CAMBRIDGE – By Robert Loe, Director of the Relational Schools Project.
This week saw the final day of filming for “The Relational Teacher”. The film explores a pedagogy for relationships and has followed six outstanding teachers and their classes. Whilst we have sought to highlight teacher practice/behaviours that lead to strong relationships in the classroom, the film has explored the view of students as well; their objective perspective has been crucial in understanding the subtle nuance of relationship building.
In turning the spotlight on the students, it becomes clear that being a Relational Teacher is not a solitary pursuit. The best Relational Teachers describe the environment of the Relational School (highly suited to their way of working); the Relational Staffroom (teachers who build relationships in community) and the Relational Student. A fundamental question has arisen from our work; to what extent do we need to develop the relational capacities of young people so that relationship building in the classroom becomes a shared responsibility?
In an attempt to analyse, observe and describe the ways teachers build social capital with those around them – I was struck by the need to develop the same social capital capacities in the very young people in their care.
Do relationships with teachers even matter?
The theory of social capital was distilled into two words by Field: “relationships matter” (Social Capital, London, Routledge 2003). The significance of a relational dimension is depicted in most models of social capital. The building blocks of social capital include: trust; engagement and connection; collaborative action; shared identity as well as shared values and aspirations.
When students have a positive teacher-student relationship, they adjust to school more easily, view school as a positive experience, exhibit fewer behaviour difficulties, display better social skills, and demonstrate higher academic achievement (Buyse et al., 2009). They are also more active participants in class, express a greater interest in [schooling], and maintain higher grade point averages (Hallinan, 2008)
Although both parental and teacher support are important in predicting students’ achievement, several studies indicate that student-perceived teacher connection was the most closely associated factor with progress through Key Stages 3 and 4 (Gregory & Weinstein, 2004). Positive student-teacher relationships serve as a resource for students at risk of school failure, whereas conflict or detachment between students and adults are the foundations of disconnection and, specifically, outcomes such as truancy. Research by the Centre for Social Justice (2000) suggests that over two-thirds of all those who truant do so in order to avoid a particular lesson, with ‘relationship with the teacher’ cited as one of the principal grounds for relational breakdown. Where relationships are strong in the classroom, they can surmount social inequality; where they are poor or dysfunctional, evidence suggests they reinforce educational disadvantage. Simply put, students who have difficulty forming supportive relationships with teachers are at a greater risk of school failure (Ladd & Burgess, 2001).
Developing Relational Resilience
So, how do we actively create social capital within school communities?
Research indicates that not all students have equal access to the opportunity to develop close relationships with their teachers. According to Jerome, Hamre, and Pianta (2009), some subgroups (including certain ethnic minority groups, males, those of lower ability or those who exhibit externalising behaviours such as aggression or hyperactivity) experience teacher relationships with more conflict than their peers. Likewise, students with emotional disturbances, mild learning disabilities or students who display more problem behaviours at home have more conflictual relationships with teachers than with students without these problems.
Whilst education has witnessed a shift in focus in relation to the students’ role, the learning and assessment processes, teacher-to-student relationships remain asymmetrical. As such there is, perhaps, an expectation, that it is the responsibility of the teacher to develop the professional working relationship between them and the student. But that some groups of students struggle to build close relationships with teachers, more than others, suggests relational capacities of young people are exceptionally important to building strong relationships and need to be developed. We need to help to develop relational resilience in students so that when they meet others who aren’t as good at developing relationships, they can overcome perceived obstacles. Students need to know where to begin and not passively to expect the teacher to initiate the process.
The Culture of Open Dialogue
One area that can be focused on to build relational resilience is the area of communication. Effective communication is fundamental to building relationships and consequently students with poor communication skills will struggle to build relationships. One way to develop this is through the practice of dialogue (West-Burnham & Otero, 2004). This dialogue needs to be rich – not just focused on ‘instructional conversation’, but including community conversation, where people can share views and develop social capital. When students practice dialogue with their teachers and classmates, they will develop their communication skills, and likely feel greater mutual respect, thus building relational resilience.
The National College poses eight interrogatives to assess the Relational culture of your classroom/your school. How open is your school’s culture of dialogue?
In our view, there is no surer route to community building and to fulfi lling the promise of democracy and lifelong learning than through the deepening of good, ongoing dialogue. Such dialogue can increase student achievement, transform teaching and learning and renew relationships that connect communities to schools (Preskill et al, 2000)
The Relational Teacher is released this September.