Do your relationships with students really matter?

10th August 2018 at 00:00
It is often claimed that students can’t learn effectively from a teacher they don’t like. But does the research truly support that? And if it does, what can schools do to make sure that bad relationships aren’t letting down learning? Chris Parr investigates

It’s a new year, a new term. That means you have a new Year 9 class. And this time, there are a couple of names on the list that have you worried. They are students whose reputations precede them.

Sure enough, Megan starts the first lesson by arguing with you over the seating plan. It all seems about to kick off. But then Ryan, whom you taught in Year 7, steps in. “Leave it,” he tells Megan, “Sir’s all right.” Crisis averted. Such is the power of building positive working relationships with your students.

Not only that, but there is more to the picture: good classroom relationships are of paramount importance to learning. There are countless studies saying as much, and a bottomless pile of information, advice and guidance for teachers looking to hone their own relationship-building skills.

But how solid is the research base from which this conclusion is drawn? And if it is reliable, then what does it say a good teacher-student relationship actually looks like? Would you be able to confidently say whether your own school fosters positive relationships between pupils and staff?

Link to motivation

Bridget Hamre, associate research professor and associate director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, has spent her career looking at these questions and she is certain the assumption that relationships matter is based on solid evidence.

“There are now hundreds of studies documenting the types of relationships between teachers and students that help students get the most out of each day in the classroom,” says Hamre. “Students who have positive relationships with teachers end up doing better academically and socially.

“In one early study I did in this area, we showed that students who had conflictual relationships with teachers in kindergarten demonstrated poorer outcomes all the way through to eighth grade...[and there was] greater likelihood of disciplinary infractions.”

Relationships, Hamre’s research found, are better predictors of later outcomes than simpler measures of students’ behaviour problems. “Although we know that having early behaviour problems can set a student up for challenges throughout school, those who are able to form and maintain positive relationships despite their behavioural challenges are much more likely to be successful,” she explains.

These findings are not in isolation; far from it, in fact. In 2009, research by John Hattie pulled together more than 800 meta-analyses of student achievement, and found that “it is teachers who have created positive teacher-student relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement”. And a 2011 meta-analysis led by Debora Roorda, which investigated the qualities of teacher-student relationships and pupil engagement, found that motivation to learn was linked to relationship quality. There are countless other studies to draw on.

Given this overwhelming body of evidence, it seems at first glance that positive classroom relationships really do matter. There are, however, complications to consider. Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at University College London, warns that the study of student-teacher relationships is an area where “the claims run ahead of the evidence”.

“It is often claimed that students cannot learn from teachers who they do not like, and that is demonstrably not true,” says Wiliam. “Where students want to learn, they will learn from anyone.”

So, to better understand the role of relationships in the classroom, he suggests, we need to play close attention to relationships where students “are not intrinsically motivated”.

“Typically, when people research this, they give students questionnaires about their attitudes to their teachers – and, much less often, about teachers’ attitudes to their students – and hardly cross-check the two,” Wiliam explains.

Then, he continues, they look at whether the students’ responses on relationship questionnaires correlated with other measures, such as achievement or student engagement, and “we generally find that better student-teacher relationships are associated with the more desirable outcomes”.

Conflict and closeness

The problem here, Wiliam says, is that it is impossible to know which factor is causing which. “Do good relationships cause higher achievement or does higher achievement cause good relationships?

“Without some manipulation of the variables, such as working with teachers to improve their relationships with students, it is hard to see how the direction of causality might be established.”

This is important, he adds, because “it seems, to me at least, plausible – and possibly likely – that teachers behave differently towards high-achieving, motivated, well-behaved students”.

The issue of student motivation is something that Hamre also acknowledges. According to her, most of the research shows that the two most important factors in student-teacher relationships are closeness and conflict.

“When relationships are close, teachers and students report enjoying spending time together and trusting one another. Students report that they know they can count on these teachers when times get tough,” she says. “As students mature, respect is also a huge issue. So in adolescence, it’s really important to students to feel that their teachers respect who they are as people.”

However, when conflict is high, Hamre continues, teachers report that “dealing with the student drains all their energy, that they are frequently frustrated”, and that they “find themselves getting angry with the student on a regular basis”.

Regularly getting angry with a student is obviously not a sign of a good working relationship, but what is not as clear is exactly what a positive relationship does look like. So, what are the key components and how can teachers ensure they are developing the most effective ties with their pupils?

Hamre believes that you can start by dismissing one well-known adage. “One of my least favourite things to hear is that many new teachers, particularly those working in challenging urban settings, are told ‘don’t smile ’til January’ – meaning they should be strict and disconnected until they have the classroom ‘under control’. That is exactly the wrong approach. Teachers can have well-managed classrooms, and warm and supportive relationships at the same time.”

Behavioural challenges

Instead, Hamre says, the evidence shows that it is important to take time to convey messages about behaviour to those students who are least likely to hear them – particularly those who struggle with behavioural challenges. “As a former teacher, I know this can be hard – some students really push our buttons and can drive us crazy. But at the end of the day, teachers are the adults and have a responsibility to do all we can to connect with the students who walk into our room each day.”

In addition, she says, schools need to be able to look beyond the relationships that stand out from the norm: those that are either noticeably positive or infamously problematic. It’s important not to overlook those students who fall somewhere between the two extremes. “I saw a great and very practical example of how to do this,” Hamre says. “At one school where the principal really knows about the importance of relationships, they took the time to write the names of all the students in the school around the room during a teacher meeting.”

