It is the final day of a very very long January and the mornings are becoming that little bit brighter. There is hope on the horizon of spring.
Spring brings us growth, new life and an opportunity for us to reflect and bring a lease of life to our teaching and the relationships we have with the students we teach.
This week I keep thinking about the impact we have as Teachers. Not just in the vast repertoire of subject knowledge we possess, but in the kindness of our words, the modelling of our actions and the support in the choices we make in our classroom.
The relationship between student and teacher plays a large role in the trajectory of a child’s academic success and social development. Establishing a positive relationship with their teacher helps a student feel more comfortable and safe in their classroom environments. We want our students to do well and we want them to get good grades- to improve their opportunities for the future, but if a child doesn’t feel nurtured and supported in our classroom- then really our planning, marking and hours of work go to waste. A child will not learn from someone they are intimidated by or someone they feel doesn’t respect or support them.
So how can we ensure our classrooms are encouraging, supportive and engaging? How can we ensure that pupils want to learn and thrive? That they believe, strive and want to achieve?
Creating a successful classroom environment
How does a teacher’s approach affect that relationship?
In a 2018 study, Arizona State University researcher Victoria Theisen-Homer found different teacher-training programs prioritized different kinds of relationships with students:
• An instrumental focus involved a limited, one-way relationship in which teachers cull bits of information about students specifically to motivate them to behave well and focus on teacher-directed tasks. The relationships “were structured as a controlled means to a particular end: student compliance,” she found. “Students learned that their value was tied to the degree to which they worked hard and behaved in line with what mostly white authority figures demanded.”
• A reciprocal focus required teachers to gather complex information and develop a holistic understanding of their students, inviting the students to grapple with content and problems together. “These students not only learned to think for themselves, but also had adults who affirmed and responded to their thoughts and experiences. Such interactions prepared them to engage with authority figures, and to someday hold positions of authority themselves,” Theisen-Homer said.
The study also found in an analysis of two of these programs that teachers trained in the instrumental focus were more likely to go on to teach in low-income, high-minority schools, while those trained in reciprocal relationships ended up in schools with more high-income and white students. It was not clear why teachers ended up sorting in this way, but it raised concerns about differences in the kinds of relationships high- and low-income students might experience with teachers.
“Sometimes teachers don’t understand the importance that their relationship with each student has on that student’s identity and sense of belonging,” said Vicki Nishioka, a senior researcher with Education Northwest who studies teacher-student relationships. “What gets in the way of that is a more authoritarian kind of discipline and interaction approach with students, which really doesn’t work.”
For example, a 2016 study randomly assigned teachers to increase their positive interactions with students. Students of teachers who boosted their ratio to five positive comments and interactions for every negative one had significantly less disruptive behavior and more time on task academically than the students of a control group of teachers.
How can teachers improve their relationships with students?
In a word: Empathy. Across several recent studies, researchers have found that teachers who cultivate empathy for and with their students are able to manage students’ behavior and academic engagement better.
Nishioka finds that trying to suppress biases or stereotypes about students can sometimes make them worse, but practicing perspective-taking—actively imagining how a student might perceive or be affected by a situation—can reduce bias and deepen teacher-student relationships. She recommended teachers:
• Talk to students to understand differences in their perceptions and expectations in class.
• Research cultural differences between teachers and students to head off cultural misunderstandings, particularly around norms, styles, and language.
• Teach and model perspective-taking for students in class.