Recent research at the University of Missouri turns the spotlight regarding the benefits of positive teacher-student relationships from how they benefit students to the benefits they provide to teachers, including how strong student relationships impact their instruction. We have long known the impact of positive teacher-student relationships can have on the learning experiences and achievement of students. However, attention to how teachers benefit from strong, positive relationships with students has been sparse.
The new study featured responses from students regarding teacher instructional practices and the strength and nature of their relationships with their teachers. We know that adults often over-estimate student perceptions in areas such as engagement, so understanding the perceptions of students is an important benchmark for documenting any impacts resulting from the nature and strength of teacher-student relationships.
The results of the study point to an important teacher behavior associated with forming strong relationships with students. Teachers who were perceived by their students as having strong relationships were more likely to utilize complex, high-impact instructional practices. From one perspective, this information helps to explain a key driver of improved student achievement associated with strong teacher relationships. However, the findings also suggest that teachers who have strong, positive relationships with their students are more confident and may be willing to take risks associated with challenging instructional practices.
We might think of this reciprocal interaction as a virtuous cycle. Strong teacher-student relationships make it easier for teachers to use higher impact instructional practices, thus increasing the success of students and further strengthening their relationships. In response, teachers may feel even more confident in expanding their instructional skills and further lifting student learning.
The authors of the study also suggest that this virtuous cycle may play a role in reducing teacher burnout as they experience greater success and enjoy strong relationships with their students. Strong relationships are also associated with reductions in misbehavior and higher student engagement, two important counter forces to minimize teacher burnout.
Further, the authors speculate that this reciprocal interaction may reduce teacher attrition as they experience professional success and increased satisfaction. Such an outcome is especially important at a time when we face a crucial need to retain skilled teachers, maintain staffing stability, and reestablish momentum as the pandemic subsides.
So, what might educational leaders and educators take from this study and its findings? Here are some places to start:
- Prioritize forming strong, positive relationships between students and teachers.
- Support teachers with time, encouragement, and support to form strong relationships with students.
- Provide teachers with access and encouragement to learn and implement complex, high-impact instructional practices.
- Support teachers to engage students in providing feedback and problem-solving challenges as new instructional practices are tested and adopted.
- Monitor circumstances where teachers are not successfully forming strong, positive relationships with students and provide support as needed and appropriate.
- Study whether strong, positive relationships are leading teachers to try increasingly complex, high-impact instructional practices in your setting. If so, learn more about how the shift is initiated and sustained. If not, inquire whether there are barriers or support needs to introducing such instructional practices.
We have long known that strong teacher-student relationship can have important, positive implications for student learning experiences and success. It is helpful to also recognize that these relationships hold benefits for educators. Further, it is heartening to know that the reciprocal nature of these relationships can help both students and teacher to become increasingly successful.