‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ Carl J Buechner
I was asked to deliver some training to interns and newly qualified teachers at one of my local schools. In all my years of teaching, I had never been asked to do training specifically about this topic. I have trained staff in topics such as trauma and attachment, working with children struggling with extreme emotions, all sorts of teaching and learning themes, but never a session just focusing on relationships in school. We probably all take this area of teaching for granted; something we learn on the job and hone with experience. Although come to think of it, some of the old hands I have worked with in my career could certainly have benefitted from improving their relationship skills. So maybe some pointers early on in your career is a great idea. Teaching is, after all, a job that depends on good communication with pupils and their families and working well with colleagues. If you are a dab hand at forming positive relationships, your job is going to be easier and more enjoyable, and you will be more effective in teaching the curriculum.
On an average day in school, teachers are constantly interacting with pupils and colleagues. In corridors, we are nodding greetings, catching up about timetable changes, redirecting pupils and scanning for opportunities to praise or reprimand. In the classroom, the relationships we have with our class creates the ethos and culture in which we work. Whatever our unique personality traits and teaching style, building respectful relationships with the pupils we work with is going to underpin a lot of our teaching.
I wish I had known more about how to develop good communication and trust when I started out in the profession. I learned by trial and error the hard way, and by observing other members of staff. I recall being in awe of a colleagues who had the class silent with a look, but I also observed that there needs to be a balance of control and approachability so that pupils can ask questions and make mistakes happily. We all find our own way of being a teacher, but to help new staff on their way here are my ten thinking tips to get relationships off on a good footing from the start.
1. Attachment describes the bond between a child and their care giver. Children have different experiences of having their needs met when they are infants and this impacts on the way they form relationships as they get older. It is really useful for teachers to have an awareness of attachment theory because children are in school several hours a day and key adults in school can represent important attachment figures for them. Knowing that children have different attachment styles and that some children easily form appropriate attachments and others can be clingy or aloof helps us understand not to take things too personally. If classes have had a supply teacher or if they know you are an intern, they may be hard work to engage - this may be because they are aware that you may leave. Early on classes may test you rigorously and this can be tough. They are seeing if you are going to be there for them. Stick it out and be consistent and this will pay off.
2. Belonging is the idea that we emotionally invest in people and places that are constant to us. As a new teacher in a school, it takes time to feel you know the ropes and are comfortable in your classroom and staff room. You will recognize that sense of belonging when you start talking about ‘my school’, or when you well up at a school concert or feel great warmth when your class have achieved something that has been recognized by others. As staff we grow into this sense of belonging through being acknowledged by colleagues, being asked to join conversations, feeling like a valued member of the team. It is no different for pupils. Relationships come before a sense of belonging. When children feel known, they feel safe. Safety is part of belonging. We strengthen this through things like team sports, uniform, house names and shared celebrations in schools. Our systems are set up to try and instill a sense of belonging. By getting to know your pupils and relating to them, by creating a shared ethos in your class, by talking about 'our' class and celebrating success - you develop a stronger sense of belonging. It is important to recognize those children who appear to kick back against these themes - they may feel they don't belong. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to - they may feel rejected by school especially if they are familiar with the sanctions system. In your classes, how can you relate to them to start to build some belonging? Never assume these children are not seeking an attachment but be sensitive and try reaching out with small gestures to build a relationship.
3. To build relationships, we need to know our pupils. How can we do this in school? Talk to colleagues who hold information about pupils - the SENCo, the head of year, previous class teacher. TAs are a great font of knowledge as they tend to see pupils across classes and over time. Reading pupil profiles and finding out how pupils learn best is a great way to show them you care. Knowing your pupil’s passions and interests is a great tool for opening conversations and for finding common ground. If you love football or Minecraft, your pupils will enjoy finding out that you are into something they know about. When you know a little about your pupils, this is useful for designing activities and bringing in topics that you know will hook certain pupils. Be mindful that not all pupils want to share and be sensitive about talking to pupils about their family situation unless they initiate the conversation.
4. Beware unconscious bias and by that, I mean be aware of your own snap judgements about both pupils and staff. Things we assume will generally be proved wrong, so watch your thinking about pupil types. Be aware that we are all prone to stereotyping to a degree. Be mindful that listening to staff speak about pupils will cloud your own judgement. If there are colleagues who talk in a negative way about particular pupils, steer away and avoid associating with toxic staff room chat about pupils’ personalities. Comments such as ‘nasty piece of work,’ ‘bone idle,’ ‘they are a nightmare,’ are not helpful and serve only to prime other staff to lower their expectations. If you are able to, challenge staff who talk like this or mention it to your mentor. We all need to vent on occasion. but we can do it without disrespecting others. If you need to get something off your chest, do so with a trusted colleague and recognize that whatever your frustrations - it probably more about you than the pupils.
