The three Rs? What about relationships?

4th May 2018 at 00:00
Strong links between teachers and pupils not only make school a happier place, but they have also been proven to boost results, argues Clare Jarmy

What does it take to be the best teacher in the world? Excellent record-keeping? Using data? Improving standards? Perhaps is there something even more important? When Andria Zafirakou, an associate deputy head at a comprehensive in north-west London, was awarded the Global Teacher Prize, it was for the outstanding quality of her relationships: with staff; with students; with students’ families; with the wider community.

In a tough school, where children are subject to recruitment by local gangs, Zafirakou reaches out. Unashamedly maternal in her approach, she learns the basics of students’ languages (some 35 of them), protects them from the gang members outside the gates and organises evening and weekend classes to provide a “safe space” outside school hours. She invests not only her time, but also herself, in these relationships.

Zafirakou says: “Building relationships with your students is the absolute key. That’s the most important thing you need to do … Once you build relationships with children, they are on board.”

The Global Teacher Prize has sent a message loud and clear to the education community: relationships matter, and the best teachers in the world put them first.

Rewarding teachers who build excellent relationships is hardly a controversial notion. I don’t think I’m going to have my work cut out convincing you that relationships are important.

Tes’ My Best Teacher section underlines the importance of relationships time and again. Dame Helen Mirren’s English teacher, Mrs Welding, spotted her passion for acting and gave her the forms to apply for the National Youth Theatre (Tes, 7 May 2016). The rest is, as they say, history.

Ben Fogle’s best teacher never actually taught him, but was his housemaster; someone whose role was all about relationship-building and care (Tes, 5 January 2018). Brian Cox chose the teacher who ran extra activities after school, who went out of his way to get to know students (Tes, 22 October 2010).

Shake it

When people look back on their best teachers, it is for their warmth, integrity in interactions, going the extra mile, demonstrating care, sharing passions, that they are remembered. Think about your favourite teacher: I bet I’m right.

I once heard of a head who would to stand at the entrance of the school every morning, greeting the students by name. Every day, he was there. Quite literally, his first priority was the students. He was far from uncommon.

Bedales, where I work, has always placed huge importance on good relationships. Being known by our first names helps, though this is a relatively new thing. “Handshaking”, though, has been happening since the beginning: at the end of assembly, every student shakes hands with every member of staff and we say goodnight.

But, much as we know how transformative good relationships are, the reality is not always like this. When I was training, I was sitting in the staffroom, writing a set of reports. I was next to my friend, who was another trainee. We shared a Year 8 class. I turned to her, and said, “Oh God, I’ve just had to look up one of the kids’ photos in that class we both teach.” She looked me square in the face. “It’s Olly, isn’t it?” She had looked him up, too. I knew the classes were big – sometimes there weren’t enough chairs – and I knew that I couldn’t tell you a lot about each student, but I hadn’t realised it was that bad. He was in my care, and I didn’t know him. The child I didn’t notice had become the child I’d never forget.

It isn’t just me: I think everyone has heard about someone who reported back on the wrong blonde Year 7 girl called Jess at a parents’ evening. In lots of schools, it comes down to numbers: there are too many students to know them well.

This isn’t good enough: relationships are key to a good education. Without knowing Olly, how could I teach him effectively? What did I know of his needs, his interests, his aims? If we don’t build relationships with students, then we cannot hope to serve them well.

Which brings us to Professor John Hattie and his celebrated report, Visible Learning. Hattie’s work brings together 800 meta-studies of more than 80 million students, and aims to quantify what does, and does not, make a difference to achievement. Surprise, surprise, it’s good news for relationships.

Hattie’s results show a strong correlation between teachers who plan based on individual students’ prior learning, and achievement. Really understanding your students is linked to a significant difference in how they do.

Big difference

An even more significant – indeed, the most significant – factor is also to do with relationships; this time, between staff. What makes the biggest difference is the collective belief among staff, as a school, that they can make a positive difference. Relationships form school culture, and school culture is a powerful thing.

It is no surprise that Zafirakou’s school, Alperton Community School in Brent, which lists aims including words like “care” and “nurture”, achieves so much for its students.

It is currently in the top 4 per cent of schools on the Progress 8 measure, and is a Platinum School for Professional Development. Those who don’t want to hear about the intrinsic merits of good relationships with pupils and between teachers should stop and listen to how well the school is doing according to these extrinsic measures.

The data confirms what we all suspected: relationships make a big difference to how our students do. We’ve seen it for ourselves: teaching feels different, it works better, when you really know the kids.

If you want to feel inspired about what’s possible, Fiona Carnie’s latest book, Rebuilding Our Schools from the Bottom Up: listening to teachers, children and parents, contains case study after case study of schools that get it really right. They have relationships between students, teachers and parents at their heart.

One of these case studies, Stanley Park High School in Surrey, is another prize-winner: Tes Secondary School of the Year 2016.

Set up to be innovative in all areas, Stanley Park was founded on the principle of good relationships, and in order to maintain this, it has a schools-within-school model: every student is part of a “mini-school” for their whole school career.

It’s clear, then: building good relationships is, quite literally, a winner.

Clare Jarmy is head of academic enrichment and Oxbridge, and head of religious studies and philosophy at Bedales School in Hampshire

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