Classroom management is a combination of many components, such as effective teaching strategies, providing meaningful content and developing interpersonal relationships, with the student-teacher relationship seen as having the greatest impact on how well the classroom runs and how well the students learn (Beaty-O’Ferrall, Green & Hanna, 2010; Larrivee, 2009; Snowman et al., 2009). The focus of this paper will be to discuss the research surrounding the nature of the student-teacher relationship. It will further discuss the educational implications arising from this relationship and provide strategies to build respectful student-teacher relationships. In conclusion this paper will provide recommendations regarding future teaching practices arising from the literature.
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Overview and Critique of the Literature
The interpersonal relationship students’ form with their teachers can sometimes be complex and challenging. Buyse, Verschueren, Doumen, Van Damme and Maes (2008, p. 367) conducted two studies, a quantitative study and a qualitative study, of classroom behaviour and climate by investigating the student-teacher relationship from the perspective that “young children with problem behaviour in the classroom are at risk for developing more conflictual and less close relationships with their teachers”. When teachers have less close relationships with misbehaving students, one outcome may be poorer academic achievement (McInerney & McInerney, 2010). Buyse et al. (2008) identified two types of student behaviour on which to base their studies. Externalising behaviour such as hyperactive and aggressive behaviour and internalising behaviour such as anxious, anti-social behaviour. These types of behaviour tendencies are seen as risk factors for teachers developing less positive relationships with students. This study focused, in part, on teaching style as a possible link between at-risk students’ problem behaviour and the quality of the student-teacher relationship. Buyse et al. (2008) hypothesised that the risk for less positive relationships between teachers and students will be lessened when more emotional support is offered by the teacher. Importantly, this study did not focus on the problematic child (displaying internalising /externalising behaviour) but on the classroom resources, namely the emotional support provided by the teacher, as being an indicator of school adaptation and a predictor for at-risk students’ future adjustment (Buyse et al., 2008). Rogers and Renard (1999) support this by stating that learning is achieved when teachers develop positive relationships with their students by becoming aware of their emotional needs and tending to these, resulting in the likelihood that unsuitable behaviour will no longer be an issue.
Rogers and Renard (1999) claim teachers must understand the beliefs and needs of their students to develop positive relationships. The core needs that encourage students to want to learn and to self-monitor their behaviour are feeling safe both physically and psychologically, being presented with valuable and interesting content, achieving feelings of success, being involved in meaningful decisions and feeling cared about (Rogers & Renard, 1999). Maslow (as cited in Snowman et al., 2009, p. 443) refers to these needs in his ‘hierarchy of needs’ theory where he proposes an ascending order of basic human needs starting from ‘physiological’, leading to ‘safety, belongingness and love, esteem and self-actualisation’. This theory proposes that if basic human needs are met or ‘gratified’, then individuals will be “motivated to seek fulfilling experiences”, which in the classroom would mean, if the teacher can help students satisfy their lower order needs, then learning will occur as the student strives for upper level satisfaction (Maslow, as cited in Snowman et al., 2009, p 442).
A qualitative study conducted by Brown (2004) to assess classroom management strategies in relation to culturally responsive teaching found that the most significant aspect of classroom management is the nature of the student-teacher relationship. Brown (2004) identified a caring attitude from the teacher as being the most significant factor in a student’s social and emotional well-being at school. Through interviews conducted with school students, Brown (2004) discovered that students recognised which teachers cared about them and noted that students wanted to make a more personal connection with their teachers. The research revealed that the primary characteristic valued by the teachers interviewed about their classroom management practices was providing individualised attention to each student to develop a mutually respectful personal relationship with them. Miller and Pedro (2006) state that respect can be an appropriate way of acting and forms the basis of personality and character. Furthermore, they advocate that a respectful classroom allows students to feel both physically and emotionally safe and valued.
Marzano and Marzano (2003) state that student achievement is impacted twice as much by the actions teacher’s take in the classroom than by any other school policies, curriculum or interactions. In their meta-analysis of over 100 studies, they found that in a one year period there were 31 percent fewer discipline problems in classrooms if students had a high-quality relationship with their teacher as compared to those that did not. This relationship is not central to the students considering the teacher to be a friend, but is characterised by the teacher displaying appropriate dominance levels, displaying appropriate cooperation levels and being aware of students’ needs (Marzano & Marzano, 2003). In this case, dominance is referred to as the ability of the teacher to provide strong guidelines and clear purpose relating to both student behaviour and academic endeavour. Canter and Canter (as cited in Charles, 2008, p. 65) popularised the ‘Assertive Discipline’ system, where classroom teachers take charge by interacting in a “calm, insistent and consistent manner” with the students to promote an orderly classroom where the rights of the student to learn and the teacher to teach without interruption is upheld. The Canter’s system originally focused on the concept that the teacher set the limits and enforced them, but later the emphasis was moved to creating warm, trusting relationships with students through positive recognition and proactively dealing with behaviour problems (Charles, 2008).
