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Developing effective teacher–student relationships: Learning from the experts

Written by: Robbie Burns
8 min read

Robbie Burns, Assistant Vice-Principal, Bede Academy (part of The Emmanuel Schools Foundation), UK

How can leaders support novice teachers to develop teacher–student relationships effectively? It is my view that we can learn much from the classrooms of expert teachers as described in research. In this article, I aim to clarify the nature and minimum purposes of the teacher–student relationship and what expert teachers do, and then provide three mechanisms that leaders might consider when designing their professional development. 

Conceptualising teacher–student relationships 

One misconception that novice teachers have about teacher–student relationships is that they are seen as a two-way interaction (between teacher and student), with engagement and motivation being the main by-product. This leads to pedagogy being seen as separate from relationships – as something separate from the process of teaching.

This is problematic for two reasons. First, if the teacher–student relationship is seen by novices as nothing more than the way in which teachers interact with students, it becomes challenging to see ‘good’ teacher–student relationships as anything other than innate personality traits that teachers either have or do not have; if it is not personality, it is maybe seen as some sort of ‘act’ that teachers put on for the purposes of engagement. 

This perception creates problems for novice teachers and their development and must be addressed by leaders explicitly. If we leaders have this understanding of teacher–student relationships and simply ask novices to observe teachers that we perceive to have ‘good’ relationships with their classes towards replication, they are likely to struggle to break down what they see into tangible applications for their own practice (Hogan et al., 2003).

Next, conceptualising teacher–student relationships as dyadic (a two-way interaction) also creates problems for how we define their purpose. Is the purpose to motivate? Is it to engage? These things are valuable and even important. However, they are not the ultimate purpose of the teacher–student relationship. If the main purpose of teacher–student relationships is found in answering any of the questions mentioned above, we might miss a minimum but crucial requirement of schooling: to connect young people with the curriculum, broadly defined, and to enable them to understand it deeply, letting it inform and shape their understanding of the world. If this is the case, then teacher–student relationships are not dyadic but triadic, containing a third, crucial component: the curriculum – the ‘stuff’ of the lessons that we teach.

Quoting Stembridge, Lemov states that ‘a relationship is a tool that helps students understand how to connect to content’ (2021, p. 27). He goes on to claim that teacher–student relationships at minimum should be about teachers connecting to the student about content, with the goal of inspiring them to build relationship with the things that they learn. If this is the case, then this means that the focus of the relationship is not on each other, teacher to student, but on the content.

By enabling novice teachers to conceptualise their relationships with students primarily around the content that they teach, which we might define broadly, we no longer detach the teacher–student relationship from pedagogy; it then becomes part of the nature of what makes expert teaching. And if it is part of what makes expert teaching, then we can support novice teachers, as leaders, to see it as something in which we can develop expertise over time, through thoughtful, well-structured professional development. 

Teacher–student relationships, when described as triadic, might be considered as a sub-category of ‘pedagogical knowledge’, which is the knowledge that teachers have of their students and how they set up their classroom so that students are able to learn effectively (Shulman, 1986). Pedagogical knowledge is one of three domain-specific types of knowledge that teachers need to have to be considered effective, and provides a useful broader framework for considering how teacher–student relationships interact with other parts of the knowledge that teachers have. 

What benefit is any of this discussion to leaders designing professional development? First, this triadic understanding supports the development of shared mental models of teacher–student relationships that can be used to talk about a crucial aspect of teaching practice with novice teachers. When clear but imperfect representations of complex aspects of the classroom can be made more transparent, it opens up rich opportunities for discussion, mitigates misconceptions and supports the development of strategies that can be practised. In short, it aids the clarity by which leaders can communicate something that they might only tacitly ‘know’ due to their experience. In addition, a description like this enables leaders to place teacher–student relationships more closely to existing work on professional knowledge, supporting novice teachers to see it as something that can be developed over time and not something that they have or do not have.

So, by seeing teacher–student relationships as triadic and part of the pedagogical knowledge of expert teaching, it then follows to consider the features described by research about teacher–student relationships in expert teachers’ classrooms, so that they can be used to support leaders with their professional development planning and aid novice teachers with clear models of effectiveness in this area of their practice. 

Features of the teacher–student relationships of experts

From some of the recent research into the teacher–student relationships of experts, there are three key features that we can describe: deep knowledge of the classroom environment, responsiveness to student need (behaviourally and academically), and effectiveness of communication. 

