“Classroom management is not about having the right rules… it’s about having the right relationships.” says Danny Steele, 2016 Alabama Headteacher of the Year. His school, Thompson Sixth Grade Centre, has become one of the most successful educational establishments in his state. Steele’s mantra can be best summed up as: “Kids don’t gravitate to subjects…they gravitate to teachers.”
Despite being from across the pond, Steele’s words are surely universal in their truth.
But what are these “relationships” that he and so many other prominent educators talk about that make all the difference? How and why do children gravitate towards certain teachers? Why do certain teachers become the main reason that some children bother attending school at all?
At the Bett show last year, Tom Bennett gave a presentation aimed at new teachers and his overriding message was “don’t be too nice”. Don’t think that the primary driver in building effective and meaningful student-teacher relationships is to shower students with praise, niceties and general trivialities. I concur. In my experience, those that constantly bombard badly behaved students with flattery or good-wishes end up not only feeling inadequate themselves but undermine fellow colleagues. Above all, they completely wash away any positive impact that whole-school behaviour policies might have had on that student.
In my 10-year teaching career so far, I’ve come to appreciate that a meaningful teacher-student relationship doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t come cheap and if it doesn’t happen, it probably isn’t your fault. The reality is that for many students, school is far from where they want to be. They might express that dislike in a variety of ways. If so, it's inevitable your job and their wants are going to clash. How you react to that clash will likely define their view of you as their teacher and even your success as a teaching professional.
Great teacher-student relations start with respect: everything with respect. Unfortunately, beyond the basics of following instructions, that has to be earned. Students first of all need to see the teacher doing what they are supposed to do and doing it well. Students aren’t stupid; they can see a mile off someone who cares more about being Mr Popular than being a solid and sound classroom practitioner. They can see someone who only plans a stunner for a lesson observation. They can see someone going through the motions and they can see someone who’d rather be somewhere else. It also won’t take them long to figure out if you dislike children, or perhaps only have a vague tolerance for them.
Students need to feel that you want to be there with them, that you love them as people and that love will translate into all the different necessary facets; loving discipline and direction included. Perhaps you might prefer the phrase “tough love”.
How often have you had a big “blow up” with a child who you were struggling with, when they storm out or swear at you because you have handed out a punishment or a sanction? In 2007, in my first term teacher training at a challenging school in North Wales, I recall making a decision that still makes me cringe. A student had lashed out at me in a lesson and I sent them out. I was right to do so, I was following the school policy. Now, because at that time I had neither the confidence or the foresight to let that lie, I paid that student a visit in the school inclusion unit and tried to semi-apologise or appease. It was awful. I was too concerned about how they would react to me in the future. I was desperate to be liked. I wanted everything to be brilliant between me and a student who I didn’t even know. Of course, what I should have understood is that only after a student understands that you have firm boundaries, can you have a laugh, conversations or even be conciliatory. But without first establishing an understanding of that framework, there’s no point. They will just laugh at you. You will appear to be weak and inconsistent. I learned to embrace the conflict, to ride it out, perhaps for a while. Until, things (hopefully) settle down.
Students have their own friends, they don’t need another one. What many do need is a rock, someone who will be a dependable force in their life, with an understated nurturing spirit, not “it doesn’t matter what you do or how you treat me or others”. As in any relationship, there will be the rough and the smooth, it can’t all be soundbites from the Educating… series where Musharaf “finds his voice” because of his relationship with Mr Burton. There has to be an uncompromising grit, never eroding your core principles for the sake of some idea of appeasement.
This comes back to what’s at the core of my own educational philosophy, the reasoning that the best thing you can do for a child is give them the best educational start in life. The best way to do that, teach your subject to them as if every lesson is your last. In the past, I've been frustrated by seeing misbehaving students taken out of class to sit on whoopee cushions and sip tea with a behaviour mentor. Yes – there is a time and a place for it. But my view is every lesson a student misses or every bit of time a student forfeits is a chance at learning gone that they will never get back.
The best student-teacher relationships surely end with deeper and more substantial learning, whether academic or otherwise.
For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue