Making positive connections with students is like doing a jigsaw

10th August 2018 at 00:00
Relationships with pupils have to be put together piece by piece, writes Clare Erasmus – teachers need to take their time to build a complete picture and not give up when something doesn’t seem to fit

Building healthy relationships with the students you work with is important, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy. Because it isn’t. You wear many hats as a teacher – from academic specialist and personal motivator to behaviour monitor and pastoral support worker – and the relationships you develop with students reflect this.

It is all about building trust between you and the young person in numerous ways, and this takes confidence, time and a whole lot of resilience.

I like to think of the relationships that exist between teachers and students as jigsaws: every piece matters and is a crucial part of the whole picture.

But what do those jigsaw pieces look like? They can be summed up with seven Cs.

Connect and care

First – and this may seem like an obvious one – you need to learn to enjoy being around the young person in front of you, and to recognise that they have a background and a life that takes place outside your lesson. Students are not robots; they all learn at different rates and are animated human beings who are slowly carving out their identities.

Of course, they will get it wrong – on many occasions. Show that you are still concerned for them and interested in their wellbeing regardless. For the disaffected student who sees no reason to engage with school, find one thing they are interested in and try to connect with them around that thing. And if there is nothing happening in their lives that they seem interested in, encourage them to join – or get the school to create – an extracurricular club for them to take part in.

Put aside your prejudgements and spend time chatting with the young person in these non-competitive extracurricular environments. The key is to invest in them, and to make them feel valued and part of the school community. When students do make mistakes and challenge the rules, help them to learn how to navigate their way out of situations. Don’t just punish them.

Ensure there is meaningful reflection time, that you use restorative language and have a conversation with the young person about ways forward. Be prepared to do this again and again and again. And be prepared to be flexible. There will be some instances when it is not the child who has to change, but the school environment.

Consistency

If the students have had to deal with a series of supply teachers because of an absent teacher, their trust in being able to form a solid relationship will be eroded. Obviously, you can’t help being absent when you need to be, but do be aware of the effect that this will have on the students and be prepared to work harder when you return.

Be as consistent as you can be. If your expectations fluctuate, the signals students receive will be confusing.

The advice is simple: be in the classroom; be consistently waiting for students with a greeting at the start of the lesson; be consistent with your expectations, especially around behaviour; be consistent in treating students with dignity and respect.

Challenge

If students feel that your lessons are inaccessible or irrelevant, then they won’t feel like they’re learning, and this will compromise your relationship with them. Set up a safe and stimulating environment in which you can stretch and challenge the students. They will enjoy this as long as they see that they can make marginal gains, and as long as what you are teaching feels relevant to the world they live in.

Let students know you care about your subject and about them doing well. Let them learn from their failures. If you invest in them and in your lessons, they will be more likely to invest in you. Talk to the students and keep asking questions that can take their skills to another level of higher-order thinking.

Communicate

Show students you value their contributions. You can do this by telling them at the start of a lesson what you were impressed with in the previous lesson. You can also showcase their work, single students out with verbal feedback privately or in front of the class, flag up achievements to other staff and celebrate students in assemblies or newsletters.

Reprimand privately, but praise publicly. Look for the positives in each student and let these feed your attention, remembering that assessment scales represent just one aspect of “achievement”. Being kind, helpful, truthful, encouraging, curious, resilient around failure, determined, responsible and meeting deadlines are all positive. So send notes home to parents highlighting all students’ achievements, whether they are academic or not.

Calm

Naturally, there will be times when late nights and the daily strains of this profession will take their toll, and you will feel your blood pressure rising. But try to manage your own stress levels, as they will affect your relationships with students.

Leaders should make sure that the school has measures in place to support staff wellbeing and colleagues should endeavour to look out for one another. Simple things such as offering a cup of tea can make all the difference. And from a whole-school perspective, it’s crucial to have a quiet room to relax in during breaks, as well as opportunities to take a reading from your emotional barometer and flag this with a supportive colleague.

If you are feeling the pressure, inadvertently taking things out on a student you have a tenuous relationship with is not the way forward and, in fact, will set you back. If and when this does happen, be ready to apologise. This demonstrates that you are human and make mistakes, too – something that can help to strengthen your relationship with the student in the long run.

Collaborate

If you are clashing with a student, don’t let it become personal. Connect with the head of year or head of house, or a subject teacher the student is working well with. Find out about the bigger picture, and about what works and does not work.

Be consistent as a staff team, making sure that all efforts are part of a coordinated attempt to find opportunities to enable the student to succeed and feel valued. Whatever happens, don’t give up on the child.

Every effort you make matters and every positive reinforcement counts. If relationships are jigsaws, we shouldn’t abandon them when something doesn’t seem to fit. Instead, we should stare at the board, search for the missing pieces and keep trying until we can complete the whole picture.

Clare Erasmus is head of faculty and head of mental wellbeing at Brighton Hill Community School in Basingstoke

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