Relationships at school. Teacher-student.

This post is Part 2 from two, based on a talk I gave to the  Kings’ Schools in Dubai in August.  Part One was about adult relationships: Relationships at School: The Adults.  This one is about teacher-student or, more generally,  adult-child relationships.

Here are some of the areas that we discussed in the session:

1.We are there for a purpose and can be ourselves. 

Essentially, teacher-student relationships are linked to adult relationships in that, at school, we are there for a purpose: education, learning.  Relationships are not the same as parental relationships even if many aspects overlap.  It’s possible and legitimate to have superb relationships with children across a wide spectrum of modes of interaction.  The teachers that appear more interpersonal, perhaps spontaneously calling their students ‘lovey’ and ‘sweetheart’, do not have ‘better’ relationships than those who might seem more formal and detached;  we can all have great relationships with students being the people we are as we are – especially if we remember our purpose.

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2. Excellent relationships underpin great behaviour

In my experience, even in schools with strong central systems, teacher behaviours vary; there is always a need to establish relationships with each student within the system. Teachers have huge power and responsibility in their roles and need to both recognise that and harness it to good effect, using systems as needed but always owning decisions, owning the classroom, and investing in relationships with individuals.


3. The features of relationships in learning

If we keep the learning purpose to the forefront, we could all make a list of features of positive student-teacher/adult-child relationships might look like.  Here’s the list we discussed:


The roles and boundaries are important.  It’s not a democracy.  The power-balance isn’t even because teachers are responsible for children; they are not responsible for us. Adults in schools have authority that children don’t have and it is important to make these lines explicit.  At the same time, at all times, warmth and kindness should permeate all interactions – it’s perfectly possible to blend ‘warm’ and ‘strict’ without drifting into autocratic behaviours or meek tolerance of poor behaviours.

When boundaries need to be enforced, discipline is never personal; it shouldn’t be.   But children don’t always see that and we need to make it clear through our measured language and responses that we have their interests at heart; we’re focused on their learning and all we do is designed so that they can enjoy school and learn as much as possible, individually and as part of a class of other children who matter too.

4. Relationships in Feedback 


As Dylan Wiliam and others have shown, feedback is complex. Much of it doesn’t land or isn’t acted on.  Where feedback works it is where students absorb it, trust it, understand it and are motivated to respond positively to it.  For this to happen, relationships matter.  We need to know our students as learners; what makes them tick? What type of positive pressure or nurturing encouragement is most likely to get the best out of them? We don’t know until we find out by pushing and nudging until the feedback seems to be the right type.

5. Relationships in classroom dynamics: questioning


One of the best ways to find out about students is through our interactions in lessons. Where we use dialogic, probing questioning, we get much deeper into understanding what students think.  By cold-calling, inviting specific individuals to respond as we check for understanding,  we convey a stronger sense that we’re interested in what they have to say.  If we adopt a responsive approach, we have to actually listen to what they say and respond to it – and this helps to build relationships based around learning.  Where questioning is shallow, unresponsive or random and mechanistic,  relationship-building is more difficult.

6. Lessons from the Mighty Bill Rogers.


Bill Rogers’ ideas about behaviour have a strong foundation in positive relationships – but it’s not all about creating a nebulous warm fuzzy feel-good rapport.  It’s built around systems and routines: this is how we communicate expectations, how we maintain consistency and fairness.  Some of the specifics we discussed included ‘you establish what you establish’:


This is my personal favourite practical strategy to work on:


The use of assertive ‘insistence’ is so important. My view is that when you can shift from a phase with everyone talking productively in pairs to a phase with everyone listening to you, whenever you want, in a calm assertive manner, you’ve cracked it:


A big feature of Bill Rogers’ work and Doug Lemov’s work is positive framing.  Personally, I found that making this switch had a radical impact on my success and enjoyment of teaching. It reduces conflict, it builds in ‘benefit of the doubt’ and mostly it has an affirmative, upbeat ethos-reinforcing effect which negative corrective language doesn’t.


7. Use Consequences to empower you: 

All schools have consequences systems of one type or another. In some contexts, teachers’ personal disapproval is probably the most effective tool.  Sounding ‘a bit cross’ can go a long way; it says ‘I mean it and I care about it’.   Elsewhere, you absolutely have to use clearly articulated sanctions as consistently as possible in line with school-wide protocols.  But even where these systems are tight, strict and highly regulated, you still need to use them to empower you. Excessive or inconsistent use of consequences can undermine teachers and can damage relationships.  There is a ‘judicious’ sweet spot to aim for:


8. Emotional Intelligence is a useful construct – as with adult relationships.

These slides featured in the section discussing adult relationships but still have resonance with our relationships with children. EI isn’t technically a measurable ‘thing’ but we can certainly all recognise that it is possible to manage our relationships with children in a more or less emotionally intelligent way.

9.  Recognise the emotional element in relationships. 

In certain contexts, for some teachers and adults more than others, emotions come into play.  We get frustrated, angry, exasperated.  And so do students.  Where this happens, it pays to recognise it.  The ‘BUT’ here is that, whilst there is no real excuse for certain behaviours, we are human and if we do lose control, we need to acknowledge it and then seek to repair and rebuild positive relationships.


Remember: context is key.  It’s different from EYFS to FE obviously… apply the filters.


  1. ‘Zero Tolerance’ is now regrettably an accepted concept in the management of behaviour in our schools. I say this for good reason and mainly, though not exclusively, from the perspective of the students.

    In the opening paragraph, the following remark is made “we can all have great relationships with students being the people we are as we are – especially if we remember our purpose.” My problem with this is twofold.

    Firstly, if we agree that “we are there for a purpose: education, learning”, I question if that accurately describes what our education system is truly achieving at this time. The heavy focus on academic learning and high-stakes testing is believed by many to be denying many young people access to a well rounded education.

    Secondly, the acceptance of the appropriateness of the global zero tolerance movement, for that is actually what it is, is all-pervasive, and largely unchallenged by busy teacher practitioners and the education establishment. It frames the teacher/student relationship in the context of highly prescribed and restrictive behaviours. This, as I have learned from the young people I have listened to on this matter, too often breeds resentment.

    The list of what the features of positive student-teacher/adult-child relationships might look like states they are ‘not autocratic; not about fear’ and not about ‘doing it just because I say so’, yet these are the two most common reasons most students cite when invited freely to comment on school behaviour management policies in practice.

    I believe it is time for this subject to be systematically and independently researched. My belief is that the evidence would indicate we are actually just paying lip service to the notion that current practice actually helps build meaningful relationships with individuals (students).


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