(1) Teacher – Pupil Relationships: How important are they?

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If my school was defined by it’s socio-economic context, it would be destined for poor results, dreadful behaviour and high staff turnover. On the contrary, it is none of these things. The children are polite, kind and they enjoy school (of course there are always a few exceptions). Many members of staff have taught here for more than twenty years. Results are on the up.

Why is my school like this? There are a myriad of reasons – but I think it starts with the quality of teacher –pupil relationships.

As always in my blog posts, I attempt to look at some of the research evidence to see if it can help add meaning and guidance on how we ought to teach. After reading, I’m left with three questions for educational research related to teacher-pupil relationships (at this point in time):

  1. How important are teacher pupil relationships in the delivery of high quality education?
  2. What makes a great teacher – pupil relationship?
  3. How can I try and develop this in my practice?

I’ll address the first one in this blog post.

It’s not about what works – it’s about what has the greatest effect.

In his infamous ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’, Hattie (2009) concludes that 95 percent of educational interventions have a positive impact on student outcomes. Therefore, the question is not ‘what works?’ – instead it is ‘what has the greatest effect?’

Before we consider what has the greatest effect on pupil outcomes, it is important to identify that within the context of all the factors that influence a students’ education (such as family, socio-economic status, curriculum or teaching methods etc), Hattie (2009) concludes that the single most influential factor in a pupil’s schooling is the teacher in their classroom helping them learn. If then as a teacher, I am the most influential factor in my students’ education, it intuitively follows that a good relationship will positively impact their attainment – but what does the research say?

Cornelius-White’s (2007) meta-analysis indicates that strong relationships between teacher and pupil in the classroom significantly impact attainment. Furthermore, it reduces poor behaviour, absence or drop out. More recently, Roorda et al. (2011) have suggested a similar strong association between good teacher pupil relationships and pupil achievement. Hattie (2009) draws upon both of these studies to support his work and make the claim that when teachers focus early on in the academic year on developing strong relationships with their pupils ‘there was more engagement, more respect of self and others, fewer resistant behaviours, greater student-initiated activities, and higher learning outcomes’ (p.119).

An interesting point raised by all three of these studies is that there is a closer tie between teacher pupil relationship and engagement than pupil motivation (Cornelius – White, 2007; Roorda et al. 2011). What this means is that when teacher and pupil have a strong bond, they will be more engaged in their learning. Once pupils are more engaged, it then follows that they will be more motivated to learn in class. This engagement and motivation is emotional and intrinsic rather than intellectual and extrinsic. In their research, Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris’ (2004) outline three types of school engagement pupils have: emotional, behavioural and cognitive. Good teacher pupil relationships provide access to the emotional engagement of pupils, tapping into their intrinsic motivation to learn. When teachers show warmth and care to their pupils, it contributes to their emotional understanding of schooling that we often neglect: whether pupils ‘like’ school and whether they feel a sense of belonging. These positive emotions develop pupil motivation, which then produces behavioural engagement , which in turn enables pupils to ‘buy in’ to class rules and participation in learning activities (Fredricks et al., 2004). In sum, when a teacher has a good relationship with their pupils, it runs to the very core of who they are as children and young people: they become emotionally engaged in the learning process because they have an emotional connection with their teachers. This is not arbritrary or ethereal; it is deep motivation to learn for learning’s sake.

So far the research cited has discussed pupils generally, on a big scale as part of meta-analyses. What I am most interested in however, is the relationships that teachers have with disadvantaged pupils. There are two key pieces of research that shed light on this issue. Firstly, Becker and Luthar (2010) claim that there are several components that act as protective factors that aid academic success in pupils from disadvantaged contexts. Interestingly, one of the key components is teacher support of pupils’ social and emotional learning. Davis and Dupper (2008) take these protective factors further and suggest that it is worth schools investing in interventions to improve relationships between pupils and staff to avoid student drop out. From this research it seems that for some disadvantaged pupils, without good relationships with their teachers, they are destined to display poor behavior, disengagement and more worryingly, drop out. Maybe our relationships with our pupils can prevent this.

To conclude this first post, what is clear from Hattie (2009) and others is teacher student relationships aren’t merely a tick box strategy that aids outcomes – they create the bedrock for classroom learning. Without them, poor outcomes, attitudes and attendance ensues. Good teacher student relationships are even more critical for disadvantaged pupils to keep them in school in the first place. So, I think it is quite safe to say that without excellent teacher student relationships, excellent progress becomes very difficult.

So what do good teacher student relationships look like? And how then should we teach?

I’ll save these questions for my next two posts.




Becker, B.E, Luthar, S.S, (2010) ‘Social-Emotional Factors Affecting Achievement Outcomes Among Disadvantaged Students: Closing the Achievement Gap’. Educational Psychologist. 37(4) Pp. 197-214

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-Centered Teacher-Student Relationships are Effective: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research 77(1),113–143.

Davis, K.S., Dupper, D.R. (2008) ‘Student Teacher Relationships: An overlooked factor in school dropout.’ Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment. Pp. 179-193, 9 (1-2).

Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: what is the research evidence ?Australian Council for Educational Research.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge.

Fredricks, J.A., Blumenfeld, P.C., & Paris, A.H. (2004). School Engagement:Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence. Review of Educational Research 74(1), pp. 59–109.

Roorda, D.L., Koomen, H.M.Y., Spilt, J.L., & Oort, F.J. (2011). The Influence of Affective Teacher–Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Approach. Review of Educational Research 81(4), pp. 493–529.

4 thoughts on “(1) Teacher – Pupil Relationships: How important are they?”

  1. Your post is very interesting and has highlighted where different professions and philosophies of thought meet: education, psychology, health and sociology…..

    As a child and young persons health professional (mental health), among other things I look to assess for the child’s quality of relationships around them including how they are able to have relationships. I ask questions of myself like ‘what sort of relationships does this child have with its parents/main caregivers?’ ‘are they able to have healthy relationships with their peers?’ ‘Do they have significant others in their lives who they can have healthy relationships with (eg teachers, youth workers etc)?’

    Why do I ask these questions? Because from the moment we are born we are designed to learn through relationships; emotionally, socially, spiritually and physically. Quite simply, if the relationships are healthy, then the child is more successful, can engage in most learning (leaning disabilities aside) and make good friendships themselves. If the relationships are poor around them, they struggle with learning and their peers. The evidence is overwhelming to suggest that this effects them the rest of their lives (ACE’s – see Bellis et al, 2016).

    So can you claim that the teacher/pupil relationship is important for learning? Absolutely YES! It does indeed enable their learning but much, much more than that it enables the child to be a part of a healthy, respectful relationship, it builds their self esteem, it allows them to model this with their own peers and it builds their empathic skills.

    All this learning with simply a respectful and healthy teacher/pupil relationship. Fly the flag Robbie and the investment you put in now in the pupils and the relationship you have with them will pay off in dividends far beyond learning maths and english. I commend you.

    Liked by 1 person

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