Alternatively, Freiberg and Lamb (2009) propose the person-centred classroom management system where a stronger teacher-student relationship is formed than in a traditional teacher-centred classroom. Cooperation and connectedness in the classroom focuses on the teacher and the students working as a team to build effective teacher-student relationships. Freiberg and Lamb’s (2009, p. 101) research revealed that the four key reasons that kids love school are:
They were trusted and respected – people cared about them (social-emotional emphasis);
They were part of a family (school connectedness);
They felt their teachers were helpers, encouraging them to succeed and listening to their opinions and ideas (positive climate);
They had opportunities to be responsible, with freedom and choices, but not license to do whatever they wished (self-discipline).
They conclude that the person-centred classroom emphasises a strong social-emotional focus where the climate is warm and productive because they believe that students “want to know how much you care long before they want to learn how much you know” (Freiberg & Lamb, 2009, p. 102).
One main question arising from the research would be how to best prepare pre-service and in-service teachers to respond to and build respectful relationships with students with diverse needs (Brown, 2004; Miller & Pedro, 2006). Significant to Brown’s (2004, p. 286) findings is that the teachers he interviewed “relied on their strong relationships with students built on trust rather than fear or punishment to maintain a cooperative learning environment” that meets the needs of all learners whom they teach each day. Rogers and Renard (1999) state that when teachers can show an interest in students, both educationally and personally, students become motivated to learn. By treating students with respect, creating fun, interesting and valuable lessons, offering meaningful choices and building relationships where students can see teachers as people, then students will be more likely to learn (Miller & Pedro, 2006; Rogers & Renard, 1999). By including specific training in classroom management strategies for inclusive teaching practices such as how to convey respect, have high expectations of all students and teach in a fair and consistent manner, the research concludes that culturally responsive, inclusive teaching does support student learning and achievement (Brown, 2004; Miller & Pedro, 2006).
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Research suggests that school psychologists should consider the influence of other aspects of classroom climate when assessing individual children’s modifiable behaviours to improve the student-teacher relationship (Buyse et al., 2008). Often interventions focus too much on the child themselves and their behaviour, when classroom social makeup and teaching strategies and beliefs should also be considered. Teachers bring with them to the classroom their own set of experiences and beliefs which influence their relationship with the child and subsequent responses to their problem behaviour (Buyse et al., 2008). Ormrod (2008) argues that teachers must think critically and ask themselves why students’ behaviour and achievement levels may not be where they should be and question the influence of their own actions on the students. Reflective teachers are those that continually examine their own assumptions and practices and adjust their teaching strategies and ideas to better meet the needs of all of their students (Ormrod, 2008). Teachers should continually seek new ideas from “colleagues, books, magazines, workshops and other sources to enrich and solidify their teaching skills” (Slavin 2009, p. 7).
Ginott (as cited in Charles, 2008, p. 61) suggests ‘congruent communication’ provides the basis for a positive, caring learning environment. Effective communication can be blocked if teachers make assumptions, have preconceptions, or stereotype their students, so these problems need to be avoided (Edwards & Watts, 2008). Treating students with dignity and addressing ‘situations’ with “I-messages rather than you-messages” when misbehaviour occurs, models appropriate behaviour rather than attacking the student’s personality or character (Ginott, as cited in Charles, 2008, p. 61). For example, the teacher could say “I get angry when I see bread thrown around” rather than “You are a couple of pigs” (Ginott, as cited in Snowman et al., 2009, p. 486). When a student is having problems, actively listening to what the student has to say without making judgements or comments, but responding through acknowledgement or showing interest provides the student with a nonthreatening way of being heard and understood (Gordon, as cited in Charles, 2008). Showing empathy to students encourages open communication and helps build a respectful relationship (Beaty-O’Ferrall, Green & Hanna, 2010). Communication skills are a critical factor is establishing and maintaining a warm and friendly classroom environment and positive teacher-student relationships. Communication involves sending and receiving messages both verbally and non-verbally. Non-verbal messages can be quite powerful and can contradict the verbal meaning accompanying them. Students can interpret non-verbal messages quite well through mannerisms and tone of voice. It is therefore important that teachers match their verbal and non-verbal messages (Edwards & Watts, 2008).
