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

This is Part Two of Dr Helen Street's article on the art of building strong and healthy staff and student relationships in a COVID world. (See Part One here). 

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

I agree whole heartedly.

 I want to continue to revisit the ideas presented in Contextual Wellbeing[i] in 2018. In so doing I want to further discuss how we might proactively develop healthy staff-student relationships in 2021. I hope this discussion provides 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 achieve 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 the following 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 PART ONE of this article I explored the meaning and enactment of 1. Be Present, and 2. Be Kind.

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.

In this, PART TWO, let’s explore what it means to 3. ‘Be Curious’ and 4. ‘Be Inclusive’

 3.     Be Curious

Positive student–teacher relationships are developed when a teacher takes time to get to know a student as a whole person, beyond their role as a student. The process begins with simple but powerful steps such as asking students how their weekend was; taking an interest in their hobbies, their family and their overall wellbeing. It comes from developing a genuine, caring, curiosity about others.

Across the developed world, there has been a lot of emphasis of late, on developing an interest and caring curiosity in others wellbeing in particular. This is often summed up with a reminder to ask others: “Are you OK?” Although it is important to destigmatize poor mental health and encourage open conversation about social and emotional wellbeing, I am unsure how effective this strategy really is.

In Australia, we greet others every day with “How are you?” Asking someone if they are OK is not necessarily seen as a question it is appropriate to answer. This means, when we want to genuinely ask someone how they are, we can benefit greatly from asking twice. The first time we ask, we are in effect saying a culturally acceptable hello. The second time, we are more likely to have our kind curiosity met with a more genuine response.

Furthermore, it is vital that we do not attempt to ask a young person how they are before we have established trust and psychological safety. As much as we might want the world to be different, most people still feel very vulnerable discussing their wellbeing in an honest and open way; especially if they are feeling shaky or unwell. This means that before we contemplate asking someone how they genuinely feel, be it once or twice, we need to show them we are genuinely interested in what they have to say. We also need to establish a safe and trusting space for them to authentically express themselves in.

 4.     Be Inclusive

Connection can be further developed with students through commonality and the celebration of shared interests, humour and experiences. Teachers can even develop commonality with their students when they don’t especially relate to – or like – their behaviour or situation. For example, if a student is excited about a concert or a sporting team, a teacher can embrace that student’s passion, even if they don’t like that music or sport. If a student is anxious about a forthcoming test, or having a hard time at home, a teacher can empathise with difficult feelings even if they can’t relate to the student’s fear. We all know how it feels to be calm or anxious, happy or sad, even if it is in response to different things, to different degrees, expressed in different ways.

Although there may come a time in a conversation when a teacher wants to ask a student ‘how they are doing’; taking a genuine interest in what they are doing is often a good place to begin.

Teachers can also deepen their connection with students by  presenting themselves as a person beyond their role as a teacher, with a full name, a family and a life outside of school. One benefit of online teaching and learning has been the sense of familiarity and vulnerability it has highlighted between people. We have seen hilarious recordings of executives floored by their young children surprising them in ‘important’ meetings. We have been intrigued by glimpses of other people’s homes as they ‘meet’ with us through Zoom. Although online schooling has separated us physically, it has also provided new opportunities for connection at a very human level.

With the above in mind, students may well benefit from sharing some of the unexpected ‘humanizing’ benefits of connecting online; as much as they might want to reflect on the difficulties of being apart.  

Having meaningful personal conversations can be harder to do when students are not in the same room as their teacher, but they remain a vital aim. Be it via email, online chat or a video call, finding time to check in and discover trust, commonality and care provides a vital way of supporting connection.

Teachers can also be instrumental in the development of overall class unity and the bringing together of disparate views between students. Active intervention with non-competitive activities, games and humour all help build cohesion across the entire class and inhibit the development of conflicting subgroups.

Spending the first five minutes of a class playing a fun, non-competitive game helps everyone to feel part of the group, online or off. Brain breaks work well to build cohesion as do opportunities for students to share personal stories and listen to one another. Personal stories don’t have to be deep and meaningful in nature or centred on feelings (though they can be). They can focus on humorous anecdotes or special moments. In this way ‘creating cohesion’ takes on a more organic approach.

When restrictions create ongoing stress and disruption, relationship building needs to pre-empt everything else. Constant contextual change may well result in less academic content being taught; however, it also signals a need for more time spent connecting, rather than less.

In 2004 a teacher participating in Helen Cahill’s research ‘translating caring into action’ said: “‘You can have thirty computers in your classroom, but it doesn’t matter unless you get the relationships right,’[ii] In 2021, many students are learning from home, with most sitting in front of computers. Still, however great the technology is, however many computers we have in our classrooms or, now in our homes, relationships have to remain a first priority.

Be present, be kind, be curious, be inclusive.

Be it 2018, or 2021, online or off, relationships matter.

A note about PART ONE

In ‘The Art of Building Teacher-Student Relationships in a COVID world’ PART ONE, explores the first and second ‘Be’s of relationship building: Be Present and Be Kind.

PART ONE can be found in ‘Positive Matters’ which is part of the ‘Written Word’ section of Positive Schools Online.

MAKING YOUR SCHOOL A POSITIVE SCHOOL

Visit Positive Schools Coaching and Consultancy (at PositiveSchools.com) to find out how Helen can best work with you, your leadership team, your staff and your parents, to help you develop a sustainable, equitable, thriving school community.

REFERENCES

[i]   Street, Helen (2018) Contextual Wellbeing – creating positive schools from the inside out. Wise Solutions: Australia

 [ii] Cahill, H., Shaw, G., Wynn, J. & Smith, G. (2004) Translating Caring into Action: an Evaluation of the Victorian Catholic Education Welfare Professional Development Initiative. Australian Youth Research Centre, The University of Melbourne

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