Does it matter if the child doesn’t like the teacher, or vice versa? If it does, should it? My argument is yes; yes it does and yes it should. This post is not about if relationships matter though, it is about whose responsibility is it to make sure there is one!
In primary school children have got whole days, weeks and months with one member of staff. Occasionally 2 or 3 in larger schools, if they are set for certain subjects, but they still spend the bulk of their day with one adult. At secondary school it is a whole different ball game! I know of schools where there are 6 sessions in a day, not counting any lunch time or after school clubs/intervention (Not that I like the idea of ‘out of hours’ intervention but that’s a whole other post!). So how are we helping children to know us, as teachers, well enough to make an informed decision as to whether they like us or not! And why does it matter either way? The key here is the simple fact that in year 7 they are children, barely 11 years old in some cases. They generally don’t have the skills yet to understand the need to put feelings to one side and do our best regardless of how we feel about the one in charge. Lets face it, I am sure we all know some adults in our lives who still lack that skill! Aside from the fact that they are in an almost alien environment with people they barely know, their brain is still wired to work harder for those who they have good relationships with. How do I know this? It is simple, I have researched it – a lot. Children in year 7 have told me that they recognise that they work harder for teachers they have good working relationships with! Don’t we all?
Does this mean it is up to the children to make sure they have these good relationships or the adults? If your answer is that it is the child’s ‘job’ I would love to hear more from you. While I agree that a child has a part to play, I firmly believe that as the adult we should be setting the example of how to do that. My research has led me to meet with 100’s of children over the years. They all have 1 thing in common – they struggle with new rules at first. They struggle with how to know the ‘right way’ to behave around so many different staff, and yet we expect them to manage that after 1 meeting. Is this fair? They have months, if not years in some cases at primary school to prepare for what the teacher will be like, any member of staff who is not new to the school has a reputation that children know. For better or worse! The youngsters starting year 7 do not have that, they don’t know other peoples experiences of all of the new adults in their lives. They have no idea what is coming from 1 hour to the next and its is a steady cycle of that until they have finally found their place in your world. For some youngsters this takes a while, especially if they are having to manage this with little or no guidance.
I take you back to your first teaching job. How many of you were told – don’t smile for the first half term! You are in charge, you have to set the boundaries etc etc. I am so glad I ignored that advice. The children in my care deserved to know that that’s exactly where they were: in my care. I was never a pushover but if I wanted children to be happy and enjoy their time with me in order to have the head space to also learn, that’s exactly what I had to model. I am also in a fortunate position of working in both primary and secondary settings and have experienced new classes of all ages. A new year 7 class, in a school I was established, was by far the hardest. No reputation to fall back on! These children were relying on me for the clues (or explicit guidance) as to how to respond to me, but to also give them leeway to get it wrong sometimes. To be the understanding member of staff who realised that getting to know where 6 different teachers a days boundaries were was tough. To let them know where they stand and that I will always model the behaviour I expect them to show. ‘Do as I say not as I do’ has no place in the early days of an adult/child relationship. It is simply too difficult for a child to process.
You will notice that I am not talking about the child’s behaviour here. There is very little excuse for poor behaviour in children so long as the member of staff in question can honestly say that they have provided the child with the full armoury of expectations and boundaries, through actions not just words. Yes, the adult has every right to expect a child to be well behaved in class. But what that behaviour looks like can differ from adult to adult. In order to forge a strong working relationship I argue that it is the adults responsibility to start that ball rolling.
I am also not talking about friendships here. I do believe that a good relationship with a child is key to motivated them to work hard and remain focused but I am not suggesting you are all friends. Again, I remind you of their age, just 11/12 years old. They are absolutely capable of remaining focused and on task for extended periods of time. They have been expected to do that for a while. But this is with ‘real’ break times, a chance to play, to let off steam and to work with members of staff who they feel safe and secure with, in a building they are comfortable in and where, to all intents and purposes they are ‘King/Queen’! Most of those safety nets are removed as soon as they walk through the door at secondary school. We have to work smarter at putting some of them back! Only then we will really see what these amazing young people are capable of.
So whose responsibility is it to forge relationships? If you want them to matter, then it is yours!