‘Teacher Effectiveness Training’ (TET) is a course that is conducted in Australia, instigated by Gordon in 1974, where teachers learn to observe and analyse communication patterns between students and teachers, learn to help students identify ownership of problems to establish responsibility of action and learn to use non-offensive, positive behaviour. Along with this they also learn conflict resolution techniques and how to assist students to become cooperative group members. Gordon’s program is a well-established model for classroom management practices and has been found to help teachers make breakthroughs with difficult students. Developing relationships based on caring attitudes and meeting each other’s needs encourages a more democratic approach in the classroom, with teachers giving students a say in what happens and not solving all of their problems for them. The strategies offered in the ‘Teacher Effectiveness Training’ course are based on enhancing communication between teachers and students, effectively developing respectful relationships (Edwards & Watts, 2008).
Respectful relationships with students can be formed by using positive classroom behaviours such as making eye contact, arranging seating so that the teacher can move freely around the room amongst the students and encouraging all students to contribute to class activities and discussions. One way of achieving this could be to allow more wait time during questioning to encourage those that may normally be reluctant to answer to get involved (Marzano & Marzano, 2003). Understanding the unique qualities of each student in the classroom is a critical component of developing the student-teacher relationship (Beaty-O’Ferrall, Green & Hanna, 2010). Research has found that teachers who do not treat all students the same, but address each of their student’s individual needs are the most effective teachers, in contrast to those that are insensitive to diversity and treat all students equally (Marzano & Marzano, 2003). To help build cooperation in the classroom teachers can take a personal interest in students by greeting them by name, talking informally with them about their interests and being aware of important events happening in their lives. (Marzano & Marzano, 2003). Signalling to students that you care about them by smiling or using positive language such as “I would like us to” rather than “you need to” creates a classroom where students feel valued and have a sense of belonging (Rogers & Renard, 1999, p. 37).
Marzano and Marzano (2003) found, through research, that students prefer strong guidance and control from their teachers rather than a permissive attitude, therefore teachers must establish clear expectations and teach with assertiveness. Respectful relationships with students can be built by using assertive body language, an appropriate tone of voice and insisting on appropriate behaviour in the classroom (Marzano & Marzano, 2003). Teachers who model respect through courtesy and civility can expect the same in return from their students (Miller & Pedro, 2006). DeVries, Zan, Hildebrandt, Edmiaston and Sales, (2002, p. 36) argue that “every classroom has a sociomoral atmosphere that may be viewed along a continuum from coercion to cooperation”. In the coercive classroom students are required to follow the rules set by the teacher out of obedience without question. DeVries et al. (2002) discuss Piaget’s constructivist view of the adult-child relationship and argue that mutual respect in the classroom is shown when the teacher considers the student’s viewpoint and encourages social interactions where students cooperate with the teacher as well as each other. Teachers who use an authoritative teaching style, based on Baumrind’s parenting styles, treat students fairly, do not criticise or use sarcasm, set high standards, have set rules and explain the penalties for breaking them, trust students to make appropriate decisions and teach and reward expected behaviour (as cited in Snowman et al., 2009, p.466). This encourages students to become autonomous learners who respect their teachers. In contrast, teachers who use an authoritarian teaching style find their students are compliant and unable to self-regulate their behaviour and teachers who use a permissive style find that their students can undermine the routines of the classroom leading to inappropriate behaviour (Snowman et al., 2009).
Providing strategies for teachers to find ways to build positive respectful relationships with all students can only improve the management of the classroom as a whole. Better classroom teacher preparation is where the focus must be in efforts to improve the education of all students from the most motivated to the most challenging (Beaty-O’Ferrall, Green & Hanna, 2010). Specific teacher training in the area of sensitivity and making connections could help teachers to assess their own beliefs and practices which may lead to improvements in the quality of the teacher-student relationship (Buyse et al., 2008). Buyse et al. (2008) conclude that while their research has suggested emotionally supportive teachers may contribute to positive student behaviour and a closer student-teacher relationship, further study is needed to assess other classroom features which may impact on the quality of the student-teacher relationship. It is apparent in the literature surrounding classroom management that establishing a respectful student-teacher relationship is a prominent precursor to positive outcomes for students and teachers in schools. This was best summed up in Brown (2004, p. 279) when Jeff, a Witchita high school English teacher said, “You’re there to teach kids, not subjects. We often forget this point”.
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