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How are you building relationships with your students?

teacher-chequered-with-students-929-croppedmatt-blogSSAT Relationship Manager Matthew Smitheman addresses the neglect of relationships in teaching and learning…

The relationship between teacher and learner is a necessity for learning. Yet, in schools, relationships tend to be treated as luxuries, given no specific attention within, for example CPD. Something has to change. We can’t afford not to do it.

Pearson’s Global Survey of Educator Effectiveness found that across all participating countries the ability of the teacher to develop trusting, compassionate relationships with students was valued most. The report states:

“The teacher-student relationship impacts every aspect of the educational experience. When students don’t feel safe, respected, or truly known by their teacher, they are less likely to invest and engage in their education. Conversely, when teachers feel distanced from or distrusted by their students, it’s nearly impossible to muster the enthusiasm to walk into the classroom each day, let alone instil motivation or investment in our students.”

During my visits to SSAT member schools, I hear about a wide range of challenges and priorities. Ongoing concerns include boys’ underperformance, particularly the challenge of engaging many white working class boys and their lack of aspiration. Another key area is that of mental health and wellbeing, for both students and staff.

The National Children’s Bureau’s Partnership for Well-being and Mental Health in Schools has put together an advice document promoting positive social and emotional wellbeing for all in schools, and tackling the mental health problems of pupils in more serious difficulty. It acknowledges the primacy of improving teacher-student relationships:

“Social media and cyberbullying are increasingly suggested as part of the cause for the rise in these emotional disorders. Attachment disorder, which gives rise to problems with connection, trust and relationships, may be on the rise as families increasingly fracture and fail, and more children join the care system. Many problems are multiple and many remain undetected and untreated unless agencies such as schools take an active role.”

Building relationships effectively with students and colleagues creates a more learning-friendly environment and can be one way to help address both of these issues.

Schools I have visited recently have some suggestions on how to do this, including:

  • Stanley Park High School, which has a staff profile wall where each member of staff creates a collage of their interests. The students in year 7 do a ‘scavenger hunt’ activity using the collages, which helps them get to know the staff, potentially building trust and developing relationships.
  • The leadership team at Bolsover School in Derbyshire are determined to provide meaning and orientation for students. They recognise that sitting in a classroom after kicking a football around on a rainy and windy playground can be disorientating (often students are not sure why they are there!) This can lead to high stress and disengagement, especially during apparently random starter activities. Providing orientation such as links to previous learning or references to things specific to students’ interests can make a huge difference, the team at Bolsover have found.

McKenzie Cerri, co-founder of education consultancy and coaching training company Graydin, has found that adding coaching skills to teachers’ toolkits naturally increases trust, respect and partnership between teachers and students.

“Coaching is a method for helping move someone from A to B. It’s about drawing out what the student already knows; it is not about giving answers. When a teacher takes this approach, students feel empowered and supported, and as a result we’ve seen student autonomy and motivation increase.” A Partnership Agreement, such as that developed by Graydin, is one way that teachers can build trust inside the classroom. Students and their teacher reflect upon and discuss how they want to ‘be’ with each other. Emphasis being placed on ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ inspires the teacher to ask questions like: ‘how do we want to treat each other?’ ‘what do you need from me to get the best out of you?’ ‘what’s your definition of respect?’

Unlike a list of classroom rules, such a partnership agreement gives each person (students and teacher) an equal voice. Once the agreement is finalised by all parties, the class signs it and hangs it on their wall. “The schools and teachers we work with regularly refer to their unique partnership agreements and make a point of adapting these over time as the classes’ relationships evolve,” explains Ms Cerri.

Do you have other inspiring ways to build relationships with your students? Drop the relationship management team an email and share them with the SSAT network. Make a difference for teachers and students nationwide.

Related content

Watch student voice expert Dr Russ Quaglia at the SSAT National Conference 2015.


We’re delighted that Stanley Park are represented at the SSAT National Conference 2016 by headteacher David Taylor. David will explore the unique structures and innovative approaches to pedagogy at the school that ensure excellent student-student and student-teacher relationships underpin a willingness to learn. Find out more about the event here.

Article author Matthew is one of our six-strong team of relationship managers, helping to ensure that schools within the SSAT network are aware of all the ways in which they can participate in membership. Meet the team below and find out more about getting involved here.

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