Is it really all about relationships?

The Ngram Viewer from Google Books ( https://books.google.com/ngrams ) is an addictive tool. It measures the frequency with which specific words are/have been used in printed resources during the last 200 years or so. For those inclined to speak like a 60s music-festival goer, it’s interesting to note the popularity of the word ‘swell’ has been declining ever since 1800 whereas ‘groovy’ has been on the (possibly ironic) comeback trail in the last two decades. It still has some way to go to match its late-60s peak, however.

It would be interesting to note the results if a tool existed only for education. Words like ‘assessment for learning’ have had their day and no-one mentions fidget-spinners much any more. How long before growth mindset, resilience, advocacy and engagement are washed away in the swell? Thus suffering a similar fate to the word ‘swell’, in fact.

Many of the more trite educational bios and pinned tweets attest to the importance of relationships in teaching, and by ‘importance’, I mean a sense of certainty that literally nothing else matters. Examples include:

  • ‘Teaching is 80% relationships and 20% relationships’.
  • ‘Classroom management is not about having the right rules…it’s about having the right relationships.

Admittedly, one of these is from the (I presume) parody account @steelethoughts , but witticisms such as these are plastered all over the Twittersphere to inform teachers that you’re well advised to work on relationships ahead of all else.

The main problem with this invective is that is doubles down on teachers. If you are finding classroom management difficult, it’s your fault for not building the right relationships with the children you teach. The pupils are behaving badly, and it’s all your fault. If the pupils are bored or poorly behaved, you therefore need to make the content more relevant and engaging in a desperate bid to get the relationships back on track.

I see this in real life too. I have been interviewing a lot over the past week or so, and most application letters talk to the need to foster the right relationships. It can be hard to keep teachers from veering into the personal lives of students during the interview process too, as teachers vie to out-care each other. Conversations about teaching can easily drift into the need to fit content to student interest, and even worse, to make everything relevant to the pupils’ lives. The assumption that no young person could find something interesting unless they are placed at the centre of it is an unfortunate assumption and probably unfair on the students themselves.

The teacher-pupil relationship need not be a complicated one. It is important to show you care; that you care enough to support and challenge each child as necessary. It is also worth being totally clear about rules, routines and expectations and to expect each child to come up to your expectations. It is not your job to come down to theirs. Show that you believe in them by setting the bar high and expecting them (with appropriate support and advice) to clear it. Show that you do not expect second best from yourself or them, but be willing to forgive them (and yourself) the odd mistake. Use language like ‘we’ rather than ‘you’ and ‘I’. Understand the importance of the swift and deft approach to praise and admonishment and that a few words at the start or end of a lesson are generally more effective than that same words delivered during the lesson. Pupils are not very good at faking affection, so when it’s palpable, it’s real. But don’t expect it too soon – it takes time for the penny to drop that everything you do is derived from care.

Don’t waste your time prying into their personal life or relationships with friends and partners. Spend time working out what they are really like as human beings, and your relationship will be all the richer. Our lives and the lives of those we teach do not run parallel; we intersect with their lives on occasions and we hope some good will come of these intersections. The modern message that we need to clumsily clamber into their lives in order to foster a strong relationship is inherently wrong. Teachers are not friends and teachers are not parents. Being an excellent teacher and modelling hard work and emotional consistency is plenty. Leave the trite statements to the trite people.