After that, each teacher put green sticky notes under the names of any students with whom they’d had positive interactions in the last week, and red sticky notes under the names of any they had encountered problems with. “They immediately saw those students whose names were filled with red – who had, day after day, across classrooms and contexts, negative interactions with adults.

“However, and perhaps equally importantly, they saw the names of the students with no sticky notes at all. These students are the ones who are just disconnected – and they often get missed.”

After this exercise, the school made plans that aimed to ensure staff went out of their way to connect with students who were not getting much positive interaction with adults.

Time and effort

An intervention like this one might require a bit of time and effort, but it is relatively simple and should be achievable in most schools, surely? Hamre believes so. All it takes, she suggests, is the right push from leadership.

“There are many schools that recognise the importance of these relationships but, given the demands on teachers and schools these days, I think it takes a determined leader to make them a priority.

“I often tell schools and teachers that even taking small steps can make a real difference. For example, during the last week of school in fourth grade, my son got a letter from his favourite teacher, Mr Lorigan, who taught him in third grade. It was a simple letter – just saying how much he appreciated seeing my son walk into school every morning with a smile and sharing a few memories he had of their time together the prior year.

“My son, who’d had a really challenging fourth-grade year, was in awe – he felt so touched in a way that left a real mark. The five minutes that it took that teacher to write that note made a huge difference. I know teachers are busy and stressed, but most of them realise that if they take the time to invest in relationships with students, it pays back huge returns.”

Daniel Quin, a graduate student in psychology at Australian Catholic University, and the author of a 2017 systematic review of longitudinal and contextual associations between teacher–student relationships and student engagement, points out that primary teachers are often “generally better at these relationships” – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that they usually teach just one class.

“Unfortunately, in secondary school, students experience many teachers for short periods of time. This makes teacher-student relationships difficult to develop beyond the superficial. For example, when I was teaching…I might see 200 students in a week – not a good way to develop a relationship,” Quin says.

“At my children’s primary school, their teacher stays with students for two or three years. They know, understand and care about their students so much.”

However, Quin does note that some secondary schools have strong pastoral care systems, with core teachers, that encourage continuity of relationships. This, he says, can make up for all the chopping and changing.

Rob Loe, director of the Relational Schools Foundation, a charitable thinktank aiming to improve how people who work and study in schools relate to one another, agrees with this. He believes that secondary schools can take conscious steps to make sure that positive relationships develop.

One example he gives involves XP School, a secondary in Doncaster which takes all Year 7 students away for a four-day outward bound residential trip at the start of their first year.

It also allocates 45 minutes at the start of the day to something called “Crew”: not simply an opportunity to take the register and cover administration requirements but a period where form tutors and students deliberately allocate time to forge “genuine and deep connections”.

Getting the balance right

However, XP is a small school – and “size matters”, says Loe.

“I think this is one of the key sources of tension for teachers. If you are teaching 12 different classes and you have even reasonable class sizes, that’s a lot of pupils. To just know the name, let alone really know them as individuals and human beings is a challenge.”

Larger school structures also tend to promote “lots of movements and periods of transition”, Loe adds, meaning students are having to break and form relationships with different pupils and teachers more often. “This can be problematic,” he adds.

But Quin isn’t sure that secondary teachers need to be too worried. “My observation on this is that some commentators – not researchers – try to downplay the importance of high-quality, affective relationships between students and teachers,” he says. “They suggest children and adolescents just need good-quality instruction, and that care and relationships is overstated.”

For him, strong student-teacher relationships “are crucial but aren’t everything”. “I think that children and adolescents fundamentally want to learn, particularly at school,” he says.

Quin is not the only one to be cautious about how much value we place on relationships in the classroom. According to Wiliam, “ultimately, what is important is the learning, not the relationships”.

“If relationships are a means to an end, then great, but when they become a goal, we could easily end up in a situation where teachers are nice to students but where the students do not learn anything,” he says. “In this context, it is worth noting that recent research on motivation suggests that academic success causes motivation at least as much as the other way round.”

It’s not that relationships aren’t important, Wiliam suggests, but as long as there is little consensus among researchers about exactly how to define good teacher-student relationships, teachers would do better to focus on what they already know works for them and their students.

“My hunch is that schools would be better off not worrying about student-teacher relationships in the abstract and start involving students more in thinking about learning,” Wiliam says. “Engaging students in conversations about how their teachers support them in deep, meaningful, long-lasting learning seems to me a far more productive focus than worrying about relationships in the abstract.”

And as for the complication of behaviour, Hamre points out that promoting strong relationships does not mean schools “can’t have and enforce rules”.

The best teachers she says, recognise that “if students feel liked and respected, they will be much more likely to engage in positive behaviour in the classroom”.

“Honestly, it’s not rocket science,” she concludes. “Students need to know that we care about them, trust them and believe in them. It’s also really important to give students voice and opportunities for leadership – too often, school is about being controlled and told what to do – and none of us likes living in that kind of an environment.”

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist

References

Hattie, J (2009) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (Routledge).

Quin, D (2017).“Longitudinal and Contextual Associations Between Teacher–Student Relationships and Student Engagement: A Systematic Review” Review of Educational Research.

Roorda, DL et al (2011) “The Influence of Affective Teacher–Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Approach”, Review of Educational Research.

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