I operate on a few general expectations when it comes to relationships. Firstly, as teachers, we are responsible for building high-quality relationships with all students – irrelevant of the past or what they bring to the table. Healthy relationships will underpin a positive school culture where our students can thrive. As a follow-up to that, learning and teaching, and relationship building isn’t a separate conversation where you do one and then switch to the other. They are not different domains within a school where learning is the role of the Teaching & Learning Committee, and relationship building is the Wellbeing Team’s job. They go hand-in-hand.
Most of the time, we get this relationship stuff. But, despite our awareness of the importance of healthy interpersonal dynamics between teachers and students, it’s not something that every teacher can do well with every student. All teachers can build effective relationships – that’s an assumption I often hear, but it’s a myth. When it comes to relationships, another myth is that opposites attract. Psychologists will tell us that our connection is stronger with those with similar personality traits and behaviours. The psychology behind this is that we have a need for a logical and consistent view of the world. Our bias is to favour people who share ideas and beliefs that validate and satisfies this need. This is why we connect well to kids who may represent a younger version of ourselves.
According to John Gottman, Executive Director at the Relationship Research Institute, building healthy relationships is best described as using a salt and pepper shaker. When you communicate and connect, the salt shaker is filled with ways that you can say ‘yes’ and positively reinforce the expected behaviour. In contrast, the pepper shaker is filled with the word ‘no’ and shaped by control and power. Basically, your language shapes the relationship. Your job is to go heavy on the salt, then sparingly use enough pepper to give some flavour. Gottman will tell us that if you use too much pepper or take too much control, the relationship is 81% likely to be damaged and self-destruct. He also highlights that building effective relationships isn’t just about clear communication; it’s about the small informal opportunities of attachment, connection, care and compassion.
Whilst most relationships are built organically and result from many tiny, informal moments, the end of the semester is the perfect time to reflect on and invest a little more of a formal evaluation of your relationships with all your students. The frame below will help you give them a little more salt than pepper. Pick a class, a year level or the whole school, and work through the questions below as a team, so every student gets what they need next semester.
5P Investment to Strengthening Relationships
- PROTECT – What can you do to protect the relationships that may be on the verge of being damaged?
- PRESERVE – How can you preserve the relationship so that it remains solid?
- PROMOTE – Who is the student that would benefit from you promoting the value of the relationship to others?
- PRIORITISE – How can you prioritise the relationship or the people over the content?
- PATCH UP – What do you need to do to patch up or repair that damaged relationship?
Check out other articles Simon has written here.