When I started teaching in the 1990s, I knew almost nothing about the students in my new classes apart from their names. Now every September I have data for each child: their prior attainment, spelling and reading ages, and their minimum expected grades (MEGs). I start to know students before meeting them.

But this still isn’t enough, as I realised when becoming frustrated teaching GCSE science to one class. I had students’ data, yet I felt that we were getting nowhere fast. When the results were published, my fears were confirmed. I reflected: why had I failed to make an impact?

A substantial body of evidence (e.g. Hattie, 2009; Cook et al., 2018) suggests that establishing good relationships with students positively impacts on their future academic performance. In Hattie’s words, ‘It is teachers who have created positive student-teacher relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement.’ (Hattie, 2009, p. 126) Developing a warm ‘socio-emotional climate’ in the classroom that fosters engagement and effort rests on teachers’ conceptions of their students — it is important to hold high expectations, to believe that all students can progress and to show students that you care about their learning (Hattie, 2009, p. 128).

Determined to act on this research, in September I started my first lesson differently with each new class. I explained how important it was that I spent time getting to know them as individuals. I told them about my hobbies and interests, explained why I became a teacher and revealed what student behaviours I value most, as well as those I dislike.

Then it was their turn. Each student was asked (but not told) to write a little about themselves. What are your interests? Which team do you support? Have I taught one of your family? And then the two crucial questions: What do your best teachers do to get the most out of you, and what should I never, ever do if I want to work well with you?

I collected their papers and read them after each lesson. Whilst some were bland or even blank, others were like gold dust. I was surprised by what they shared. Jake in Year 8 wanted me to know that his mum had died within the last two years, and that he still got upset sometimes. Kiera in Year 9 said that I must never compare her with her brother or sister, both of whom I had taught. Imagine how easily I could have damaged my relationship with these students, maybe irreparably, with an ill-chosen phrase or comment. Their honesty was, at times, breathtaking.

Later that term, when I was finding Oscar in Year 11 unfocused and disruptive, I read his paper again. Whilst on duty the next morning, I asked him how the boxing was coming on. He looked shocked. ‘Not many people know about that, Sir,’ he replied. I said I’d remembered from the first lesson, and within three minutes of chatting about his next bout, our relationship was changed forever, and his work in class immediately improved.

In summer 2018, I outlined this approach to Esme, an NQT who was starting in June, and so in an unusual position of needing to rapidly develop relationships late in the term. Here’s her reflection:

Last year I trained in a school that I knew would be challenging. I was given a Year 10 low-attaining set of boys from the very first day. I was out of my depth. I couldn’t understand why they would barely engage with me at all. I began to strategise how I was going to ‘win them over’ when I realised that I didn’t know them at all. I had no clue about their interests, their insecurities or their lives inside or outside of school. It took a long time and a lot of work to break down those barriers.

Starting my NQT year was different. Of course, I was more confident, but I knew that the very first thing I had to do was build relationships. As teachers, I believe that we must try to humanise ourselves. Comically, children seem to believe that we live in our classrooms and have never been anything but a teacher, so showing my students various pictures of my cat being irritating somewhat amused them. Arguably, though, asking those two crucial questions has had the most impact for me so far this year.

Alice wrote: ‘If I appear to be daydreaming I am probably really struggling so please help me. Please give me time to figure out what I want to say. I like giving answers in class but I find it hard to say stuff sometimes.’ Alice’s attitude to learning has improved in only a few weeks because I know exactly how to help her. Where previously she may have presented as lazy or defiant, she’s now one of the most hardworking students.

Henry wrote: ‘The worst thing you can do is not give me challenging work.’ It is possible that he would not have voiced this otherwise for fear of appearing a ‘geek’. We spend so much time ensuring that we are supporting the lower-attaining students; these reflections help us stretch the higher-attaining too. In addition, students ask me to check whether they’re okay because they are too shy to ask for help, or to email their parents positively if they complete outstanding work. These insights are invaluable for behaviour management, differentiation and support. Interestingly, my most challenging student did not write anything at all. My relationship-building with him has been far slower as a result.

We find that by showing a willingness to humanise ourselves and ask two crucial questions, students reveal insightful reflections about their lives, loves and learning, which improves progress and wellbeing.

Students’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity.

References

Hattie J (2009) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. New York: Routledge.

Cook CR, Coco S, Zhang Y et al. (2018) Cultivating positive teacher–student relationships: Preliminary evaluation of the establish–maintain–restore (EMR) method. School Psychology Review 47(3): 226–243.