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How important are good teacher-student relationships

How important are good teacher-student relationships?

6 min read
  • Stress management & well-being

The significance of good teacher-student relationships is so important. They form the bedrock of effective education, and their impact extends far beyond the classroom walls. But how crucial are these relationships? How do they shape our teaching efficacy? And most importantly, how can we foster these relationships to create a beneficial learning environment?

Read on to learn more about:

  • What the research says about teacher-student relationships
  • The positive impact of good teacher-student relationships
  • How to improve teacher-student relationships

What does the research say?

In a recent study, students completed a survey that measured their perception of teaching effectiveness and their relationship with their teachers. They found that students who reported a stronger relationship with teachers were more likely to rate their teachers’ practices as more adaptive and involving higher levels of cognitive engagement, problem-solving and critical thinking (it is worth emphasising that a) this is a correlational finding, not a causal one, and b) it is their perception, not necessarily objectively true).

One theory that may help partially explain these findings is Self-Determination Theory. The theory suggests that caring relationships help fulfil the innate needs for relatedness and to feel connected to others. When relatedness needs are met in a specific context such as the classroom, individuals are more motivated to behave in adaptive ways, engage with tasks and respond creatively to challenges.

Therefore, a positive teacher-student relationship could increase the motivation of teachers, leading to the adoption of more complex, high-impact teaching practices. This, in turn, takes student learning and achievement to the next level.

Check out our blog on Self-Determination Theory to learn more. 

The positive impact of good teacher-student relationships

Peer acceptance

Recent research found that teacher-student relationships have a profound impact on the way in which a student is perceived by their peers.

When a classmate recognises that a student has a negative relationship with their teacher, they often take this to mean that the teacher does not accept the student. This can subsequently lead to classmates modelling the teacher’s negative behaviour towards this student; hence they will too avoid engaging with them.

Peer rejection at a young age can lead to a number of negative outcomes. For example it may cause a lack of self-esteem, which can affect how the student interacts with others outside the classroom. Therefore, it is extremely important that teachers try to build positive relationships with each of their students and that the classroom is seen as an inclusive environment.

High career expectations

One particular study sought to investigate the impact that teacher-student relationships have on career expectations. The researchers found that teachers and their students having positive relationships could enhance a student’s sense of belonging and understanding of self, which in turn resulted in them setting higher career aspirations.

Having high careers aspirations and the self-belief that you can improve and achieve is essential for maximising success.

For example, in a recent study, researchers asked participants to cycle as hard as they could for 4,000m. Later, the participants were given the same instructions, but this time they had to ride against what they believed was an avatar of their previous ride. However, this avatar was actually going faster than they had before. Despite this, the participants kept pace. This shows that, if students are willing to push themselves and set high standards, it is likely they will achieve more.

Student engagement

Recent research has demonstrated that positive teacher-student relationships can increase student engagement. This is because when a student values and respects their teacher, they are more likely to strive for the goals and expectations that they have set for them, which can often only be achieved by interacting and engaging with the content taught in class.

Having students engaged in the lessons ensures that they are thinking deeply about the material being taught. As students tend to remember things that they think a lot about, this means that the key messages being taught are more likely to be retrievable at a later date.

Teacher well-being

Teacher-student relationships are not only important for maximising development at school, but they can also have a profound impact on teacher well-being.

Recent research found that the higher the percentage of teacher-student relationships judged by the teacher to be negative, the higher the levels of stress and negative emotion that the teacher experiences.

Teacher well-being is a particular concern at the moment with one in five teachers reporting that they feel stressed about their job all or most of the time. Therefore, if strong teacher-student relationships help reduce negative affect then it’s definitely something worth focusing on.

4 ways to improve teacher-student relationships

It turns out that improving your relationship with students doesn’t just make everyone’s time at school more pleasant – it can also be a key factor in enhancing the quality teaching. So, here are some accessible and low-cost strategies that can help you build a positive and supportive connection with your students in the classroom:

1. Create a psychologically safe classroom

Psychological safety refers to the belief that you will not be humiliated or judged for the thoughts you offer. When adopted in the classroom, students feel free to ask questions, engage in discussions and express their creativity without fear of negative repercussions. This increase in comfort and engagement helps foster a more positive relationship between students and teachers.

A good way to help develop psychological safety is to promote active listening. This is where students use open body language (e.g., eye contact), ask clarifying questions and summarise the speaker’s main points to demonstrate that they are listening. Check out our blog for five more tips to help students become better listeners.

2. Consider looping

Looping is a strategy where a teacher remains with the same group of students for more than one school year. This approach helps build a strong teacher-student relationship by creating a sense of continuity and stability for students. When they know what to expect from their teacher and are familiar with the classroom routine, it leads to increased trust, which ultimately improves learning outcomes. Recent research demonstrates the efficacy of this practice, showing that it can increase student grades.

3. How you greet your students

Greeting students could effectively enhance teacher-student relationships, as teachers can demonstrate an interest in each student and get to know them better on a personal level. This positive relationship makes teachers more approachable, meaning that students are more likely to ask for help, engage in class discussions and respect their teacher.

A positive greeting can take many forms: as a friendly smile or a warm welcome. Using the student’s name is a great way to personalise the greeting to show that you recognise and care about them.

4. Use humour

Using humour, however left-field a strategy it may sound, has been found to improve teachers’ relatability. This helps breaks down the perceived barrier between teacher and student to facilitate the development of a more open and trusting relationship.

Humour also helps create a more relaxed and positive atmosphere in the classroom. When students feel comfortable and at ease, they are more likely to open up, participate in discussions and form a connection with their teacher.

However, make sure to use humour carefully and appropriately: inappropriate humour can harm student well-being, leading to fear, anxiety and even hostility in the classroom.

Final thoughts

The latest research on teacher-student relationships has furthered our understanding of what can happen in the classroom. We now know that a strong teacher-student relationship can potentially motivate teachers to use more effective practices, which in turn boost student learning.

Positive teacher-student relationships can impact a student’s acceptance by their peers, the aspirations they set themselves and their engagement in class. Given that students spend over 1,000 hours a year with their teachers, this can make a significant difference.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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