The benefits of healthy teacher-student relationships

The Strictly Positive Teacher has in mind the mental health and wellbeing of their students, and wants to ensure that they are acting in a way which works with students’ natures. They know that in order to maintain a good positive atmosphere within the classroom and thereby be in a position to be able to teach your lesson, you must first establish positive relationships with your students, and foster positive relationships between your students. This is surely at the heart of positive teaching – mental health depends on relationships; good relationships foster good mental health, while poor relationships are unsettling and destructive. For our most vulnerable students, poor relationships may be the norm in their everyday home lives, and could perhaps be all they know. In the face of such a background, the positive relationship with their teachers may effect a considerable and visible difference in their behaviour, their learning and their mental health.

A 2016 report from the University of Cambridge found that students who had a positive relationship with their teacher displayed 18% more ‘prosocial’ behaviour towards their peers, and up to 10% even two years later. They also manifested up to 38% less aggressive behaviour (and 9% up to four years later). Positivity towards their teacher was also seen in 56% less ‘oppositional defiant’ behaviour such as argumentativeness and vindictiveness toward authority figures. The effect of a positive attitude towards their teacher on infant school pupils had already been demonstrated in earlier studies. It makes sense then that a Strictly Positive Teacher would do well to think carefully about every aspect of the classroom relationships.

Positive relationships start from clear understanding of how the classroom works, of everybody’s place within the room and their rights and responsibilities. Relationships, any relationships, are built on trust and it is essential that everyone in that room trusts that the conditions will be created by the adult in the room, the teacher, for everybody to feel safe enough to learn effectively.

Building positive relationships with students emphatically does not mean acting as if they are your friends, or trying to cultivate egalitarian rapport. You are the authority figure, and they will look to you to sort out anything which goes wrong with the relationships within the room. Positive relationships are ones where everyone treats one another with courtesy and consideration. A light touch and humour are always appreciated by students, but not at the expense of order and respect.

Fostering positive relationships between students takes more effort. There may be 30+ of them and there’s one of you, maybe two if you have an LSA or a TA in the room. Pastoral leaders and behaviour managers are always hearing about fallings-out or bullying which is conducted within a lesson. Sometimes the first moment at which a teacher becomes aware of conflict is at the moment when actual physical violence erupts. Conflict between students in our classrooms happens to all of us at some time or other, but if it happens frequently in your lessons, then your teacher antenna needs a bit of rejigging. No one is suggesting that all lessons need to be teacher-led from the front in order to avoid the possibility of conflict arising between students, but when you set a group or pairs exercise, or embark on a task which involves movement, it is important that you gauge the temperature of the relationships in the room. If you spot a storm gathering, you need to intervene; in some cases, it may be necessary to change your lesson plan to head off conflict.

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