well as your pedagogy and subject knowledge, you really will get the most out of your students and, what’s more, you’ll derive even greater satisfaction from your time in the classroom.
Rob Potts is an experienced teacher and senior leader. His book The Caring Teacher – How to make a positive difference in the classroom (John Catt Educational Ltd) is available on Amazon now.
Rob tweets at @RJP_LEARNS