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Building successful relationships - there's more ways than one

A question that has always fascinated me in my career has been how best to build a successful relationship with a student. When I posed this question from an NQT yesterday, many of the responses were along the lines of “well, build a relationship with the student”.

To some, there is an implication that “building a relationship” with a student equals appealing, cajoling, chatting with and even entertaining the student with whom the relationship needs to be built. It’s very rare though that I hear someone say they built a relationship through using sanctions, consistently holding onto key boundaries, standing up to challenge in confrontation situations and generally standing firm. This is often seen as a dead-end approach to creating the kind of personable relationship seen on the DFE teaching adverts where it's always the "banter" that works the magic.

However, in my career – and I can only talk about myself – these strategies have proven the most constructive in the long term. Why? Because I’ve found that it’s often the most disruptive student who has the greatest desire for the firmest and most consistent of routines and structures. Of course, initially, it would seem it was the last thing they wanted or needed as they railed against the expectations. It can be really tough for both teacher and student and this can go on for weeks, even months. I can think of a lad called Mark I taught in my first school; we are going back to 2008-2010 now. I’ve worked out that Mark must be perhaps 23 years old now. Myself and Mark clashed as I was absolutely intent that he would be a part of my classroom like everyone else. He wanted to do things his way. This meant shouting out, answering back, distracting others and rarely following instructions. I still have copies of the “pink forms” that I sent about him, leading to him having to leave my classroom on several occasions after travelling through the rather generous warning system. I probably gave him more warnings than any other teacher in the school, but he kept coming back to my lessons, and gradually started to get a little better, bit by bit. Anyway, I’m not going to sit here and say everything was rosy and it all turned round, but what I will say is – a relationship was built over time, demonstrated by the moment when Mark transferred schools and knocked on my door the day before his exit during a rainy lunchtime to tell me he “really respected me and what I tried to do”. Of course, this is all based on showing the student you care, but lessening or altering your own expectations to avoid a potentially stressful situation was never my way of doing this. It was to walk towards the danger but to wipe the slate clean every lesson. Anyway, the point I’m making is NQT’s and trainees and new teachers who see and hear people say “build a relationship” might only see that one way – the cosy chats, the bending of rules to accommodate, the dishing out of lavish praise and a committed policy of appeasement no matter what. This undercurrent and onus can sometimes suggest that clashes between student and teacher must indicate a lack of a relationship, but guess what – meaningful, real relationships take a substantial amount of time to build. And sometimes it’s no pain, no gain.

When I think of the kind of relationship builders I’m thinking of, I always turn to football. Steven Gerrard recently appeared on a podcast with Gary Lineker. He was asked which manager got the best out of him. He said Rafa Benitez. He acknowledged that his relationship with Benitez was perhaps more stand off ish and business like than others. In fact, he was convinced he didn’t like him when he first joined the club. But Gerrard played his best football under Benitez because he felt he had to work harder and be better to get any praise from Benitez. He said Gerard Houllier was the opposite – he was the arm round the shoulder kind of manager, lots of love and kindness and so on. In my view, these approaches are all valid, just different. I’d highly recommend listening to the Gerrard podcast and reflecting in a teacher/student sense on the conversation -

I took similar take aways from the BBC documentary “Secrets of Success” about Sir Alex Ferguson.

Even watching the first few minutes of Giggs and Ferdinand and so on discussing what he was like plays into this idea. I think you could say his player management was, at times, based on “tough love”. Of course, there is the idea that “things have changed” since Fergusons managerial heyday in the 90’s and early 00’s and that nowadays young players wouldn’t cope with his style. I’m thinking of him throwing a boot at David Beckham! I’m not saying teachers should be doing that on a Monday morning. But what I am saying is that there are different strategies for getting the best out of young people and developing those proper solid relationships, and dismissing, overlooking or painting one or the other as “dangerous” is a real problem. It creates a dangerous myth for new teachers that being a kids best friend is the golden ticket. This can lead to NQT's avoiding sanctions, playing the friend or entertainer and forgetting about their primary role - to deliver an education. This isn't their fault if the tune is always "be softer, be nicer, be quieter" and so on. Teachers need to carve their own path as every personality is different, but a tougher more traditional approach shouldn't be dismissed in producing the kind of lovely relationships that often feature on school website banner pages.


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