The Art of Building Staff-Student Relationships in a COVID World (Part One)

In this article, Dr Helen Street, Founder and Co-Chair of the Positive Schools Initiative (PSI) discusses the art of building strong and healthy staff and student relationships in a COVID world. 

It has often been said that relationships are at the heart of school wellbeing.

I agree whole heartedly.

Back in 2004 I presented a talk at the National Educators conference in Western Australia on the importance of creating a nurturing classroom environment. I subsequently expanded my talk into a chapter for the conference book Checking the Pulse. This chapter was one of my first publications exploring the development of a healthy context in schools.

In the chapter, I discussed my research exploring children’s subjective understandings of wellbeing at school. I found that children and pre-teens conceptualize a nurturing classroom environment as one in which they felt emotionally safe, have developed intimacy with significant others and have a sense of belonging to their immediate social community. I concluded: ‘the fundamental basis for the creation of a nurturing environment is the development and maintenance of positive social relationships throughout a child’s life.’

Fourteen years later, in my 2018 book ‘Contextual Wellbeing’[ii], I again propose that all members of a school community benefit socially, emotionally and academically, when relationships are given priority. I go on to say that developing healthy relationships and overall classroom cohesion is absolutely vital to the development of whole class, and whole school wellbeing.

Since Contextual Wellbeing was first published, the world has been submerged in a pandemic. In many ways we are now living in the midst of a worldwide social experiment, albeit one we certainly did not ask for. Schools have been forced to change and adapt, re-actively and creatively, moving contexts between home and school, online and off.

Relationships remain an absolute priority however, constant disruption, enforced barriers to physical connection, and ongoing uncertainty are all undoubtedly challenging staff-student connections and cohesion the world over.

In this two-part article, I want to revisit the ideas presented in Contextual Wellbeing in 2018 and discuss how we might proactively develop healthy staff-student relationships in 2021. In so doing I hope to provide some additional support for educators during this relentless time in history.

In Contextual Wellbeing, I wrote:  ‘If a classroom can establish cohesion for all students and staff, with healthy conditions for membership, then great things can happen.’

All very well. But how can we this in 2021? How do we achieve this important aim when so many educators and students are languishing; feeling disengaged and disconnected from work, from learning and from each other?

I suggest we consider four ‘Be’s to ensure we prioritise and develop genuine, meaningful relationships between teachers and students:

Be Present; Be Kind; Be Curious; Be Inclusive

In this PART ONE, I will explore the first two of these: 1. Be Present and 2. Be Kind.

1.     Be Present

Knowing how to be ‘positively present’ is arguably the most fundamentally important skill for building a meaningful connection with anyone. It involves knowing how to listen, without judgment; how to pay attention and how to care.

We like others when we believe they are hearing and seeing us in a way in which we want to be heard and seen. We do not like others who tell us what to do, or who to be. Furthermore, we do not like others who use our turn to talk, to think about what they want to say next. Certainly, we may sometimes ask someone for advice; but we rarely appreciate advice when it is unsolicited and  swimming in judgement. Rather, we want others to hear us, accept us, and help us to know we are OK, just as we are.

Three years ago, I bought a new car. The car was quite a bit bigger and more powerful than my previous car had been. I loved it. Still, it did take a bit of getting used to. About two weeks after I got it, I found myself carefully trying to park behind a very shiny looking, much smaller vehicle. I remember my foot slipping as I reached for the brake, and to my horror, I accidently accelerated into the back of the shiny pristine paintwork in front of me. The sound of crunching metal was accompanied by my screeching loudly.

Easily done hey?

Apparently not. At least not according to my partner when I relayed what had happened. He asked me if I needed to perhaps rethink large car ownership…or take a formal lesson or two in parking. I did not receive this feedback well.

Later the same day, I recounted the accident to a friend. My friend listened without offering advice or judgement, and I immediately felt better. She then cheerfully told me how she had driven her car into the side of her house by mistake, several years previously…

I ended the conversation feeling accepted, capable and far happier. Pressing the accelerator instead of the brake had not exactly been normalised as an acceptable behaviour, but I felt normal again, and very grateful to my friend for listening so well.

