Have you ever asked yourself what makes one person more successful than another? I know I have. In a school environment the answer is really simple; strong student - teacher relationships are a crucial factor impacting student success. But, is it really that simple. No!
There are so many different personalities in a classroom, add to that, the various moods and issues that students come to school with on any given day, ultimately making for a pretty challenging environment. But the best teachers know, that despite all of the challenges, it's up to them to create deeply meaningful relationships with their students. The best teachers know, that it is their job to create a positive environment where ALL students feel safe and respected. The best teachers know, that the first step in helping students become successful, lifelong learners is to really know their students; not just academically, but really know the whole child.
Why is this so important?
Learning is extremely personal, we all experience learning differently and that's why it's imperative that teachers know each and every student in front of them. How can teachers help students achieve their goals if teachers don't really know who their students are (outside of academic data)? It's almost impossible. If we use student strengths to build their self esteem, then we can use that strength to support their weaknesses. To do this, teachers must really develop deep, meaningful relationships with their students. The relationship must be built on mutual trust and respect. Then, and only then, will students be free to take risks and grow into lifelong learners. This is the first step in creating a school culture where students feel safe enough to do more than what's required; to push themselves past their comfort zone. This is where the "teaching magic" begins.
What the research says
When teachers form positive bonds with students, classrooms become supportive spaces in which students can engage in academically and socially productive ways (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Positive teacher-student relationships are classified as having the presence of closeness, warmth, and positivity (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Students who have positive relationships with their teachers use them as a secure base from which they can explore the classroom and school setting both academically and socially, to take on academic challenges and work on social-emotional development (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). This includes, relationships with peers, and developing self-esteem and self-concept (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Through this secure relationship, students learn about socially appropriate behaviors as well as academic expectations and how to achieve these expectations (Hamre & Pianta, 2001).
Studies of math competence in students transitioning from elementary to middle school have found that students who move from having positive relationships with teachers at the end of elementary school to less positive relationships with teachers in middle school significantly decreased in math skills (Midgley et al., 1989). For students who are considered at high risk for dropping out of high school, math achievement is significantly impacted by the perception of having a caring teacher (Midgley et al., 1989). Furthermore, students who went from low teacher closeness to high teacher closeness significantly increased in math skills over the transition year, from elementary to middle school (Midgley et al., 1989). These studies show that relationships with teachers in the later years of schooling can still significantly impact the academic achievement trajectories of students (Midgley et al., 1989).
Ultimately, it's up to every educator in every school to do what ever it takes to ensure that all students feel loved and respected. Student learning and academic success depends on it.