Applying Psychological Science and the Healing Arts;
Positive Teacher-Student Relationships
by Rayna Lumbard, LMFT, MHT
Improving students' relationships with teachers has important positive and long-lasting implications in students' academic, emotional and social development. The focus in this article is to explore what is a healthy relationship between a student and a teacher, why it matters, and how to cultivate these supportive and caring relationships at school.
What does it mean to be an effective high school teacher? How do their different teaching methods and personalities impact students' academic performance, social/emotional development, and enjoyment of learning? Whether you're a math, science, social studies or English teacher, there are educational resources to help you apply research on teaching and learning; find exciting lessons and activities; and stimulate interest and increase achievement, enhancing teacher-student relationships. With incidents of bullying on the rise in middle school, it is especially important for students of all ages to feel comfortable enough to ask questions without feeling inadequate and talk about issues they are struggling with in class, at home or with their peers. People in general don't open up emotionally unless they feel they can TRUST their teacher, guidance counselor, school psychologist, outside therapist, parent or any other adult authority figure.
In general, students who have closer, more positive and supportive relationships with their teachers tend to attain higher levels of achievement and have better self-esteem than those students with negative attitudes toward learning and more conflictual relationships with teachers. When they feel an appropriate personal connection to a teacher, students are more likely to have ongoing, meaningful communication. In turn, those students tend to receive more guidance and encouragement from their teachers. When trust develops for a teacher, there's generally more involvement and enjoyment in academic learning, plus students display better classroom behavior.
Good teachers who also incorporate the roles of supportive mentoring or coaching with their students generally have less resistance to learning, absenteeism, disruption during class and more motivation to succeed and enjoy learning. Since teachers and staff are the mature experts in the teacher-student relationship, they need to take the lead and be responsible for cultivating good relationships with their students. Positive, supportive teachers draw students into the process of learning and promote their desire to succeed especially if the subject matter and their presentation is engaging, age appropriate, and academically challenging "enough." These teachers tend to focus more on relevant learning, applying the subject matter to real life rather than holding on to the outdated belief that standardized testing and high grades are the keys to success in life. This most relevant approach emphasizes the development of practical problem-solving skills through classroom and other activities that apply classroom learning to real life situations with more personal meaning to students and teachers alike. Is spending valuable classroom time teaching students how to maximize test results and instilling high anxiety about going to college really helping or hurting students? Expecting most students to excel in highly competitive academic coursework leaves many bright students lost and unfulfilled being at school. More "holistic" hands on teaching methods and even vocational studies usually have better results even for more intellectually advanced students. Giving all students more choices to discover and be engaged in interesting topics and activities help them want to learn and grow more easily and naturally. These methods and positive relationships promote true success and happiness in life beyond career satisfaction.
As you can imagine, people in general don't function as well when they are disrespected, criticized, pushed too hard or not feeling they matter. Teachers are more respected and well-liked when they understand students' individual learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic…), abilities, "processing and learning difficulties or "disabilities." Students who experience more anxiety, anger, hurt, and self-doubt when teachers (and parents) stress too much competitiveness, high grades and future career success need to learn how to protect themselves from negative communication and build their self-confidence. With the help of caring teachers that recognize innate intellectual interests, abilities and talents, students are more open to learning their lessons, in class and in life! Let's give our students a good reason to work hard and want to participate fully in fulfilling their potential to succeed!
Teachers fostering friendly, positive relationships with their students create classroom environments more conducive to learning and meeting students' developmental, emotional and academic needs. Being psychologically aware of what developmental stage high school students are going through bridges generational and hierarchical gaps in understanding what challenges individual students are dealing with. Anyone in a relationship with a high school student will find this information helpful.
Middle Adolescence, Approximately 14 – 18 years of age
Puberty is completed
Physical growth slows for girls, continues for boys
Continued growth of capacity for abstract thought
Greater capacity for setting goals
Interest in moral reasoning
Thinking about the meaning of life.
Intense self-involvement, changing between high expectations and poor self-concept
Continued adjustment to changing body, worries about being normal
Tendency to distance selves from parents, continued drive for privacy and independence
Driven to make friends and greater reliance on them, popularity can be an important issue
Feelings of love and passion
Adapted from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent's Facts for Families. © 2008
My intention is not to find fault with teachers or other important adults working closely with students. Ultimately students are responsible for doing their part in cultivating good relationships with teachers. By high school, even high achievers have internalized and exhibited some habitual problematic (painful) behavior patterns and negative thought processes. As young children we may have been exposed to being judged, criticized, unsupported ("victimized") or overly supported ("enabled") at home and/or at school, even if there was no harm intended. As a result, we make negative core decisions (I'm not OK, not good enough, not worthy, unlovable, don't deserve happiness….) affecting our self-esteem and behavior. Over time our relationship with ourselves (ruminating on internal unconscious negative thoughts) and in turn our relationships with other people become conflicted or non-existent. We are stuck in survival mode, not feeling like listening even when it would benefit us, not trusting ourselves or others, and having sabotaging thoughts and behaviors that become our capital "T" Truth. We don't understand why we aren't happy with ourselves or about life. We may even become depressed, anxious, rebel or act out painful sabotaging behavior, abuse drugs/alcohol, become self-destructive or even dangerous.
What can students do to cultivate better relationships with themselves (their psychological/emotional foundation) and their teachers? Some High School students have "weighed in" wholeheartedly on this topic. These opinions and insights based on personal experiences may or may not resonate with other students, teachers, staff, counselors, psychotherapists and/or parents, but do provide us with valuable insights to open up discussions that hopefully will lead to cultivating better relationships between everyone involved. It is obvious that the High School Community, in general, promotes good teacher-student relationships and has recognized there is always room for improvement. The goal here is to create and thrive in an atmosphere of mutual respect, positive interactions, and academic excellence, even if that isn't cool in some circles. I want to personally and professionally thank those students who were vulnerable enough to teach us what situations frustrate or upset you, what works for you, and what life lessons you are learning through your educational experiences.
According to what students share on this subject, they feel most supported when they can drop in to talk to their teachers during tutorial or office hours. Asking questions in class may be uncomfortable for some, although asserting yourself in class is in general a good practice. In reality there really are no stupid questions. If you fear looking dumb or feeling embarrassed in class, you may be speaking up for ten other people in class who didn't have the courage to ask for what they needed! If you show respect, are caring and have an attitude of gratitude toward others, you usually will receive the same response. Sometimes teachers don't do or say what you want them to. They may be hard on you or make "mistakes" that may personally affect your and your grades. Remember, teachers are people with feelings, too, are doing the best they can at the time, and have challenges and problems to deal with every day. Your job as a student is to learn how to deal with real life through your high school experiences. Take advantage of finding positive solutions to deal with stressful situations and people, resolve resentments that are festering through forgiving yourself and others, and make the most out of the time you have there. Accept yourself where you are now, learn how to manage both your inner world and your interpersonal relationships, your LIFEWORK. Not only will you reap financial and social rewards, but you will KNOW, FEEL and HAVE true fulfillment in your career and personal life, true success.
Rayna Lumbard, LMFT is a gifted Marriage and Family Therapist, Master Hypnotherapist, Psychospiritual Energy and Sound Healer. She facilitates powerful transformations for individuals and couples in her therapy ~ healing practice, InnerSuccess Transformations. She is also the author of “Empowering Your Divine Life Purpose,” the lead chapter in the new book Authentic Alignment. Rayna has positively inspiring ways of actualizing your unique vision and life purpose into action to create the love, joy, bliss, and balance to accomplish your dream life.