Yet there are practical issues at play that compromise our ability to build these relationships including the dichotomy between building strong teacher/student relationships while maintaining professional distance and the impact of the attitudes and beliefs we bring to the classroom.
Here we look at the necessity of strong teacher/student relationships, the issues that can compromise them and how teacher self-awareness can overcome them.
Research continues to suggest that for students at both the primary and secondary levels, positive teacher/student relationships have a protective element to them, influencing a student’s perception of school so that it becomes a less hostile and confronting space.
They also provide a source of support to get students through times of increased stress with research finding that if a student has at least one positive relationship with a teacher it may safeguard that students' self-efficacy and increase their resilience.
However, it’s not just students that get the benefits of having positive teacher/student relationships.
Indeed it has been found that teacher/student relationships have a protective element for teachers too, providing meaning and a sense of internal reward, as well as having a positive influence on our feelings of effectiveness, competence and agency.
Poor teacher/student relationships on the other hand, have been found to threaten our professional and personal wellbeing, compromise efficacy and generate the kind of stress that leads to burnout.
Given the significance of the teacher/student relationship, knowledge and skills around how these relationships can be formed and maintained is important for teachers and education in general, especially when it comes to understanding what we might subconsciously do that can compromise these relationships.
Indeed our attitudes and emotions can and do impact on the way we interact with our students and how they respond to us, as does trying to get the right balance between building relationships and maintaining the kind of distance that allows us to control our classrooms and manage student behaviour.
The attitudes and emotions we bring to the classroom have a significant impact on which students we can successfully build relationships with.
Indeed, research indicates that as teachers we respond differently to our students but are often not aware of the differential behaviours we exhibit in our classrooms.
Nor do we appreciate just how these behaviours influence the relationships we build and the notice student’s take of who is favoured and who is not.
Generally speaking our attitudes are defined as the appraisals we make based on a combination of our thoughts and feelings around some kind of stimuli, with implicit attitudes being those thoughts and feelings we have that exist beneath our conscious awareness.
The association we make between a particular stimuli and a positive or negative feeling determines whether we respond in a favourable or unfavourable way, to that stimuli.
Because these appraisals are swift and often beneath conscious awareness we often fail to recognise that the feelings we have about someone or something has a direct influence on what we say and do to them and around them.
This difficulty is heightened by the fact that our implicit attitudes are often in direct contrast to what we consciously think and say we do, making it even harder for us to recognise they even exist.
To counter this, researcher Lisa Goldstein refers to the caring nature of teaching and what she calls 'natural care' and 'ethical care'.
She suggests that natural caring exists without effort on the part of the teacher and occurs when there is a natural bond between teacher and student (most often seen around co-operative students).
Ethical caring however doesn’t come naturally, but is performed, she says, out of duty; that is, we have a responsibility to build relationships with students regardless of whether we like them or not.
While using ethical care increases the emotional labour of teaching, self-awareness around the process can shift ethical care to natural care.
For example as we build relationships, we can become, with awareness, more conscious of our observations of a student's personality, our analysis of the motives behind their behaviours, and our responses to them.
If we acknowledge that building relationships is a process, and become aware of that process, we can increase the chances of problematic teacher/student relationships becoming more natural and rewarding for both teacher and student.
Another, seldom discussed issue around building and maintaining strong positive student relationships, is managing the difference between the level of intimacy necessary to build a positive teacher/student relationship and the kind of distance that enables discipline and the right kind of dominance required to manage the classroom environment effectively.
While this dichotomy may appear natural and necessary, it is not an easy balance to maintain, especially when some students may push the boundaries through verbal play or inappropriate behaviours that then need to be dealt with while still maintaining the trust and bond you’ve tried so hard to create.
Adopting a more authoritative style of classroom management can help to keep this balance in place with research suggesting that an authoritative teacher has clear boundaries and expectations that are explicitly explained and reinforced firmly, fairly and consistently.
This style then creates an environment of structure and support that combines student autonomy with respect for, and co-operation with, authority.
In the end, adopting a position of self-awareness and the way in which we build and maintain our relationships with our students is imperative if we want to offer our students opportunities for academic and social success and reduce our own emotional labour and stress.
Being able to acknowledge and accept that not all relationships are going to be easy to develop for a range of reasons, also allows us to be more open to the process and effort required, as well as the reward to be reaped.
While relationships require a two-way involvement, it is up to us to initiate and engage to build student trust and compliance.