In my partner’s defence, It can be really hard not to tell someone what to do if you think you have something useful to say. I have heard it said that supporting young people can be compared to standing over someone doing a jig saw and seeing the missing piece they are searching for. You know you could let that person know where the missing piece is, but to do so would be to prevent them from having the pleasure (and sense of achievement!) of discovering it for themselves.

Knowing how to be present in a conversation, and listen without judgement, is often far more important that knowing anything about what to say.

2.     Be Kind

One of the greatest facets of any healthy relationship, and indeed, any cohesive culture, is kindness. Kindness is therefore, understandably valued highly in most schools.

One of the most popular workshop days I facilitate with teachers aims to help them identify their core values, and then better understand and explore how they can develop school norms which reflect these values[iii]. I have facilitated this workshop in over 20 schools across Australia and SE Asia. Every time the day takes on it’s unique character and tone, reflecting the unique character and individuality of the school and school context. However, although every organisation is different, in every school I have worked in, ‘kindness’ has always been in the top five most important values identified.

In today’s celebrity driven world, many young people see being famous as indistinguishable from being infamous. It is not so much what you do that seems to count, as much as how many people know about it. As such, we live in a time of impression management at the expense of belonging. This has resulted in many of us, young and old, thinking that relationships are formed when you impress someone, rather than understanding that it is far more important to simply be kind.

To help young people understand the power and importance of kindness, it is imperative they are supported in understanding what being kind really means. Kindness is far more than a behaviour. As such, we cannot encourage kindness simply by acknowledging or rewarding behaviours that appear to be kind. Rather, kindness is an act that stems from an intention to support someone else, so that the someone else will benefit. It is born from empathy and compassion, certainly not from a desire for approval or praise.

One of the most effective ways we can support kindness in others, is by genuinely being kind ourselves. The more we are authentically and genuinely kind to young people, the stronger our relationships will become with them, and the kinder the young people will be. To be genuinely kind to students, teachers need to first accept that students, and indeed everyone, is doing their best to survive, to be seen and to belong. As soon as we are willing to accept each student is doing their best, we can start to develop greater compassion, and demonstrate genuine kindness towards them, (even when they might drive us to distraction).

There will be students in every class who make the practice of kindness highly challenging. I doubt it is possible to like everyone, and not everyone is easily likable. However, it is possible for every teacher to find some common ground and empathy with just about every child, once they have the will to do so.

Being present and being kind in 2021 are vitally important for supporting meaningful relationships and wellbeing. Yet, in 2021, all aspects of relationship development can seem far more challenging. Living through a pandemic creates stress which lowers our social and emotional capacity to be present, to care and indeed, to be kind.

Many of us may well be finding that as lockdowns and border closures continue, we are less consistently calm, less open to others’ points of view, less patient, less understanding. This all means that when we are thinking about building relationships with others in 2021, we need to ensure we are also aware of our own stress levels, and also being kind to ourselves.

Just as it helps to know that young people are doing the best they can, we need to ensure we take time to know that we are doing the best we can during turbulent times. In so doing, we can cultivate greater self-acceptance, self-care and ensure we meet our own needs for wellbeing.

In summary, learning to be present and be kind in 2021 involves:

i. Knowing you are doing the best that you can.

ii. Knowing that it is OK to feel that you are languishing, and you need to tread gently.

iii. Making time to listen to, and care for yourself.

iv. Understanding how important it is to simply listen to others without judgement.

v.  Accepting others as fallible people who are also doing the best they can.

Be it 2018, or 2021, online or off, relationships matter.
Be present, be kind, be curious, be inclusive.

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Dr Helen Street will be joining us as a keynote at the Outstanding Schools Asia Conference in November 2021

This article was originally published on Dr Helen Street's LinkedIn Page.