My fascination and interest in school relationships and their effect on learning came to the fore while in the position of Teacher Research Co-ordinator in 2007. While involved in a student engagement research project as part of Cambridge University SUPER schools partnership, I conducted focus groups with students exploring the factors that influenced their levels of engagement at school, following a large quantitative survey.
An overwhelming number of students, when asked questions about their motivation and engagement at school, responded with ‘it depends on the teacher’. Follow up interviews conducted by the Faculty of Education reinforced the correlation: students’ perception of the quality of the connection that they had with their teachers played a significant part in their engagement in lessons, subjects and with school as a whole.
For me, the findings highlighted and reaffirmed an unspoken truism in teaching, one that I had observed from early on as a trainee: classroom relationships are an integral aspect of learning. Relationships with teachers had the capacity to ignite passion, enhance self-belief and motivation, or conversely cause students to switch off and disengage. Powerful stuff.
At the time I led whole school training on what we termed ‘Relationships for Learning’; students contributed to an INSET day on the topic and it became a whole school focus. As part of this I led a qualitative study with teachers that had been identified as being particularly effective at fostering positive classroom relationships in an attempt to unpick the nuances of their relationship-driven teaching.
It was a real privilege to observe and interview such talented colleagues across a range of different disciplines. Witnessing classroom interactions with a relational lens enabled me to identify a host of different teaching habits that engendered a positive classroom climate. While they all had their own unique teaching style, the teachers exhibited common approaches that chimed with students’ feedback: positive and caring interactions; time invested in supporting and encouraging individuals; a strong knowledge of the class; opportunities for humour and warmth; infectious enthusiasm for the subject and a belief in all students to succeed.
For many colleagues it was the first time that they were being directly invited to focus on their pedagogy in this way. Arguably one of the most fundamental aspects of their teaching had become tacit knowledge and a number of them found it hard to identify the relational elements of their practice – it was just how they taught.
While there’s a place for nostalgic reminiscence of teacher-pupil relationships in ‘My best teacher’ articles and leaving speeches, it’s a subject relatively devoid from professional dialogue, teacher training, aside from the ubiquitous ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ NQT adage. Should this occurrence be a matter let to teachers’ own personal idiosyncrasies, given the potential impact that it can have on learning and engagement?
There is a variation in the quality of relationships between teachers and students in our schools; while some are naturally effective at fostering positive learning relationships others struggle in this respect. And yet to talk openly about such matters is somewhat taboo. Perhaps evaluation of teacher-pupil relationships is a little too uncomfortable to stomach for those acutely aware that they struggle to connect with certain individuals or classes, others may be mindful of the need to avoid the irritating ‘they are find for me’ comment, some may find the discussion of such an intrusion of professional boundaries and ‘pupil voice gone mad’.
This is an incredibly important and yet relatively unspoken part of school improvement.
My involvement in the initial research fuelled the focus of my Masters in Educational Research. Interesting, I found it quite a struggle to find much academic literature on the topic of effective teacher-student relationships. While there was plenty of research about behaviour management and student motivation, sourcing in-depth studies on the way in which teacher-student relationships affected these matters was more challenging. Perhaps this seemingly anecdotal, subjective and ephemeral nature of the subject makes it problematic to capture and make sense of.
My Masters study led to other opportunities to raise awareness and professional discussion of teacher-student relationships. I presented at BERA alongside Cambridge University colleagues in 2009, led a workshop at a student voice conference at the University of Central London in 2011 and published a journal article for Sage’s Management in Education in 2012.
I am thrilled to be involved in the Relational Schools Project and to be part of a pilot school study. This is an incredibly important and yet relatively unspoken part of school improvement. While there has been enormous amounts of change to curriculum and assessment in recent years it seems to have been forgotten that policies don’t create engagement and success, people do.
JOIN THE CONFERENCE
We are launching the film at the Relational Thinking International Conference, where over 40 distinguished speakers from the public, private and non-profit sectors will be looking at relational issues in a global context. Click here for more information.