Getting Teachers Engaged

The Importance of Teacher-Student Relationships


Ever wonder how some teachers can engage students, while other teachers struggle with the same group? The key may be the teacher-student relationship. In this article, we explore from our own experiences what positive teacher-student relationships look like, why they are important and how to make it happen in your classroom.

William was a year four student who had a long history of refusal to participate in learning and ran from the classroom when he disagreed with his teacher or peers. He struggled
academically and socially and had a diagnosis of autism. Because his teacher could not cope, he was transferred into my class mid-year.

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On his first day in the classroom, he sat at the back, building walls around himself with his desk, chair and books. I let him. I knew that this change was frightening and that he needed time to get used to the new classroom environment. Over the next two weeks, I ensured that I made time to talk to him. It turned out that we had many similar interests. Slowly, he took his walls down – both literally and metaphorically.

When the class was doing a Maths assessment, I noticed William crying in the corner. I sat beside him for almost ten minutes when he finally said, “I am scared I will get it wrong. I want to do well at this.” So, when he was ready, he came back to his desk with me and tried again. I marked his assessment and returned it to him that afternoon – the smile on his face said everything.

At the end of the year, William had written a story that he proudly shared with his classmates. He completed all his classwork, even tutoring his peers from time to time. Most impressively, he got an A in Maths.

What is it?

Positive teacher-student relationships go far beyond fair and equitable interactions between the teachers and students. It refers to the quality of a caring and nurturing relationship, where the teacher truly knows and understands the student at an individual level.

There is a tendency for teachers to get to know students on a surface level. This often looks like knowing an interest, the family members, the student’s learning style and their strengths. Engaging teacher–student relationships are more in-depth and comprehensive than this. It is knowing the student beyond pure academics, seeing the student as a person – socially, emotionally and as a valued member of society.

Why is it important?

Research has demonstrated that strong positive teacher-student relationships engage students to perform better academically and socially. Students are motivated to learn because of the positive relationship with their teacher. Students’ intellectual, social and emotional development is faster and higher. There are also impacts on students’ self- acceptance leading to better relationships with their peers.

How to Develop in the Classroom — Strategies

Now we have covered the theory of what and why, we turn to the more valuable for busy teachers – the how – the practical component.

Start From Day 1

Where possible, it is important to start from the first day. We recommend that teachers invest the first two weeks of the school year in building positive relationships. We say invest because that is what it is – an investment. An investment in the student, an investment of our time and an investment in ourselves as professional teachers.

Frequently, I have been given classes that have been deemed difficult in the middle of the school year. Similarly, there are always students, like William, joining the class midyear. The need to build relationships is never-ending.

For the teacher reading this now, desiring to develop relationships with their students, we recommend that you take the time over a week to focus on getting to know the students.

More Important Than Curriculum — Impact on Learning

One of the things teachers say to us is that with crowded curriculums the investment of two weeks is too much. We argue that two weeks is the bare minimum. With a range of activities, the first two weeks build the relationships that will allow curriculum to be taught quicker later when there are fewer distractions and interruptions as students have developed an understanding of us as teachers.

Investing time in students shows that we care for them and want to understand them. It takes time to develop relationships, so don’t expect a miracle cure overnight.

Yarning Circle

In our classrooms, we have dedicated space for a yarning circle. It is a space where we spend fifteen minutes sharing what is going on at school and in people’s lives each day. Sometimes this is with small groups, other times the whole class and occasionally just one-on-one. As teachers, we share some of what is going on in our lives as well. It allows us to talk about changes occurring in the day and week, which supports our students diagnosed with autism.

Action Steps

  • Plan out two weeks of ‘getting to know you’ activities.
  • Plan to spend time with individual students, just talking to them.
  • Establish a yarning circle, a space just to talk.

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Heath Henwood

Heath Henwood is a practising teacher with over twenty years’ experience in teaching and educational leadership. He is a Doctoral Candidate (Educational Leadership) and Coach of teachers and community leaders. Heath is an active member of the education community with roles with Adobe, Qsite, Education Queensland and many non-profit organisations. and education. He has written many articles and is a popular conference speaker. He can be contacted at