Establishing strong student-teacher relationships can be one of the most complex but important roles in an educator’s career. After working for two decades with thousands of youth in various educational environments, I have come to believe that student-teacher relationships are foundational for student success. In my role as CEO of Impact Society, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to both student and teacher development, I have seen the dramatic difference that a student-centered relational teaching process can have in developing more confident students who are better prepared to learn.
Dr. Wayne Hammond, President and CEO of Canada’s Resiliency Initiatives conducted a recent study of nearly 7000 students in the Yukon School District that powerfully illustrates the impact of relationship on learning. The study strongly indicates a direct correlation between student success and relational connections to teachers. Students with a relational connection to a teacher feel valued and connected to school, are more confident, resilient, and better able to successfully meet school academic challenges than those who do not feel valued or connected. Dr. Hammond’s summary states: “Excellence in instruction works well with students who are connected and who have strong social networks. But for kids who are not connected, we need to put relationship before learning.”
A study in Psychotherapy in Australia (Vol. 13, No. 2, 2007) published by Duncan, Miller and Sparks noted that 83% of successful change is the result of meaningful relationships and activities, while only 17% is a result of teaching technique: “Fifty years of outcome research shows that change doesn’t result from focusing on the disorders, diseases, and dysfunctions of youth. Change is spurred by what’s right with children and adolescents—their resources, creativity, and relational support networks—not the labels they carry or even the techniques employed by professional helpers…”
Positive change comes through genuine relationships. One of the best places to start is with a foundational belief that every student has an innate ability and desire for success. Focus on what the student can do as the starting point rather than the traditional approach of what a student cannot do. By turning this paradigm upside down and focusing on the gifts, talents and abilities the student already has, more attention can be paid to what the student is doing right, than what they are doing wrong. This strength-based approach is becoming recognized as one of the best ways to develop students, because it begins with the belief that every young person holds the key to his or her own transformation. What we focus on really does manifest. That’s why focusing on strengths is the best way to help all students become successful. Strength-based teaching impacts how a person feels about herself. As her thoughts begin to change, behaviour change follows. Change focused on behaviour is rarely effective because their feelings—the reason they have taken on the behaviour—have not been impacted.
Here are some practical tips on how to establish a positive, relational teaching practice.
- BE POSITIVE. When you begin your class, take the first few minutes to have a positive interaction with one or two students. It may be as simple as saying to someone from a sports team, “Tough loss on the field yesterday. How do you feel about the way you played?” Or to a student who may have a sick sibling offer, “I’m so sorry to hear your little brother hasn’t been doing well. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” Or to a child who is frequently left out, “I saw a few of your answers to the last project I gave you. Your answers showed some real insight and I appreciate that.” Beginning with a positive relational aspect does two things. It leads the students to feel they are more important than curriculum, and it opens up the brain to new suggestions and ideas, creating greater opportunity for success.
- OBSERVE. Negative behaviours are primarily learned behaviours or coping mechanisms that mask a student’s strengths. They often impede our ability to see ourselves accurately and can prevent us from taking on risks or new challenges. However, by taking the time to look beyond the behaviour, we may discover that the coping strategies are indicators of their strengths. The tough guy might actually be masking a compassionate heart. The “pushy” girl might really be a strong leader, but fear is masking her strength. Identifying the motivation behind the behaviour can often be the first step in connecting. Are the witty, sarcastic comments from the girl in the back row an attempt to cloak a bright mind that fears failure or rejection? As you take time to observe, you will often come to realize the negative behaviour is opposite to the student’s strengths. In reality, the negative behaviour can be a gift, giving you a window into the strengths of your students.
- CONVERSE with your class. Initiate a discussion by tossing out questions to help them begin the process of identifying their own strengths and uniqueness. Try asking:
What are you good at?
What do you love to do?
Where you see commonality between these two questions, you will often discover inner strengths. What would you like to be when you are 30 years old?
If you could spend a day with anyone who ever lived, who would it be and what would you like them to teach you?
If you could be anyone, who would you be? Why?
What qualities do you think make someone a good friend? Why?
If students find the initial idea of answering questions in front of others too daunting, start by having them answer the questions on their own, or as a written assignment.
- LEAD THE WAY. Genuine relationships start with you. Illustrate how to be real by doing it first. Be willing to describe your own experience, and your own answers to the questions above. Was it difficult for you as a teacher to answer any of these questions? Why? Let students begin to see that behind your role as a teacher you are a person. Keep in mind that imperfection makes people more accessible, not less.
- REFRAME. Language creates reality, so try reframing negatives to find an opportunity for interaction and understanding. Say, “The outcome you arrived at wasn’t one I expected, can you show me how you arrived at it?” As opposed to, “Did you not hear the instructions?”
- BUILD opportunities for students to make use of their strengths. To a student who is process oriented, you might say: “I know you have an amazing ability to think things through, so after I hear from two other students, I’m going to ask you for the answer to question three.” This demonstrates your faith that the student’s gifts are real, valued, and needed. Students need to know that there is substance to your words and real need for their gifts in order to be assured that they have a place, and that they belong.
Transformation is collaborative—it involves many people, especially the student. Teachers have a unique opportunity to impart hope, optimism and faith in their students, as they help them see themselves through positive lenses. Teachers can be a powerful force helping students see that they are unique and have a purpose in life. With this type of relationship at the foundation of our classrooms, we can expect better outcomes for our students, and more positive teaching experiences that can impact a student’s entire life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack Toth has worked with youth for over two decades. He is the co-founder and CEO of Impact Society, a national, non-profit organization focused on character development. Mr. Toth has developed programs that are being used by school boards and organizations across the country. Jack’s book, The Teacher Every Student Wants and Needs, encourages teachers to put a stronger focus on relationships while delivering curriculum. It is available at impactsociety.com.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Apr/May 2013 issue.