5. Communication is complex and of course its not just what you say that matters. We all have a range of non-verbal signals which convey our mood or intentions. Pupils, especially teenagers, will read their teachers before they actually listen to what they say. Are they warm? Are they in a bad mood? Teenagers read expressions and tone more than words. The ones that need an attachment with you the most, will be the first to notice if you are tired or having a bad day. Certain pupils may be anxious that the lesson will be different because you are angry with them, whereas in fact, you are just late because you have come from a meeting. Be aware of the all the non-verbal signals you are giving and make sure you are choosing what to convey. Learn which signals are confrontational - such has hands on hips, finger pointing. Use gestures effectively to settle a class and be comfortable with your own silence.
6. There are routines that will create an environment where relationships can prosper. Relationships build incrementally and little interactions are the foundations. Greetings and endings are really important to establish. Greet your class at the door, as they enter and again while taking the register. Think about how you would like the class to address you and stick to this. If pupils answer with a grunt or a yeah, greet them personally and model how you would like them to respond. Even teenagers enjoy a proper good morning with their name, even though they may be 'too cool for school'. Likewise, ending the lesson closes the interactions and sets the tone for the next lesson. Have a routine of packing up, thanking those that are helping, taking in books etc. Try and end positively and hopefully. Offer targeted praise and remark on specific things you have noticed. Noticing little things makes us all feel special - as if the person is bearing us in mind. Being 'born in mind' is so powerful. When you greet your pupils and ask after a specific interest or event, they will feel good that you have remembered this about them. It’s the analogy of putting money into an emotional bank. The more you have deposited, the more you can draw down on. If there is a time when you need to unpick a conflict with a child - the relationship you have built up will determine how effective the interaction will be.
7. Teachers love to talk but listening is the most powerful tool you can have in school. We can develop strong relationships in school by using opportunities to really listen to our colleagues and to our pupils. Not fixing or telling; just listening without judgement. We call this type of listening empathic listening and it takes practice, but it is so worth it. When a child is angry, upset, withdrawn, in conflict - be present for them and ask open questions such as tell me about, describe what happened. Listen and give them full attention. Clarify what they have said, show empathy by showing that you understand what they are saying. Reflect back how they have said they are feeling. Just being heard is a key component of a trusting relationship. So often adults rush in trying to solve the problem and get to the consequence. Consequences can come later if needed, but the relationship is about listening. This works with colleagues as well.
8. Personal boundaries are an important learning curve for new staff. Children want to know you. You need to decide what you are going to share and what you are not. Boundaries are important for personal integrity. Children will test you. You need to be ready and have thought about how you will respond. What is private to you? Many staff have no problem with sharing basic details about their life such as their first name, if they have children, their hobbies etc. Kids love knowing a little bit about you and this may help them connect. However, they will push. How do you avoid answering questions about your personal life or opinions, without being defensive or escalating the situation? Possible answers include ‘I prefer to keep my personal life private’ ‘Is this to do with the work?!’ You can give very general answers to defuse the situation e.g. if asked your age -‘I am ancient’. It worth noticing the timings when the questions are occurring; pupils of all ages are masters of work avoidance. Distract and redirect if they are drawing you in or away from your subject teaching. If questions are very personal and making you feel uncomfortable, share with a trusted colleague, and contact your DSL to get advice.
9. Presence is the X factor of teaching. I will explain what I mean. When you are new to a school, it’s harder to make your presence felt because you don’t know the pupils. But this is something that you can work on from day one, as pupils will respect and trust you more if you are an adult that is physically around and who steps forward to intervene if needed. In the corridors and playgrounds, on duty, be a teacher who gets involved. Chat to groups of kids, notice the vulnerable kids on the side lines and gently engage them in conversation, step in to sort out a conflict. Observe and don't force yourself interactions - but show interest and position yourself so pupils on the verge of doing something silly are aware you are in their proximity. The Paddington stare or raised eyebrow is a good tool! These little interactions will serve to get you noticed as a member of staff. You will get to know all the characters in school this way - the ones who invariably get caught up in issues, the ones who end up in detention. You don’t need to be scary or loud to be a present teacher - you just need to be interested in the pupils and not to be afraid to step up. If needed, fake it to make it. Act confident and assured, and the pupils will believe you have the authority.
10. The glue that holds relationships together is trust. Trust can be earned, but it must also be given. If you never trust your classes to work on their own, do a chore, look after something you deny them the opportunity to develop your trust. Your pupils also need to trust you. The biggest trust earners are consistency and honesty. By consistency I mean being there every day, being persistent with your expectations, being predictable. If you say you are going to do something, follow through. Honesty is a good lesson for pupils to learn. If you haven’t marked their books because you forgot to take them home, tell them, but do it for next lesson. If you are tired and lose your rag over a small thing in class - apologize. As an adult, you can model how you self-regulate to teach them about their own emotions.
Authenticity is something teachers need. You can’t pretend to be a person you are not in front of your classes - they will catch you out. Be yourself and know yourself. Think about the kind of teacher you wat to be and set intentions. Work on your relationships skills. Reflect on your interactions. Try out some on-verbal strategies. Observe the teachers in school you admire and watch how they make others feel in their interactions. Its a journey!