Strong Relationships benefit students and teachers

A few months before she died unexpectedly at age 61, Texas educator Rita Pierson gave a TED Talk and recalled a colleague telling her, ”They don't pay me to like the kids." Her response: "Kids don't learn from people they don't like.'"

We’ve known for quite some time that positive teacher-student relationships boost students’ academic achievement. We’ve always assumed that this is because students feel safe to take risks with someone they trust and are motivated to do their best work.

Research published earlier this month, however, explores a different explanation for the higher test scores and GPAs in classrooms where relationships are strongest: Are these students learning more because they are being taught more effectively? That is: do positive teacher-student relationships actually change the way that teachers teach?

It turns out the answer is “Yes.” This is some of the first research that really examines the effect of positive teacher-student relationships on teachers themselves.

The study recently published in the journal Learning and Instruction focused on evaluation data gathered over two school years for Missouri educators teaching grades 4-10. The researchers conclude:

Positive teacher-student relationships lead primary and secondary teachers to more effectively implement three complex teaching practices examined in this study: cognitive engagement in the content, problem solving and critical thinking, and instructional monitoring… teachers are more likely to check in, monitor, scaffold, provide more constructive feedback to students, have greater confidence in their students’ abilities and use better scaffolding strategies for critical thinking.

The researchers were also able to test “the direction of effect,” meaning they were able to show that the positive teacher-student relationships predict and precede higher-quality instruction. This was true regardless of the teacher’s years of experience, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students at the school, and the school-level proficiency rate on state tests.

Why do I bring this up right now? Because we’re heading into a new school year, and we would do well to spend some time in the first weeks attending to relationships. I don’t mean the traditional “fill out this questionnaire, Back To School Night” kinds of interactions: I mean prioritizing and investing the time it takes for teachers to deeply know their students, and vice versa. This investment will pay dividends all year long. Last August, I wrote about what this could look like. At the time I was thinking about its effect on students, but this recent research now has me considering its effect on teachers, too.

When I was a teacher a million years ago, conventional wisdom held that teachers should be especially stern the first few weeks of school. Lay down the law. Demonstrate that you are in control. This was especially true if you were a 23-year-old teaching high school students just seven or eight years younger than you.

There’s no question that teachers need classroom management skills. But they also need relationship skills, and the time to apply them, which I believe create the conditions for a well-functioning classroom.

Good relationships improve student learning. And it just may be that teachers have as much to gain as their students in the bargain.