Back to school Part 2: Relationships

This series of #backtoschool blogs summarises much of my thinking as it’s developed over the past few years and is aimed at new or recently qualified teachers. Each area has been distilled to 5 ‘top tips’ which I hope prove useful to anyone embarking on a career in teaching. That said, I’ll be delighted if they serve as handy reminders for colleagues somewhat longer in the tooth.

Once clear and sensible routines are in place, there’s space for positive relationships to form; without them, we are merely fire-fighting. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, pupils prefer teachers they perceive as ‘stricter’ and want the reassurance of feeling safe, and knowing exactly where they stand. For some advice on managing behaviour, I refer you to Part 1 of this Back to School series.

A lot has been said and written about the power of relationships, and some have even gone as far as stating that all teaching can be reduced to how well we know our pupils. I think this is an exaggeration, although it does contain an important truth. Of course the relationships we have with children are important and of course these relationships should be as positive as possible. It’s exceedingly rare that I’ve encountered a thoroughly unlikable child (once, maybe twice in my career) and on a one to one basis, most are delightful, but dealing with them en masse can be quite another thing.

For better or worse you’re going to be spending a fair bit of time together, and if that time is to be productive, you will want to forge positive relationships. But getting to know pupils takes time – many secondary teachers will only see pupils for a one solitary hour a week – how on earth can we get to know the kids we teach when we see so little of them? These are my top 5 tips for getting to know your new classes:

1. Learn their names

It might seem obvious, but the first step is to know and use their names; if I use a pupil’s name, I will get to know her.  There are some kids whose names you will know before the end of your first lesson. And there are others whose names you will struggle to conjure when facing their parents on parents’ evening. It’s inevitable that the gobbier a pupil is, the quicker you’ll get to know them. For this reason alone seating plans are worth their salt. Without them I’m likely to descend to gesturing weakly at a sea of faces and saying, ‘Yes, you.’ But having a printout of my plan to hand ensures that I can direct questions at individuals confident in whom I’m addressing. If you’re the adventurous sort, you could also try some memory palace tricks to get to know a class in just 1 lesson – I did this for an interview once and it went down very well. Names have power and once we know them we can start to join the dots of our pupils’ lives.

2. Tell them they’re your favourite class

Every class is my favourite class, even if I dread them. If pupils suspect you don’t like them, they’re very quick to meet your expectations. And likewise, we all respond well to being liked. I’d balk at saying pupils’ respect must be earned, it shouldn’t: teachers have a right to be respected just for turning up, but it’ll certainly grease the wheels if we can find it in our hearts to be respectful of our pupils. Being respectful is just part of being a decent human being. But in direct contradiction to the preceding  advice avoid having favourites. It’s vital to appear not to favour particular pupils. Let’s face it, we can’t help having favourites – some of those soot stained little faces are just so adorable! But keep these feelings firmly under wraps. I’ve never taught my own children but speaking to colleague who have, they report being harder on them than on any other pupils to avoid accusations of favouritism.  And Share a bit about yourself too. Children are endless fascinated by their teachers. They speculate about our lives, relationships and especially our given names; like it or not, we are the celebrities of the soap opera that is school life. At least, that’s what I convince myself. So, it doesn’t hurt to reveal a little of our lives and show ourselves as more than the automatons they may assume us to be. This is also enlightened self-interest: it’s harder to hate what you know; familiarity doesn’t breed contempt at all, it breeds trust. And if we can get them to the point where they trust us, they’ll be so much more likely to learn from us. Also, asking children to put themselves out for you makes them more likely to put themselves out in the future. This is the Benjamin Franklin Effect – doing one favour leads to another – being ‘nice’ snowballs. Conversely, once pupils have behaved badly towards a teacher (or anyone else), they’re likely to repeat the behaviour again and create a victim.

3. Know the data

Knowing all this stuff about kids and yet remaining ignorant of their data is the realm of social workers, not teachers. It’s a professional duty to know where they are, where they should be heading and what they need to do to get there. And hopefully it won’t surprise you to learn that slapping a level or grade on the front of exercise books is not good practice. Looking at attendance figures, past attainment and the plethora of information schools hold on their pupils can be jolly useful if it’s combined with our knowledge of the pupils we teach. Obviously, any attempt to reduced human beings to something so simplistic as numbers is fraught with problems, but it’s a start.

4. It’s good to talk

Talking to colleagues is an obvious way to get the low down on kids, but parents are a more overlooked avenue. Parents love teachers taking an interest. A quick call or email to tell them their son or daughter is making progress/coasting/lagging behind works wonders. But simply complaining to parents about their beloved offspring is not normally a successful strategy. Focus discussions on progress rather than behaviour, and ask questions – show you’re interested in finding out more. Few are the parents who are completely uninterested in their children’s academic progress and, even if they’re powerless to help, they still want to know.

5. Mark their books

I’ve said before that marking is an act of love. It’s reasonable that if we’ve asked our pupils to go to the trouble of writing something in their books, the least we can do is read it. As well as all the other excellent reasons for making kids’ books, you also get to know them through their work. On one level you learn about their effort and ability but you also get to see what kind of a person they are. We English teachers are afforded privileged access into our pupils’ minds due to the nature of our subject. Reading creative writing can be very revealing. Pupils often choose to enact their worries and fears in response to creative writing tasks and along with sundry expositions on summer holidays and day trips I’ve read harrowing accounts of the death of parents, cases of possible abuse and the struggle for identity. The fact that this stuff goes unread in some classrooms appalls me.

These suggestions are not intended to be prescriptive and are by no means exhaustive. If you’re consistent, predictable and fair, pupils’ attitudes to learning will change. It doesn’t matter if some lessons are awful. Sometimes just keeping them in their seats and not swearing at each can feel like an achievement. But, this is a marathon not a sprint. Pupils need to be made to see that they will do better than they ever thought possible and leave with the best results of which they are capable.

Please feel free to add your own suggestions below.

Back to School Part 3: Literacy

18 Responses to Back to school Part 2: Relationships

  1. Sue says:

    Excellent reminders as we face the start of term. Wise and practical advice from someone who has done their time in the classroom is always welcome.

  2. Rachel Rossiter says:

    Sound advice here; also important to know which children are on SEN Register, pastoral list, receiving counselling etc as this can often provide clues to certain behaviours in the classroom.

  3. Jill Berry says:

    Lots of good advice here, David – thanks for sharing it.

    I just paused over ‘tell them they’re your favourite class’. I’d say ‘let them know you enjoy teaching them’. The ‘favourite’ idea makes me a bit uncomfortable, and when students talk to other students and discover you’ve said, ‘You’re my favourite class’ to more than one class, that can backfire in terms of their trust in what you say!

    Absolutely agree with the importance of learning names quickly. I always found individual name cards easier to manage than seating plans. (Folded A4 card. Collect it in at the end of each lesson. Give it out – yourself – at the start of each lesson until you can give every card out without asking anyone who they are). This meant I saw the pupil’s face and their name in front of them in one glance and usually remembered their names much more quickly as a result.

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  6. marvinsuggs says:

    I’ll second the idea of telling a class that they are the best class – maybe not your favourite but certainly the best. It nutures the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ – ‘we’re in this together’ feeling that can bind a group of individuals together. There’s no danger of overlap so long as you only teach one class from that year group which happens to be where I am.

    It’s taken me a while to buy into the ‘marking as an act of love’ ideal but this last year I’ve marked more than ever and I’m certain it’s had an impact in various ways.

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