Beyond Technique: Building Positive Student-Teacher Relationships in the Classroom

Teaching is a dynamic profession that involves many different skills, theories, and techniques. This makes it easy, according to Melissa Newberry, to overlook the personal relationships between teachers and students. Student-teacher relationships have more power than many realize to positively impact a student’s learning experience.

Newberry, a faculty member in the Department of Teacher Education, published an article in Teaching and Teacher Education on the importance of building and maintaining positive, healthy, student-teacher relationships. The article draws from her year-long experience observing and researching a second-grade elementary school classroom for her dissertation at Ohio State University.

Newberry’s article focuses on the relationship between the teacher and a particularly behaviorally challenging student of that class. In it, she highlights the steps that were taken throughout the year to ensure that the student had a positive learning experience. The boy was assigned to this teacher’s class because he had previously been identified as a “problem child” due to severe behavioral issues, and the teacher had dealt well in the past with students who had such problems.

His teacher made it a point to disregard the boy’s label though, as it would be detrimental to base their relationship on pre-conceived notions. “She never labeled him as a nuisance, and neither did her students,” recalls Newberry. “They were aware of his behavioral problems, but she made sure that he was helped and received with understanding.”

The teacher chose to act on the boy’s needs—especially those she felt were at the heart of the problems that were causing his misbehavior. This meant focusing on the student-teacher bond. With time, their relationship became a higher priority than the teacher techniques she chose to use with him.

In her article Newberry highlights the actions and behaviors by which the teacher built a positive relationship with the student. She identifies four important phases in the iterative process of building a relationship that will allow relationships to flourish like the one she observed. Each phase requires one-on-one personal interaction between teacher and student.

  1. Appraisal. In this phase the teacher gets to know and understand the student and identifies the kinds of goals and rules that will need to be set.
  2. Agreement. The teacher and student then establish the terms, boundaries, rules, and goals of their relationship; they define their individual roles as well.
  3. Testing. During this phase the student tests the terms set during the agreement phase.
  4. Planning. The planning phase involves making adjustments to the relationship and setting plans to move the relationship along to healthy levels.

The four stages Newberry outlines help teachers adapt to the various needs of different students, as teachers revisit these phases until progress is made. The teacher she studied did an excellent job adapting to student needs, especially as she took time to build trust with her students and their parents. In turn they respected her and the agreements they had made in establishing their relationships.

By the end of the year, the teacher’s hard work and dedication paid off. The relationship transformed from what was at first adversarial and confrontational to a trusting and cooperative partnership. The “problem child” became a model student who excelled in his schoolwork.

Newberry is a strong advocate for making relationships a stronger focus of teacher education. “Kids have more than just academic needs,” she concludes. “And the link between teacher and student will factor hugely in the learning experience.”

27 September 2010