“It’s all about relationships”

//“It’s all about relationships”

Every now and then I come across the argument that the success or failure of a teacher is due to the quality of their relationships with students. Poor behaviour? Ineffective lessons? “It’s all about relationships.”*

Most people are incapable of maintaining much more than 50 relationships and the number of people we actively care about tends to be far fewer. Most of the people we encounter we know slightly if at all. How then do we contend with the Hobbesian idea that the natural human condition is a “war of all against all”? Why don’t we just take what we want from those weaker than us and gang up on those we fear in order to overpower them? What stops our lives from being “nasty, brutish and short”? In Hobbes’ view we maintain standards of order and public decency because of the imposition of law. Essentially, self-regulation is enforced. If we can’t or won’t regulate our behaviour to fit within societal norms, we’re sanctioned until we change or until we’re no longer a threat to the smooth running of society.

I have an expectation that I can buy things from shops without being cheated, that I can walk down the street without being assaulted and that my home is inviolate. Thankfully, none of this depends of the quality of my relationships. Clearly, the relationships I have with my neighbours and others within my community matter. If the street floods – as it sometimes does in heavy rain – we all pull together to unblock the drains. We tend to respect the parking spaces immediately in front of each others’ entrances, and tsk at incomers who know no better. Sometimes we invite each other round for food or drinks. Maintaining these relationships greases the wheels of our community. But with without the backstop of law and order, our fragile community could easily descend into a war of all against all.

As well as the expectation that schools provide an academic education, schools are also a microcosm of wider society; they are a training ground for civilised discourse and cultural participation. The children are the governed and the adults are the forces of Leviathan: making and enforcing law, maintaining order and ensuring justice. Because children are still learning about how to fit in we cut them a lot of slack. We help them manage their reactions when they feel angry, hurt or disappointed and, generally, hold them to lower standards than those to which they’ll be held when they enter the adult world.

Relationships between adults and children within school communities matter as much as they do anywhere else. Children will like some teachers more than others; teachers may also have favourites. This will, no doubt, effect the quality of interactions between them and I would accept that children will probably learn more from those teachers they respect and who they believe respect them. The point is, the quality of children’s education should not rest on the quality of their individual relationships with their teachers. We tend to accept that teachers ought to provide the same education to all their pupils regardless of whether of not they like some children more than others. Likewise, we should expect that children treat all adults (and all other children) with the same basic respect regardless of their relationship. We might be nicer to those we like, but if there’s not an expected standard of decency for all, then children we quickly learn that they are allowed to choose where and how they behave based on their whims and preferences. This is not a good life lesson.

Sadly though, this is an attitude that’s sometimes encouraged by school leaders. I recently encountered a school leader saying that at his school there are no behaviour problems in either the English or maths departments because the teachers in those departments give up their lunch times to work on their relationships with students. I think there’s a lot wrong with this view.

If teachers need to give up their lunch in order for this to happen we can infer that good behaviour is not the norm. The implication is that behaviour is worse in areas of the school where teachers don’t make this sacrifice. If this is the case, then the senior leaders in this school have abrogated their responsibility to maintain an effective behaviour policy. If there are pockets of good behaviour in a school this will be due to pockets of effective leadership – either by classroom teachers or middle leaders. Good schools are ones where students and teachers can expect a minimum standard of respect whoever they are and whoever they interact with. This depends on school leaders doing the hard work of ensuring these standards are met. When basic respect is guaranteed, relationships can flourish and schools can become the joyful communities we would all wish them to be.

*Interestingly, I rarely hear anyone claim that children’s outcomes are “all about relationships.” Perhaps this seems a step too far? 

2018-11-11T19:02:35+00:00November 11th, 2018|behaviour|


  1. Tom Burkard November 12, 2018 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    Totally agree–personal relationships with pupils invite abuse and favouritism. It’s perfectly possible to have a friendly and cordial relationship with one’s classes, but the moment you give any kind of a hint that you want them to like you, you’re in trouble.

    We would do well to reflect that the biggest threat to children’s safety and well-being comes from other children–and this is the inevitable result of weak leadership. A vacuum of authority is rapidly filled by the most ambitious and generally the most unscrupulous.

  2. Allan Katz November 14, 2018 at 3:09 am - Reply

    Questions concerning relationship, why kids don’t like school , what was it about the teacher that made a big impact on your education – education defined in the widest sense of the word , should be addressed to kids themselves , or at least we should try to see it through the eyes of kids or at least ask ourselves about our school experiences. So for me , the word relationship in the school context is a more about a mentoring relationship where the student is more of a partner in the learning, the teacher is interested in the kid’s thinking , generates interest, curiosity , engagement and meets the kid’s basic psychological needs for autonomy , competence – intrinsic competence goals , benifence and relatedness . The saying goes , what matters to kids is less about how much the teacher knows but how much the teacher cares. The relationship with my lawyer , accountant, oncologist etc is not just about their expertise , but also how much they care about me. According to SDT – Self determination theory when kids needs are being met , when we build caring and cooperative communities , when we work with kids to figure out the values that should guide behavior and how problems should be solved – preferably using collaborative problem solving and principles of restorative justice, we don’t need to rely on a discipline code. If we takes Hobbes dark view of human nature it makes sense that the locus of control remains with the teacher , rather trying to move beyond discipline towards community where the locus of control is with the kid.

  3. Hugh Ogilvie November 18, 2018 at 7:36 am - Reply

    I agree with the favouritism part; I have no favourites but I do gravitate to the more enthusiastic kids. However, every child’s education is important which is why, when questioning especially, I gravitate to all abilities and remain relentlessly positive about progress and the results of effort and giving it a go: that is key to learning and will help develop and enhance any relationship.

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  5. Cathy Parsons December 31, 2018 at 11:46 pm - Reply

    Pupils learn so much more when there is a positive relationship with their teacher.

    • David Didau January 1, 2019 at 2:56 pm - Reply

      Children learn most where there is excellent behaviour. The quality of individual teacher-student relationships matter most in schools where the behaviour is worst.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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