College tutors are in the relationships business

16th March 2018 at 00:00
Developing a ‘moral contract’ with his GCSE maths resit students that boosted results convinced Graham Razey such bonds are of paramount importance

For many years as a lecturer in further education – and then in senior leadership at a range of colleges – I’ve found one thing solves most problems: building relationships.

I’ve placed partnerships at the core of a huge amount of what I’ve done and rarely seen them fail to deliver a positive outcome. In fact, in many ways, growing the links between me – and my organisations – and others has been my primary strategy. And it works.

A recent government research report backs this view, with its authors expounding the virtues of a collaborative approach to leadership. That means building relationships with staff, students, and the wider communities – including, of course, business – which we seek to serve. But the report also states that style of leadership needs to be mixed with a more “top-down” approach as well. The good leaders – and that includes those who lead students and teach them – are also able to take command and make decisions.

So what’s all this got to do with pedagogy? Well, let me front-load my next statement with the caveat that this could be viewed as controversial by many within teaching. I’d like to promote the idea that the relationship between the tutor and the student can be a greater determinant of success than the teaching which is delivered.

I appreciate the gravity of that statement, but let me explain. One of my first roles in further education was teaching maths and sports in a college. At the time, I would work with groups that included both students who were retaking their maths GCSE alongside a main qualification in sports – and also those who were retaking their maths GCSE alongside another subject as their main qualification.

With a larger amount of time spent with those learners also taking sports, I was able to grow my relationships with them as students, building my ability to develop a stronger collaborative approach. We developed closer bonds. As a consequence, they placed greater trust in me as their teacher. This applied to the work we did together in both their main qualification, and in their maths programme.

The trust that developed gave me the opportunity to build those students’ motivation – and also to tell them, when the need arose, that they just needed to get on with it and learn. They knew that if I was telling them that they had to grin and bear it and work harder, it was because they needed to. That “top-down” delivery was made easier because of the imperative they had to deliver for me because of the bond which had developed.

Moral contracts

That partnership we built also gave them the required motivation to get tasks such as homework done, further developing their learning and building their confidence. And it was a two-way street. The trust was built because they knew I would deliver on my end of the deal: giving them the tools and knowledge that they needed to succeed and ensuring they had the best possible support.

Growing these relationships with those students taking maths was critical to our combined success.

The fact they were likely to be highly disengaged after their prior failure to achieve the required C grade at GCSE meant that developing a strong partnership approach to their learning was of even greater importance.

Rather than simply delivering the prevailing pedagogical perspective of relating every aspect of maths to a “real world” scenario – which, in my view doesn’t work in many cases – I built a moral contract between my students and me.

It was this moral contract that created the imperative for those students to drive their own agenda and get the work done. And led to the pass rates for GCSE maths of those students taking their main qualification with me to be 20 per cent higher than those who were just studying GCSE Maths with me, who I did not have a strong enough bond with.

I recognise this contrarian pedagogical concept may fly in the face of received wisdom, but the reality is it delivered great results during several years for those students I taught.

While I accept it is very unlikely I could have achieved these results with GCSE English, I think the approach is worthy of further exploration both in the search for better outcomes in GCSE English and maths resits – and also in leadership.

Graham Razey is group principal and chief executive at East Kent College Group


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