Whenever I have the privilege of observing another teacher’s lesson, the thing that strikes me first is always the relationship that the teacher has with their students. You can sense this through the emanating atmosphere when you enter the classroom; sometimes uneasy, tense, staid or – dare I say it – rebellious, at others focused and respectful, full of positive energy, motivation and application. There are manifest reasons for why this may be the case, some a result of the teacher or lesson, others the particular topic, room or time of day. Yet the most positive atmospheres have a common thread running through them: excellent teacher-student relationships.
The importance of teachers building positive connections with students has been highlighted in recent and seminal studies. These suggest that students are more motivated when teachers take a genuine interest in them (Ferlazzo, 2015) and create inclusive classroom conditions (Ryan and Deci, 2000). The damaging impact of not building these relationships has also been stressed (Ginsberg, 2015). My own small-scale research for my MA in Education also highlighted the importance of positive teacher-student connections. Across interviews with a number of my students, ‘getting to know students as individuals’ was the most frequently coded reason given for the development of motivation-encouraging relationships.
Why is fostering these positive individual relationships with students so important? Well, apart from the pleasure that comes from getting to know another human being at more than a surface level, they have a positive impact on the quality of learning that occurs. Having these positive connections won’t in themselves make for excellent lessons, but what they can do is to add value to every aspect of your teaching. Students will be better behaved, work harder, respond better to feedback, show increased motivation, be more sympathetic to your misjudgements and in sum drive your class forwards more positively than if these connections haven’t been made.
So how can we go about building these individual connections with our students? The most important thing may be just finding (in reality, making) the time for the many small inputs that help forge these positive connections. Here are some of the things – and I’m sure there are many others besides – that I believe are worth making time for to build these connections:
– Learn the name of every student that you teach as soon as possible at the start of the year. Don’t just hope this will happen naturally over time. Get your class photo lists out and consciously learn them. Nothing that follows will work without this essential prerequisite.
– Get to your lessons a couple of minutes early and spend that time talking to individual students as you wait to begin, trying to find out something of their lives and interests outside of your lesson.
– Greet each student at the door of your classroom by name as they enter, saying good morning and asking how they are. Do the same as students leave, this time highlighting something positive they have done in the lesson, for example asking great questions, showing improved concentration or finally nailing that 8-mark exam question.
– Always say hello to your students in the corridor or around school. Make this an active approach; be the one to make the first move. If you can, stop to have a chat with them. Remind them about a due homework or test. Ask them how their half term was. You will find that over time students will start to seek you out as well, further developing the teacher-student relationship (and brightening up your day).
– When returning tests or assessments, find time to speak with each student individually about it. Let them know what you were pleased about and reinforce areas they need to improve. Support them if they under-performed and stretch them if they had success. Make your students aware that their results are not just a ‘number’ for you, but a signal of their progress and a spotlight on their strengths and weaknesses.
– When you ask a student a question in class, be sure to always listen to their answer. It can be easy to ‘switch off’ sometimes when teaching and only half-listen – especially if you are concerned about time or monitoring behaviour – but nothing will hinder these connections more than your students feeling as if their contributions aren’t valued.
– Following on from this, don’t tolerate anything less than total respect in your lessons, not only between you and your students, but also between the students themselves. Make sure everyone feels like they can make a valuable contribution to your lesson in a supportive and respectful environment. Encourage your students to make mistakes (and learn from them). Encourage all students to get fully involved in tasks and activities. Don’t let a student fall ‘under the radar’ as every student needs to feel like a valued part of your class.
– Share something of yourself with your students. You are their teacher, but don’t feel you have to act like a ‘teacher’ all the time. Show some humanity. Share a story about your past, demonstrate empathy with struggling students or relay an amusing anecdote from your weekend.
- Ferlazzo, L. (2015) Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners: Strategies to Help Students Thrive in School and Beyond, Oxon: Routledge.
- Ginsberg, M. (2015) ‘Shadowing a student shows how to make learning more relevant’, Phi Delta Kappan, 97(4), pp.26-30. SAGE [Online] Available at: www.sagepub.com
- Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000) ‘Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), pp. 54-67.