The relational part of teaching may also be its most underrated aspect. Most teachers don’t consider relationship-building as an important part of their praxis. On the contrary, when teachers are good at building relationships with students, the skill is seen more as cover for a lack of content knowledge or the ability to instruct with rigour.
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which appeared in 1943 states that our actions are motivated by certain physiological and psychological needs that progress from basic to complex. The lowest level in the hierarchy is ‘physiological needs’ such as food, water, and shelter. And the highest level is self-actualization which refers to self-awareness, concern with personal growth, and interest in fulfilling their potential.
Consequently, the primary responsibility of any educator is to ensure that they learn about their students and can connect with them on a real level, showing respect for their culture and validating that they are worthy of receiving the best education possible. This foundational relationship allows the educators to stretch, embrace and provoke, when necessary, to help students reach their stage of self-actualization. When this happens, excellence in learning automatically follows. Solely maintaining good relationships with one’s teachers will not be directly reflected in students’ grades. It will impact them positively and help them attain higher levels of accomplishment than those students who have conflicted relationships.
Teachers who are able to build positive relationships with their students tend to create classroom environments that are more conducive to learning and meet students’ developmental, emotional, and academic needs. Research has shown that teachers who engage in close relationships with students reported that their students were less likely to make excuses to avoid school, appeared more self-directed, more cooperative and more engaged in learning. Additionally, teachers who use more learner-centred practices, i.e., practices that show sensitivity to individual differences among students, involve students in the decision-making process, and acknowledge students’ developmental, personal, and relational needs produced greater motivation in students than those who used fewer of such practices.
Who are our students?
A first step in getting to know students is to learn who they are in different contexts. Ask yourself the following questions:
• Is the student the same person in school, at home, and in the neighbourhood?
• Does he/she know who they are?
• How does he/she feel when he/she is at school?
• How does he/she feel when he/she performs different kinds of activities?
• Which is his/her favourite activity in school?
• Does he/she understand why he/she values certain activities more than others?
• What factors influence his/her engagement and enjoyment of any activity, both in school and outside of it?
The answers to these questions can help teachers get to know and understand their students. However, teachers need to be careful that students do not reveal too much. If students express themselves beyond the scope of their feelings, background, and experiences related to the physical education environment, then teachers should refer them to a professional who can appropriately handle deeper issues and concerns. The goal of getting to know one’s students is to inform and differentiate their instruction to meet their needs and enhance learning opportunities.
Defining the relationships with your students
Teachers can use some basic strategies to develop healthy relationships with their students. Some of these are detailed below.
• Remember each student’s name while talking to them.
Value student diversity and identity by learning names quickly and pronouncing them correctly. Students, especially those who are marginalized, feel invisible in schools.
• Interact with students responsively and respectfully.
• Show your emotions such as pleasure and enjoyment to the students.
It is equally important for students to know you. Talking about your hobbies, sharing anecdotes about your childhood, or just sharing your opinions on issues will help them feel comfortable in the learning environment and will help them grow.
• Offer students help.
This would include answering students’ queries promptly and offering support that matches students’ needs in achieving academic and social objectives.
• Help students reflect on their thinking and learning skills.
• Know and demonstrate knowledge about individual students’ backgrounds, interests, emotional strengths and academic levels.
• Avoid showing irritability or aggravation toward students.
Keep your personal and professional lives separate. Some teachers tend to misplace their aggression upon students and thus fracture the relationship for good. Teachers must remember that they mostly need to nurture the relationship closely for the time that they’re actively teaching the students which could be one semester or one academic year. They should make the most of this time and remember that their teaching impacts students’ lives for good.
• Don’t give up on any of your students.
Get to know each as a human being and not just as a student. Students come from diverse backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, cultures, and communities. During your career, you’ll find many kindred spirits in the form of your students. When they come back to visit you after many years, you will see a noticeable change in their behaviour. And you will have played a part in their improvement.
