Let’s think about teacher-student relationships

03.17.16 | Learning on the EDge | 0 Comments

By Douglas Fisher, Dominique Smith, and Nancy Frey

We all generally know that teachers should work to maintain healthy relationships with their students. It’s logical and reasonable. There is even research suggesting that positive teacher-student relationships improve achievement. For example, see John Hattie’s meta-analyses, indicating that the effect size is .72. Effect size describes how much growth you can expect to get over the course of the year; .40 is about equivalent to one year of growth for a year of school. So, positive student-teacher relationships are more powerful than a lot of other things we do. Simply said, students don’t learn well from grown-ups they don’t like.

But how many of us dedicate significant (or even any) planning time to the relationships we have with students? As Doug was thinking back on his preparation program, he realized that there was no time at all spent on how to develop and maintain healthy, growth-producing relationships with students. It must have been assumed that we all knew how to do this in age-appropriate ways. And, before we go on, we know that some teachers call their students friends, as in “Hello friends, are we ready to learn today?” We’re not suggesting that teachers think of themselves as friends of their students but rather dream managers — people who understand aspirations and how to help others reach them. To serve as a dream manager for students, their teachers must actively work to establish relationships with students that allow them grow and develop. Whenever we ask someone about a teacher who has effected his or her life, we hear one of two things:

  1. That person had passion and I got excited about learning from him or her.
  2. That person saw something in me that I didn’t realize was there.

That’s why we think student-teacher relationships matter, and why they are so powerful for improving students’ learning. In the remainder of this post, we’ll share some ideas for developing positive relationships.

The Two-by-Ten approach is deceptively simple. It’s a great way to develop a relationship with a student that you don’t know well. You spend two minutes talking with the student each day for 10 consecutive days. And you can’t talk about anything related to school. If you, or the student, misses a day, you start over. By the time the 10 days have passed, you will know each other much better and you can start talking about aspirations and dreams, and success in school.

Another way to develop positive relationships is through impromptu conversations. These brief interactions are designed to get the student talking and the teacher listening. We use starter questions to help these conversations along, such as:

  • I noticed that you . . . How does that feel?
  • What assumptions do people make about you? Are any untrue?
  • When do you feel proud of yourself?

In future posts, we’ll focus on maintaining relationships and about how to repair the relationships that are damaged. For now, think about being a kind person that your students will want to learn from.



About the authors: DOUGLAS FISHER and NANCY FREY both are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University (Calif.) and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High School, San Diego, Calif. DOMINIQUE SMITH is vice principal of Health Sciences High School.

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