Let's be positive

13th January 2006 at 00:00
In any teacher-pupil relationship, don't forget that you are the adult. Sue Cowley looks at how to develop good relationships with your pupils

Illicit affairs between teachers and pupils grab the headlines, but it's the daily work of building positive relationships that is the real story.

Sometimes it's easy to create a good relationship - the pupils are amenable and pleasant, and you rub along fine together. At other times, you might find yourself teaching a tricky class or a troubled individual. In these situations a good relationship can be hard to win and tough to maintain.

Wherever you work - in an office, supermarket or school - there will be some people you like and others you don't. This is easier to deal with if it's a colleague with whom you don't see eye to eye, partly because you can avoid them. With pupils, you have no choice: you must teach the children in your class, regardless of personality clashes.

Good teaching depends on taking the time to build positive relationships.

If the pupils respect you, and feel that you respect them, they will work with you.

Respectful relationships take time and effort to create, and this can make working with a new class difficult. If you don't know the pupils' names, you cannot personalise your dealings with them. They are likely to test you out, quite possibly by messing around to check your reaction. And, if you do have to discipline them, they may feel resentful at being told off by a stranger.

Having respect for you is not necessarily the same thing as liking you. If you think back to your school days, you may remember teachers who were known for being strict, but who were respected. Respect was based on the knowledge that these teachers were doing their best for you - that was why they were cracking the whip.

When you start teaching, it is hard to find a balance between being the pupils' friend and their teacher. The temptation is to befriend them in the hope that they will give you an easy ride. But friends don't tell you off; teachers have to.

It's a question of equality - about teaching everyone to the best of your ability, regardless of personal feelings. There may well be children in the class that you prefer, but as a professional you must never show it.

There are many ways of building relationships. Think about how you talk to pupils: use a conversational volume and tone, be polite as far as possible, and don't nag about how irritating they are. Limit sarcasm, or, better, avoid it. It can help you let off steam, but it's unattractive and often misunderstood by children.

Consider the quality of the learning experience you offer: over time, this is the most important way in which you will be judged. Not every lesson can be all-singing, all-dancing, but children know if you are making an effort.

Balance patches of dull slog through the curriculum with fun and practical activities. Where individuals struggle with the learning, differentiate the work or find them additional support.

Get to know your children beyond the classroom. Make a positive comment as you pass a pupil in the corridor or give up a Saturday morning to watch the school football team. Extra-curricular activities are time-consuming, but worth their weight in gold when it comes to creating lasting bonds.

And, finally, remember to show that you like your children. Forget the old adage about staying stern until Christmas - you'd be amazed at how much difference a smile can make.

Sue Cowley is the author of 'Getting the Buggers to Behave' and 'The Guerilla Guide to Teaching' (Continuum).

'Carla is a happier girl - at home too'

Karen Garner teaches Year 5 at Harefield junior school in Southampton I found Carla lurking outside my door. "Miss, I'm glad you're going to be my teacher next year." I said I was happy, too, but I knew things might be difficult.

I often saw Carla crying, screaming and refusing to comply with her teacher. Every time I saw Carla I told her I couldn't wait to teach her.

The more I said it, the truer it became. Already, we had begun to build a relationship.

Next September, my teaching assistant, Sue Whitcombe, and I tried consciously not to prejudge Carla. We told the children this was a fresh start - we were waiting for them to impress us. Sue interviewed Carla, and we paired her with children she identified as role models. She began to share opinions during whole-class discussion and her verbal vocabulary increased. Although she is weak in spelling, she has managed to improve her writing, and has received whole-school recognition for her efforts.

Carla has progressed quickly in numeracy due to the intervention of Zoe Winfield, our upper school officer for numeracy intervention, who uses differentiated, focused, well-resourced, verbal and whiteboard work.

Carla works in a small group with high staff- to-pupil ratios. It caters for the children's learning styles, and staff praise them no matter how small their advances.

Zoe says, "Carla is now positive and confident about maths - she really wants to learn."

Carla works with an emotional literacy support assistant (Southampton introduced these in 2001) on anger management and raising self-esteem. She is now a different child: she follows school behaviour systems and has had no warnings. Her mum approached me after half term and said she has noticed a real change for the better in Carla. She is a happier girl both at home and at school.


Colin Ward teaches drama and English at a secondary school in Coventry Mitchell* started out being very confrontational with me, often searching for any way to disrupt my flow and get a good laugh from his mates. As a ringleader, he became a prime target for behaviour management.

It came to a head one day when I took him aside and simply asked: "What's the problem? What's going wrong here, between you and my lessons?"

I carefully avoided saying, "What's your problem," knowing that a personal attack on his self-esteem would not have been constructive.

His answer was simple: "I'm bored!"

I decided to be honest, and told him that I knew how intelligent he was, that I liked his sense of humour, and that he should be aiming higher than most of his peers. Indeed, he needed to be looking at least one level above most of his mates. He was quite pleased with this idea.

All that remained was to strike a deal. I had to keep challenging him, asking him to go further, work faster; for his part, Mitchell had to work hard, but understand and tolerate the fact that sometimes I have to work at a slower pace, because he was not the only pupil in the room.

Now I see Mitchell as a wonderful young man with an acute sense of humour that frequently results in a joke shared between me and him that flies above most other pupils' heads.

Most importantly, we have both kept our sides of the deal, even though we slip up occasionally. All in all, we have developed mutual respect.

*Not his real name


Outside the classroom we can freely admit when we don't like someone: a person with horribly racist or sexist opinions, say, or a colleague with distasteful personal habits. In school, though, professional duty must take priority over personal feelings. Teaching is about doing your best for every single child.

Many teachers do the job because they love spending time with children.

It's a shock when you meet a pupil who irritates you - it feels against the natural order of things.

Find ways to build bridges, not least for your own sanity. You will probably be taking a class for a year, particularly in primaries, and that's a lot of time together.

* You might be told that a child in your new class is notoriously hard to handle. Resist the urge to prejudge - it can make you take a subconsciously negative approach. Give every child the chance for a fresh start in your lessons.

* Keep a sense of perspective. Sometimes you will get off on the wrong foot with a child, particularly as a new teacher. It is hard to win someone back from an antagonistic relationship, but if you persist it can be done.

* As the adult, it's your job to open the lines of communication and negotiation, so take time to talk to the child about what is going on.

Start your discussion by asking: "What do you think is going wrong between us?"

* Remind yourself that it's not necessarily the child's fault. Even the most abusive children have learned their behaviour somewhere. Aim to feel sorry for these pupils, rather than be irritated by them.

* Don't be too hard on yourself - so long as you don't let your feelings affect your professional treatment of a pupil, you are doing your job. You will inevitably come across a few who are difficult to like, but do your best with them and forgive yourself if you make mistakes.

* Find something that does appeal to you about the child, no matter how small. The most disruptive pupils often have a spark that at least makes them interesting to teach.

* Don't lose your sense of perspective and focus all your energy and time on your difficult pupils. There are many others deserving of your time, energy and attention.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today