10 ways of developing strong classroom relationships

On EduTwitter I read a lot of discussion about how teachers shouldn’t need to be liked by students; they should simply be able to expect obedience and compliance from their classes, and schools should have ways of dealing with the students if they don’t comply as expected. And I agree. There must be an expectation that compliance and obedience is the norm in a class, and there must be backup to any classroom teacher which kicks in when the absence of these two things means that the learning is threatened.

However, just because you think things SHOULD  be a certain way, that doesn’t mean that they will be. I prefer to take a pragmatic view of things. If a teacher can do something to manage their classroom and can thereby be perceived as the authority within that classroom, not a step on the way to the real authority, the manager who takes over the issue when the student has left the room, then that will pay dividends.

Marzano (2003) reports that students will resist rules and procedures along with the consequent disciplinary actions if the foundation of a good relationship is lacking. That was me. I did that, as a student. “If you can’t be bothered to at least make it look as if you like me, I am going to do all I can to ensure I don’t look like I’m learning in your lesson.” I don’t claim to have been a wise student, but I think I was probably representative of a type.

On the flip side, there were some teachers whose approbation I positively CRAVED. John Hattie (Visible Learning, 2015) discovered that teachers are likely to have a much greater impact on the learning of their students if they forge strong relationships with them. 

So what are the Strictly Positive Steps to forging positive classroom relationships?

  1. Forget all that nonsense about not smiling until half-term. Smile. You chose this profession, presumably because at least to some degree you enjoy the company of young people. If you don’t like young people, don’t go into teaching. Do research or something.
  2. See the students as people, with all the troubles and joys, strengths and weaknesses, good days and bad days as anyone else. As you yourself, for instance. If you have a shouty day, or a moany day, or a can’t be bothered day, it is unlikely that you will draw the conclusion that you are a shouty / moany / can’t be bothered sort of person. You will instead attribute it to the fact that you had a row with your partner, or you pranged your car, or you received sad news about your friend who lives in Peru, or your guinea pig died. If you behave in a similar way on several concurrent days, you would put it down to a run of bad luck, probably not to a character flaw or failing, something which needs to be disciplined out of you. Extend the same logic to students.
  3. Greet them at the door. As students come into your domain you have a chance to make eye contact with them, smile, let them know that they are coming into your environment and that everything will be fine. Especially if the last lesson you shared did not go well, that smile and that eye contact tells them that this is a new start, and with a clean slate.
  4. Create a structured environment with clear, sensible, consistently and fairly applied rules and routines. Students like to know where they are with a teacher. Nothing will turn a student into a rebel like unfairness. Except chaos – chaos would make Peter Perfect riot… If students understand the reasons for rewards and sanctions, and they trust the teacher to apply them sensibly, they will accept them. A structured environment where the teacher is trusted to do the right thing by the students makes them feel safe. Chaos is no fun for anyone.
  5. Be positive. Any strictly positive techniques or strategies will lead you to show yourself as a positive person and this will go a long way towards good classroom relationships. Humour also helps. Humour is positive, by which I emphatically don’t mean jokes or clowning. Just a light touch.
  6. Teach with passion and enthusiasm. Hopefully you love your subject. Hopefully you love teaching. Hopefully you really want the students to love your subject and you want to communicate that through making your lessons fun or interesting (and interesting is fun, after all; fun isn’t just gimmicks).
  7. Be interested in students as human beings with life outside your class. If a student has been named in assembly, or you’ve heard about some success in in a football match, or winning an award for charitable work or playing in a concert, congratulate them on it. If they mention something in the course of your lesson show an interest in their work with St John’s Ambulance, or busking outside the cinema, or cycling to a nearby town, ask a question; it is unlikely that the student will want to embark on a long conversation, but in the 3 seconds the interchange took as they passed you on the way into class or as you work your way around the room, you’ll have increased their trust in you.
  8. In class, involve everyone, which makes everyone feels welcome. Try not to go down the route of calling only upon those with their hands up who look as if they will burst if you don’t invite them to respond. Make everyone feel present in the lesson and valued.
  9. Have high expectations of all. If you reserve your challenge for those who constantly put their hands up, who are on paper the high performers, the visible people in the room, the others will recognise that you have low expectations of them and will switch off. High expectations does not mean the same expectations; if you know your students you can pitch expectations individually – high for them.
  10. At the end of the class make a point of praising any who did particularly well this lesson, and have a quiet word with those who did poorly, ensuring that there is a plan for the next lesson, and that they leave you with a good memory.

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