This is the second of three posts examining social context, interpersonal relationships, and emotional well-being and the extent to which they are important to learning. This is #14 in my series on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning: “Interpersonal relationships and communication are critical to both the teaching–learning process and the social-emotional development of students.”

Guess what? Psychologists have discovered that relationship are important in teaching. Who knew? This falls squarely into the ‘how obvious‘ camp and as such seems to require little in the way of investigation. Quite simply, how could relationship not be important to teaching and learning? As Michael Fullan says, “If relationships improve, schools get better. If relationships remain the same or get worse, ground is lost.”

In his wonderful book, Love Over Fear, John Tomsett recounts taking over a class comprised of all the ‘cheeky lads’ making life intolerable for his teachers:

To improve the boys’ performance, I soon realised the forging positive relationships was crucial. I invsted lots of time in developing a relationship with each boy. Getting to know them personally, so that I had something to discuss with them during those idle moments when they were queueing at the door waiting for the change of lesson, or when I met them around school, was truly important. Knowing their culture contributed towards forming a strong relationship. The fact I knew who John Cena was and how to do a chokeslam was awesomely good in their eyes.

Maths teacher Bodil Isaksen says that one of the most underrated qualities of a good teacher is liking kids:

Wanting to spend time with your charges. Your pupils genuinely bringing you some joy. Yeah, you can fake it, and Lord knows you need to fake it sometimes. But faking it is exhausting. It’s hard for teaching to be your career forever if the faking it is constant. It’s also important for teachers to like kids when they’re their best. I always raise an eyebrow when I hear “oh, I just love the naughty kids” or similar. It’s toxic if pupils get any sense that negative behaviour, which will ultimately hold them back in life, gets them more affection or attention from teachers. Love the quiet kids. Love the beige kids. Love the kids that slog it out day-in-day-out without remarkable results either way.

Of course relationships matter, but what can psychology tell us about this that we don’t already know? Apart from all the really obvious dos, here are some don’ts gleaned from the research on relationships in schools:

  • Don’t assume that being kind and respectful to students is enough to bolster achievement. Ideal classrooms have more than a single goal: teachers hold students to appropriately high standards of academic performance and offer students an opportunity to connect emotionally to their teachers, their fellow students and the school.
  • Don’t give up too quickly on your efforts to develop positive relationships with difficult students. These students will benefit from a good teacher-student relationship as much or more than their easier-going peers
  • Don’t assume that respectful and sensitive interactions are only important to younger students. Older students still need to feel that their teachers respect their opinions and interests, even when they appear not to care about what teachers do or say.
  • Don’t just wait for bad behavior to happen. Instead, take a proactive stance on promoting a positive social experience by including students in discussions about healthy social interactions and model how to be a functioning member of society.

The Top 20 report doesn’t recommend anything too controversial. It repeats the need for a safe and secure environment that we discussed in principle 13, and makes the entirely sound recommendation that we should provide clear boundaries and behaviour expectations to ensure the respect of others and the virtues of not punching each other. Surprise, surprise, it turns out bullying is bad and that teachers should “set clear injunctions against [it] in any form.”

Then there’s some quite specific advice on developing clearer, more thoughtful communication. We should:
  • Prompt students to elaborate on their responses.
  • Engage in give-and-take with other students during discussions.
  • Seek clarification from others.
  • Listen carefully to others.
  • Read nonverbal cues.
  • Provide opportunities for students to practice communication in both academic and social contexts.
  • Provide feedback to enhance skill development.
  • Model effective verbal and nonverbal communication by using active listening, matching facial expression with verbal messages, using questions effectively, providing elaboration in response to student questions, and seeking student perspectives.

I’m not sure how much time I’d set aside for developing these as an explicit skill-set, but none of them can do any harm.

I offer my own advice on building relationships in this post. Essentially it boils down to:

  1. Learn their names
  2. Tell them they’re your favourite class
  3. Know the data
  4. Talk to them
  5. Value their responses