Taking Account of Personal Relationships Between Students in Teaching

How important are relationships in education? 

Rita Person, in her classic TED Talk, says “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” I thoroughly agree and I would like it mandated that every teacher watches her talk every year!

I want to expand her sentiment to include student to student relationships. 

“Kids don’t learn well in classes where they have bad relationships.”

This is proven at the worst end of the relational spectrum, where victimisation and bullying occur. A report by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) says “Students who are bullied for two or three years in mid primary school fall nearly 10 months behind their peers in numeracy by year 7.”

The correlation between learning and the relational context holds true for positive relationships as well. The best learning environments happen for students not only when the instruction is excellent but when relationships are strong with teachers as well as with fellow students.

If you don’t agree with how important relationships are to education I wish you well as you go on teaching your subject matter to students you don’t know (until A.I. comes in and sweeps away any need for basic content delivery).

For the rest, who do believe that relationships matter greatly for learning, consider these questions.

  1. What endeavours do you do to increase relationship strength in your class?
  2. How do you keep track of all the relationships  at play?
  3. How do you know which student relationships need intervention?
  4. What do you do about it once you do know?
  • Firstly, we need to agree that relationships matter and are worth our consideration and effort regularly. Give yourself an excuse for running at least some activities that are designed SOLELY to build successful relationships.
  • Secondly, we need to consider how we holistically build relationship tools into our practice. What can be done when you are teaching English or mathematics which will mean that the classroom context will encourage healthy relationships rather than competitiveness or exclusion?
  • Thirdly, we need to follow up broken relationships. Just as we have remediation processes for illiteracy, students who are struggling with relationships will need targeted help. Without going into too much details about mediation, restorative justice and reconciliation (which needs a blog post for itself), teachers need to know which students are distracted from learning because of conflict in their class.
  • Fourthly, we need processes to assess and track relationships just as we have processes for assessing and tracking numeracy and literacy.

What do you currently do to track relationships? Most would answer that they use subjective observation. Consider how you could increase effectiveness of these observations.

One simple idea is to regularly meet with two students who you know like you (there’s always a couple in each class) and interview them about the relational dynamics in the class. You may find issues that are below the surface. This will help you to develop your curriculum delivery to match the relational dynamics of your particular class. For instance asking certain students to speak in front of their peers may be disastrous if they are being ostracised by a dominant member of the class. You could ask this student to do their presentation before your staff room instead.

For nine years I have been developing a tool for tracking relationships in school. At St. Paul’s Anglican Grammar School we use an online tool I invented so that every term we ask every student about every other student in their class. The data is processed automatically and trends are determined revealing how relationships are developing and changing. Isolated students can have interventions tailored for them before negative experiences occur. Conflicts can be mediated. Students with potential for bullying can be coached and encouraged to build trust rather than abuse it.

You and your school are welcome to pilot Trustmapping at no cost with a class to see if it brings benefit to your plan for building schools with wonderful relationships.