I was 14-years-old, at boarding school and desperately unhappy. I was homesick and it seemed all-consuming. I was rescued by the most unlikely heroine. She was a nun, in her 60s and quite eccentric. Sister Perpetua was my English teacher and she decided I needed to be busy. She cast me in her school production of The Boyfriend even though I didn’t audition. Then she had to teach me to dance. I was beyond bad but she persevered. It was that relationship and the time she invested in me that saved me from quietly slipping through the cracks.
A child’s relationship with their teacher is fundamental to their success and happiness at school. In early years education, it helps form their attitude to schooling. In adolescence, it impacts strongly on whether they see themselves as having an academic future. It can be a direct indicator of success.
The importance of this relationship was borne out in the ground-breaking work of Prof. John Hattie. Hattie conducted the most far-reaching and comprehensive study of learning ever conducted. The 15-year study quantified and ranked the impact of 195 learning elements on academic success. He found that the relationship between a student and their teacher was more important to success than:
- Class size
- Comparative age within the class
Given that this relationship is so important, it stands to reason that we all need to nurture it. There needs to be a strong partnership between parents, teachers and students. As they say, you can’t whistle a symphony on your own.
Teachers are made aware of the importance of their relationship with students constantly. Professional development is often built on this premise. It doesn’t mean that teachers have to all be friends with your children or that they need to make them feel loved. Teachers aren’t friends or parents. They need to be significant adults with clear and consistent boundaries who care about and like their students. Students need to see them as credible and trust them in order to take learning risks.
You may perceive some teachers as better than others. If given a choice, you may not have chosen a particular teacher for your child. That said, any teacher-child relationship can be supported and nurtured. Often the most unlikely combinations are the most effective. Your child is in the relationship, not you. Your role is to support it. You might be surprised which teachers your kids love.
With the advent of an expanding private schooling sector, education has more and more been viewed as a commodity that parents buy and teachers supply. The problem with that is that it takes responsibility away from parents. That can’t work. The person who knows your child best is you. For the teacher-student relationship to be most effective in its goals, you need to communicate with your child’s teachers. There is a shared responsibility.
We all know that a teacher can’t blur the line between being a child’s teacher and a child’s friend. We also know that you need to be a parent first and a friend when the parenting is done. Yet, as recent press has shown us, more often some parents are placing themselves in an ‘us and them’ relationship with teachers and schools. Perhaps teachers do the same. Last week, one New South Wales school sent home legal documents to stop parents abusing staff online. How did that happen? When did the relationship get so badly off-track? Put simply, undermining the teacher is undermining the learning and collaboration that is necessary for your child’s success. It may momentarily bond child and parent against a common enemy, but at what cost?
When children come home from school and you ask them how their day was, you are likely to get a brief summation. When the child is between thirteen and sixteen it is likely to be very, very brief. That’s the nature of teenagers. So, when you hear about teachers it will be a short highlights and lowlights reel. Out of the six hours that your child spent with teachers, you will only hear the extremely good and the extremely bad. Most of the day these relationships are pretty standard. Keep that in mind before deciding on the virtue or lack thereof in a teacher. Also, keep in mind that your child plays a highlights and lowlights reel of you to their teachers. Let’s all keep these stories in perspective.
Working Together When Things Go Wrong
1. Students, teachers and parents must communicate in a meaningful and professional way when difficulties arise. No angry emails shot off late at night. Face to face contact is best, at a prearranged time, when everyone is calm. It’s hard to ignore that the other party cares when you are all sitting facing one another.
2. Teachers and parents need to keep stock of what their own responsibilities are. Parents cannot sub-contract out their parenting to teachers. Teachers must take responsibility for finding new ways to address old learning problems.If an issue arises, consider the other party’s position. Ultimately you both want the same thing, you are just coming at it from different angles. Find the common ground and start from there.
3. At meetings parents, students and teachers should agree on plans and strategies and write them down. Ensure all parties are on the same page.
4. Parents should advocate for their child, but they shouldn’t go to war on their child’s behalf. Part of the building of a teacher-student relationship is allowing them to go through the highs and lows together. Running in to take over and rescue your child will not help.
5. It is understandable that people get emotional when children are involved. Every child is their parents’ greatest priority. Being emotional is understandable. Being aggressive is unacceptable.
6. Laugh. Be interested. Listen. At the end of it all, teachers and parents are people. In any other setting, you might be friends. Even if that’s not the case, we are all people who deserve respect.
Sister Perpetua has long since passed away and I never ever became a dancer. Today, I’m more your ‘tap your feet, sway slightly and try not to fall over’ kind of girl. However, I did become an English teacher and I am forever grateful for that student teacher relationship.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.
Baker, J. Grant, s., & Morlock, L.(2008). The teacher–student relationship as a developmental context for children with internalizing or externalizing behavior problems. School Psychology Quarterly, 23(1), 3-15.
Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2001). Early teacher–child relationships and the trajectory of children’s school outcomes through eighth grade. Child Development, 72(2), 625-638.
Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge: New York
O’Connor, E. E., Dearing, E., & Collins, B. A. (2011). Teacher-child relationship and behavior problem trajectories in elementary school. American Educational Research Journal, 48(1), 120-162.
Silver, R. B., Measelle, J. R., Armstrong, J. M., & Essex, M. J. (2005). Trajectories of classroom externalizing behavior: Contributions of child characteristics, family characteristics, and the teacher–child relationship during the school transition. Journal of School Psychology, 43(1), 39-60.