On the contrary, teachers who have negative relationships with students show evidence of frustration, irritability and anger toward those students. Teachers might display their negativity through snide and sarcastic comments toward particular students or describe the feeling that they are always struggling or in conflict with a particular student. Often, teachers are heard describing a specific student as ‘one who exhausts them’, ‘a student who leaves them feeling drained and burned out’, or ‘one who just doesn’t listen.’ On the other side, students tend to ‘bunk’ or avoid the class of the teacher they don’t like or cannot get through to. They may tend to be sarcastic or disrespectful in their communication, be unable to respond to the teacher’s questions, encounter unknown impediments to learning, and ultimately lose interest in that particular subject.
Negative teacher-student relationships can amplify when teachers show physical and verbal aggression toward one or many students in the classroom. In these types of classrooms, teachers may find themselves resorting to screaming and deploying harsh punishments as a method of control. Student victimization or bullying may also be common occurrences in such classrooms creating stress for both the teachers and the students and can prove to be detrimental to the students’ academic and social-emotional development.
Modifying written and verbal instruction
When we apply the theory of knowing students to classroom instruction, it is known as differentiated learning. A classroom becomes differentiated when the teacher is clear about the subject matter, understands, appreciates, and builds on students’ differences. The teacher is also able to adjust his/her content and process in response to student readiness, interests, and learning profile. In such a classroom, students and teachers are collaborators in learning. Additionally, assessment and instruction are inseparable in such a classroom. Flexibility is the key to such a classroom and the goals of this classroom are maximum growth and individual success.
Summarizing the best and standard practices to differentiate instruction in your classroom:
|Student voice and involvement||There should be a clear balance between teacher and student-directed activities. Students should be able to set their own goals, maintain records, and assess their learning. Students assume responsibility and take an active role in decision-making. Often themes and activities are taken from students’ queries.|
|Physical facilities||The traditional classroom setup with two students per desk facing the teacher is not ideal for disseminating this kind of instruction. U-shaped or cluster seating is required for such classrooms so that it is favourable to student-led learning using purposeful materials.|
|Classroom management||This includes the process of students enforcing rules instead of following them, i.e., purposeful engagement instead of passive learning. Grouping is flexible instead of rigid.|
|Activities and projects||Students should experience concepts rather than ingesting them as a lecture. Whole class instruction is replaced by different types of groups. Instead of a uniform curriculum, the topics are aligned with students’ needs to promote cognition, cater to multiple intelligences and learning preferences and focus on application and problem solving rather than memorization and recall.|
|Language and communication||In such classrooms, there is ‘noise’ when conversation alternates with silence instead of a forced uniform silence throughout. There are extended discussions and increased student talk instead of short responses with teacher talk predominating. The focus shifts from facts to skills, synthesis, and evaluation.|
|Learning environment||There are different zones in this class – silent working, group activity, and discussion. Clear guidelines are set for independent work. The teacher moves around for monitoring and error correction.|
|Content||Materials reflect a variety of settings and cultures. They are pitched at varying levels of readability. Vocabulary lists are allied to student readiness. The teacher understands the need to meet with small groups to re-teach concepts for struggling learners or augment conversations for advanced learners.|
|Process||Tiered activities are used throughout which all learners work with the same conceptual understanding but proceed to do the task with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity. Scaffolding, providing writing prompts, or other structural support for students who need it. This also includes varying the time taken by a student for an activity or motivating a sophisticated learner to pursue a topic in greater depth.|
|Product||Students should be given options on how to create the final output to confirm their understanding. They should be allowed to work alone or in groups in order to create the product. Rubrics and question stems should also underpin and reinforce the creation.|
To conclude in the words of R.J. Marzano, author of What Works in Schools Translating Research into Action, ‘Positive student-teacher relationships provide a foundation for other functions of educational institutes to be carried out efficiently and motivate students to do well in their studies’ (Marzano, 2003). It must be kept in mind that learning in educational settings is a multi-dimensional construct which includes social, cognitive, and psychological aspects. Thus, all aspects must be addressed and strong student-teacher relationships must be established and fostered in order to achieve academic excellence.
The author works as an ELT curriculum architect in the Ed-tech space. She has a Masters’ degree in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi and a CELTA from the University of Cambridge. She is passionate about education and putting out meaningful and relevant content into the world through her writing. Her articles on pedagogy and learning strategies have been published in several educational magazines and blogs. She can be reached at email@example.com.