(2) What makes a great teacher – pupil relationship?

In my previous post, I discussed whether teacher pupil relationships have an impact on learning outcomes. What was evident from some of the research out there is that it is essential for productive student engagement, which leads to high motivation in pupils to learn. In a nutshell, it is a fundamental component of the ‘precondition(s) for learning’ in the classroom (Korthagen et al. 2014 p.23). What I didn’t discuss is the features of great teacher-pupil relationships.

Firstly, research suggests that great teacher-pupil relationships are shown to have low levels of conflict and high levels of ‘closeness’ (Davis, 2003; McCormick et al., 2013; White, 2013). Before we go any further, it is important to consider some of the psychological theory that precedes this definition.

Attachment theory claims that children need to develop a strong bond with at least one main significant other in order to feel secure and safe (Bretherton, 1992). If caregivers are emotionally unstable, are not regularly around for support or don’t provide care correctly, children will develop insecure attachments (Bretherton, 1992; O’Connor and McCartney, 2006). When pupils have insecure attachments with their main caregiver, it can also manifest itself in school life.

In some research, it has been shown that teachers struggle to build strong relationships with pupils who have lower levels of attachment (Al-Yagon and Mikulincer, 2004; O’Connor and McCartney, 2006; Toth and Cicchetti, 1996). This is concerning, since attachment theory suggests that good teacher student relationships are essential for students to feel safe and happy at school so that they concentrate on classroom learning (DiLalla et al., 2004; White, 2013).

What qualities should the teacher have to create for the foundations of good teacher pupil relationships?

Cornelius –White (2007) identified two broad schools of thought related to the teacher student relationship that build on humanistic and constructivist theories of learning and development. They both draw attention to the need for teachers to show empathy and warmth (Cornelius – White, 2007). Learner centered education draws upon some of the ideas of Carl Rogers. He argues that for pupils to be ready to learn in the classroom, teachers need to develop three attributes: genuineness, caring and empathy. According to Rogers, if teachers show these qualities, students will be able to ‘learn more significantly’ (Rogers, 1979).

This overarching theoretical position is matched by more recent empirical studies. Literature that explored qualities of expert teachers, while outlining many more technical aspects of the craft, identified that all of the teachers studied were often described by their pupils as ‘caring’  (Arnon and Reichel, 2009; Gentry et al., 2011;. This research is echoed by findings from Gentry et al. (2011), who studied 17 exemplary American teachers. They identified four common themes of the relationships these expert teachers had with students:

  • Teachers took personal interest and knew their students well;
  • Teachers had high expectations of what their pupils could achieve and encouraged them to meet their academic demands;
  • Teachers drew upon the everyday experiences of their pupils to make learning more ‘meaningful and relevant’;
  • Teachers genuinely enjoyed their work (Gentry et al. 2011).

Furthermore, another teacher quality students valued was the way in which teachers made learning fun and used humour (Arnon and Reichel, 2007; Kington et al., 2012; Muller et al., 1999). In a study conducted by Stuart & Rosenfeld (1994) it was shown that when students and teachers laughed together, coupled with positive body language, it reduced levels of anxiety and stress (Stuart & Rosenfeld, 1994) and relationships were strengthened

To summarise what I’ve shown here, it seems as though the research suggested that when teachers love their job and take a personal interest in their students, the empathy and care that they developed for their pupils can aid the relationships they have in the classroom. This is not to mention that making the classroom a fun place to be where humour is allowed can aid this too!


There are two caveats to what has been said so far. Firstly, the use of humour and positive body language such as smiling must be carefully thought through. Some research has shown that being ‘laughed at’ can create painful memories for some children, often colouring their understanding of school (Uitto, 2011). In addition, research conducted by Daniels, Kalkman and McCombs (2001) documented an American first grader describing to them that their teacher, ‘smiles at other kids, but not at me’ (p.268). Our pupils may notice far more about our body language than we realize.

Another criticism of what has been said could be found in the absence of any attempt to understand the attitudes and behaviours of pupils in the teacher pupil relationship. Relationships, by nature are two-way processes and not just one of the many strategies that a teacher might employ in the classroom. Surely it can’t be possible for teachers to be the main instigators of classroom relationships – pupils need to pull the weight in the process too! However I don’t think it is this simple. As adults, we are the main drivers in this educational relationship; we set the trends, habits, cultures and ethos of our classrooms; our pupils respond to this, especially if they are primary aged. If what I am claiming here is true, it means that we are in a powerful position to influence the education of young minds; we ought to consider our interactions very wisely.

A personal note

With all these things considered, it isn’t possible (or at least I don’t think it is) to ‘put on’ some of the character traits noted above – they stem from who teachers are. If teachers are not naturally ‘warm’, then it will be obvious to their pupils, however young they are, that they are putting on an act. If teachers are not funny, then trying to be funny will be a waste of time and energy. This doesn’t mean that teachers can’t draw on the characters and personalities of their pupils to improve their relationships.

For example, I am not one of these ‘funny’ people, who has the whole staffroom laughing by the end of lunchtime. However, in my classroom, I am lucky enough to have some pupils who are a laugh a minute– I’ve tried to utilize and bounce off this as best I can in lesson times. Sometimes it has  made a real positive impact on the atmosphere of my room…when the jokes and funniness is sensible of course!

If Hattie’s (2009) claim that the most important thing to a child’s education is the relationship they have with their teacher, then we must make sure we build them well. If we really want the best for our pupils, we ought to show them how much we care.

To edit Roosevelt’s quote:

‘Pupils don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’

Genuine, warmth, empathy and high expectations – this is what makes a great teacher pupils relationship.

More on this topic:

How Important are Great Teacher-Pupil Relationships?





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Telephone Survey About “The Good Teacher”: An Example of a Mixed

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Daniels, D.H., Kalkman, D.L., & McCombs, B.L. (2001). Young children’s

perspectives on learning and teacher practices in different classroom

contexts: Implications for motivation. Early Education and Development

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