Deep knowledge of the classroom environment

The first feature of expert teacher–student relationships worth noting is that the way in which they perceive the classroom environment is different to that of novices due to the deep knowledge that they have (Snchez et al., 1999). They draw on the knowledge they have across all three domains to inform the way in which they interact with their students. Importantly, it is not just deeper knowledge across all three domains that informs the quality of their relationships; it is their ability to reflect deeply on their teaching and consider a plethora of options to develop what they do in sophisticated ways (Hogan et al., 2003). By comparison, in a recent study, novice teachers struggled to draw on the little knowledge that they did have to inform their understanding, and therefore found it challenging to consider ways in which they could develop without drawing on the support of the expert teachers involved (Stahnke and Blomeke, 2021).

Responsiveness to student need

Because much of the knowledge mentioned above is stored in the long-term memory of expert teachers, they were able to focus directly on making sure that they were as responsive as possible to student need, as well as to ensure that they were developing relationship with their students around content. Because of this, there were far greater levels of flexibility in their classrooms. They were far more likely to change the way in which they explained knowledge, discussed behaviour or adapted tasks to suit the needs of students (O’Connor and Fish, 1998).

Effectiveness of communication

Importantly, expert teachers were able to communicate warmth and high expectations equally and ensure that all students not only were engaged and motivated to learn but also achieved well (Saavedra, 2021). Saavedra (2021) described this trait as ‘leveraging affection’, which is highly compatible with the purpose for which we have argued here: relationships with students are a tool to support them with a connection with their learning; they are not for their own sake. Expert teachers in this study were able to draw on a wide variety of strategies to re-engage students who were misbehaving, share ideas and ask probing questions to elicit deeper understanding. This mirrors the concept of ‘warm’/‘strict’, described by Lemov (2021) in his study of effective teachers in American public schools. 

How might we develop the teacher–student relationships of novice teachers?

It is important now to consider how what has been described might be translated into professional development for novices. Here, I propose three ‘mechanisms’, drawing on the recent work of the EEF, that are consistent with what is proposed here for leaders when planning professional development (Sims et al., 2021).

Social support: Expert and novice working together 

The decision-dense nature of the classroom means that often it is difficult for novice teachers to discern how they can maintain high expectations while still developing relationships. When reflecting after the event, novice teachers struggle to recall events precisely and diagnose issues of the classroom (Hogan et al., 2003). The first step, then, of teacher education is to design professional development in a way that harnesses the knowledge of expert teachers to the benefit of all. Setting up social support, such as instructional coaching or mentoring, is one practical way in which this might be done.

Build knowledge: Persistent problems

An area of weakness in novice teachers’ development of teacher–student relationships is the way in which they reflect on their actions in the classroom. To develop this, a professional development focus on the ‘persistent problem’ of pupil behaviour and how relationships can support positive outcomes can mean that when expert and novices come together, the novice is growing in knowledge and the expert is developing their skills in supporting others to develop (Kennedy, 2016).

So, with experts and novices working together and a focus on the persistent problem of pupil misbehaviour, the next important element is how professional development is designed; it must be in small steps. Strategies abound for developing teacher–student relationships, but it is not enough to share these and expect novice teachers to know what to do with them. Being clear about the nature and purposes of the teacher–student relationship, similar to how this article began, is a possible first step. Revisiting this prior learning regularly is also important.

Modelling, rehearsal and practice

Practice can be conducted as mental rehearsal, scripting or even simulating. By using real or imagined classroom scenarios, experts and novices can work together to consider ways in which they can approach situations that might occur. Practice enables detailed scripting of responses to take place, where novices can complete a session with sentences and phrases that they know they can use with their classes tomorrow. Experts can also walk through, with novices, the possible student responses that could be given, deepening the novice teacher’s knowledge of how they can build better teacher–student relationships with more challenging scenarios. By simulating complex scenarios through practice, this gives novice teachers the opportunity to practise the development of their relationships with students in an environment that is more complicated and closer to the realities of the classroom. Novice teachers can consider the options that they have in response to a range of scenarios and, through doing so, can deepen their knowledge of those situations. By practising in safe, developmental environments away from the classroom, novice teachers are given the opportunity to work through the performative elements of their craft to further sharpen their responses. 

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