‘Strict or sympathetic? There’s more than one way for teachers to relate to their students’

Some teachers build long-term emotional bonds, others are more distant and disciplinarian. Both can work

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One of the most underrated aspects of a teacher’s profile is his or her ability to establish meaningful student/teacher relationships.

Subject knowledge, pedagogy and even the ability to understand and manage student data seem to have usurped the more discreet skill of establishing powerful relationships with students when it comes to evaluating both prospective teachers and current practitioners.

This is probably because it is very difficult to identify which teachers will develop the kind of lasting, impactful bond between teacher and student that can lead to all kinds of remarkable results.

It is also because of the instant gratification that the government, Ofsted and some school leaders have wanted to see in terms of real time “results”.

It is also tricky to define just what makes up a “positive” student-teacher relationship? There are those that would argue it’s any relationship that enables the student to achieve their academic potential; to learn more in school. “Tough love” and “no excuses” might feature highly here.

Facing off against this is the more holistic view that that sees the relationship between teacher and student as one that enables the student to feel better about themselves: perhaps more confident and outgoing, perhaps happier, perhaps more able to cope with life. Now, this could lead to better learning outcomes, however, if a student is out of the classroom for a long period benefitting from pastoral support then ultimately it might give them less of a chance in their exams or studies.

Stark choice

Of course, there is nothing to say you can’t have a “bit of both” but the reality is that, especially with the more challenging students, there will be tensions that will likely take a teacher or school down a particular path. Sometimes, the choice is as stark: should a student going be forced to stay in a Maths lesson or should they be better off in the student support centre. Is a student going to complete a detention to catch up on some work missed or are they not? And so on.  

Depending on where the individual teacher sits on this spectrum might dictate how they go about developing positive relationships with their students. In my view, a range of approaches can absolutely work. For example, I have seen teachers who have a more “friendly” and “conciliatory” approach to students who, through their sheer “niceness”, achieve respect – students understand they try endlessly to treat them well, a teacher who might even bend their own rules to avoid a particular conflict in a particular situation.

I have seen teachers like this develop a kind of loyalty from their students that is to be admired – it means their students are often more likely to attend revision sessions and/or to listen to that teacher when in a challenging situation in school. Softly spoken advice from this teacher can be enough. Every teacher needs a backstop, but these teachers tend to only ever use it as a last resort.

Of course, sometimes students can try to take advantage. That is the true test of this kind of teacher: the ability to judge how well their particular approach is working. Are they a pushover or are they pitching it just right? Does their way of doing things make their job easier or tougher? Does it improve outcomes for students or not and even if it doesn’t, what other benefits are there?

There are also teachers who are more distant and business-like with their students, but command respect and develop meaningful relationships through their sheer passion for the subject and also their deep-rooted commitment; results matter. It’s less likely you will see this teacher engaging in “chat” with individual students, but it’s very likely that students will develop a relationship with this teacher along the lines of “Mr X’s lessons are so good” or “Mrs X is an amazing teacher”.

Of course, with a firm belief that academic success brings the best long-term benefits to a student brings with it a less compromising approach to classroom rules, classroom exemptions and so on. It's more likely this teacher will be seen as strict. It's more likely this teacher will have more “conflict situations” with students due to an unwillingness to compromise on particular rules. This teacher will need an SLT that not only supports or sympathises with their educational philosophy, but that is willing to back them up when it comes to their approach to classroom management.

Tough exchanges

Personally, I establish some of my strongest bonds with students through seemingly negative interactions. I buy into this philosophy – perhaps not to the point of “no excuses”, but certainly towards that pillar. This leads to some pretty touch exchanges with students over behaviour issues. The payoff is that, in time, they see why I do it the way I do. They feel like they were learning within my approach. They understand its benefits.

Following this realisation (which takes time!), I'm able to then be more personable with them. I must add, it is rare they ever come to me with their problems, but I can’t be all things to all students. I believe in my approach and there are plenty of positive results to look at.

Equally, I know other teachers – often next door – who develop their relationships in a different way. I know students can and will approach them with deeply challenging personal issues. This isn’t a matter of preference or trust, but one of different relationships harbouring different results.

In my view, schools should embrace these different types of relationships and celebrate the diversity of their staff. I don’t buy into the idea that a particular student relationship “type” is best. Whatever path a teacher chooses to go down, it won’t come without its challenges and it will take skill and commitment to come out the other side with the outcomes they want.  

We are fortunate that in England we have an incredibly talented pool of teachers who understand the power and potential of the relationships they build with their students. Other stakeholders in education would do well to recognise that these relationships take a long time to form, sometimes years.

Not only that, it takes teachers a long time to refine their own approaches to get the best out of their students, whatever “the best” is to them or their school. Good things come to those that wait.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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