Is effective teaching more about good relationships than anything else?

Carl Hendrick

On the 3rd May 2015, Chelsea won the Premier League title with three games to spare. For manager Jose Mourinho, it was his 21st trophy, marking him out as the most decorated manager in recent club football history. In August he was rewarded with a multi-million pound contract that would see him at the club until 2019. By December he was sacked.

The club had inexplicably nosedived in the new season with reports of “palpable discord” in the dressing room exacerbated by his public admonishment and subsequent ostracism of team doctor and well respected member of the group, Eva Carnerio. One of the major questions that emerged from Mourinho’s “annus horribilis” is how did a group of players who won the league at a canter a matter of months ago, capitulate in such a dramatic fashion?


In direct contrast to this, in 2016 we witnessed possibly the greatest sporting phenomenon in English football history with Leicester City winning the Premier League, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that at the same time the previous year they were bottom of the league and fighting for their lives to even stay in it. The difference appears to be their new manager, the genial Claudio Ranieri who has elevated a disparate band of largely unknown players to the pinnacle of football history within less than a year by fostering an indomitable team spirit that has seen each and every player performing well beyond their limits.

Great teachers have much in common with great coaches. They have a vertiginous knowledge of their field with an infectious passion for it, and they can communicate that passion clearly and in ways that inspire. They have an unquestionable authority, the total respect of the players in their charge and crucially, they can engender trust and belief in their team to the extent that they will walk through walls for them. Conversely, if that relationship breaks down, players can be shadows of their former selves; aimless, lacking in confidence and self-belief and playing ‘within themselves.’

Anyone working in education has experienced this same dynamic, either themselves as students through a teacher who ignited a passion for the subject they went on to study, or through witnessing that colleague who unfailingly seems to get the best out of even the most resistant of students. I’m not talking about teachers who are well liked and who allow students to “define their own learning” (often described as a “legend”) but teachers who set high expectations, command genuine respect and trust, who model the kind of behaviour they expect, who have the authority to create a scholarly space that allows kids to really achieve, who have the ability to make students believe they are better than they ever thought they could be, and who can transmit their own obsession for their subject into a lifelong appreciation of it from their students.

Yet this element is rarely mentioned in education research. Possibly because there is no effective way of measuring such a thing and possibly because it is the elephant in the room that many simply don’t want to face. The uncomfortable truth is that without the respect and trust of their students, a teacher will often be ineffective no matter how many interventions they try or how many leadership training courses they are sent on.

One of the many blind spots in education research is that it often doesn’t take into account the context in which an particular approach occurs, which makes comparing ‘like for like’ extremely problematic and which has resulted in widely differing interpretations of what works.

However, despite the fact there is often very little consensus in education research, one area in which there is almost unanimous agreement is in feedback as the most effective agent of learning. For Dylan Wiliam, in order for this approach to function properly, context is all important and a healthy relationship between teacher and pupil is paramount:

“In the end, it all comes down to the relationship between the teacher and the student. To give effective feedback, the teacher needs to know the student—to understand what feedback the student needs right now. And to receive feedback in a meaningful way, the student needs to trust the teacher—to believe that the teacher knows what he or she is talking about and has the student’s best interests at heart. Without this trust, the student is unlikely to invest the time and effort needed to absorb and use the feedback.”

There isn’t a lot of research in this area but one interesting (yet somewhat disturbing) study conducted by Hunter Gehlbach from Harvard in which researchers tried to improve teacher/student relationships by showing areas where they had something in common, has yielded some intriguing results:

“For the experiment he had in mind, Hunter and his team created a survey for students and teachers of a ninth-grade class. The researchers then selectively shared examples from the survey results with teachers and students to show them that they had things in common. When Hunter examined the test scores of students who had been induced to see that they had things in common with their teachers, he found something astonishing: students — especially minorities — suddenly started to perform better in class.”

This study is yet to be replicated and there are many problematic aspects of it, but it does perhaps signal a new avenue of enquiry that moves away from focussing on disembodied education interventions and instead focuses on the context in which those interventions take place. If a teacher doesn’t have authority and the respect of his students, does it matter what approach they take?

It’s not a teacher’s job to be liked or popular, but it is their job to ensure students can achieve their potential and ideally, open their minds up to wonders of Shakespeare, Newtonian Physics or Minoan civilisation. If the strength of the relationship between teacher and pupil is the determining factor in how well students engage with their subject then maybe we need to talk about this rather than focussing on a set of ‘what works’ interventions that no matter how well evidenced, won’t work if the teacher has ‘lost the dressing room.’


Further reading:

Dylan Wiliam The Secret of Effective Feedback

In The Classroom, Common Ground Can Transform GPAs



  1. Christopher Waugh

    Eventually, thank goodness for you, the conversation will move around in the direction of the 99% of educational thought that can’t be measured via a RCT. If that happens, I might even start looking at twitter again!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. teachwell

    Great post – it will be taken to mean whatever the reader wants it to mean though!! I can see teachers believing they should spend their time finding things in common with their students to ‘make it work’. I think what would be helpful alongside this is an understand of what a ‘healthy’ relationship is in the first place as this is one of the issues of speaking about relationships between pupils and teachers. There is a sense in which any relationship is better than none – which isn’t true in life or the classroom.


  3. missdcox

    I once knew a teacher who marked her books every lesson, her room was beautifully decorated with student worked, she planned meticulously, she spent hours working on resources. The kids hated her.

    She saw me maybe not being so meticulous but having good relationships with students.

    How do you explain to her how to have good relationships?


    • Charlie Brown

      Yes – this is the crux. Is it that liking a teacher is based on the teacher’s personality, and if students don’t like a teacher, that requires changing who they are as a person? What concrete advice can you give a teacher to get them to develop better class environments? ‘Be kind’ is quite vague – what about ‘smile at students as they come in’, or ‘ask them questions about their lives on a regular basis’?


  4. boroboy1

    As part of development of our T&L policy(*) we asked every student in school “What are the features of teachers that help you learn most effectively?”.

    Many of the comments chime with your blog:

    Work with us (not against us)
    Strict (but not scary)
    Care about me as an individual nit just my result
    Respect (both ways)

    (*) this was just part of the formulation – we had teacher working groups; research etc. which led to a set of “principles” that we, as a staff, agree reflects best practice.


  5. Gillian R. Rosenberg (@doctorgillian)

    thx for this post. the moral aspects of teaching practice, including relationships with students and caring, respectful classroom culture, are often sidelined (to continue with the sports analogy). i’ve done research on this. here’s link to my book (routledge) also see Nel Noddings conceptual and philosophical work on teacher-student relationships (the ethic of care).


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  7. Beccy

    If this became the expected priority I am afraid of how it would be managed. As you say it’s not a level playing field. For example a teacher might teach low contact and see 400 students a fortnight and management might compare their relationships unfavourably with a teacher who teaches 150 students, expecting to mark books with the same frequency, with no exploration or attempt to manage context. The main change that’s needed is for management to see beyond the boxes they think they need to tick and facilitate their staff as equal aduls so they have an environment to get on with their job.


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  16. dreamest87

    I think viewing your pupils as fellow human beings is key. Children are very sensitive and very discerning. They see through phoniness, patronising attitudes and concealed dislike in seconds. Some teachers have excellent relationships with their pupils without seeming to make much of an effort. Others really have to work at it. For me, little things really helped – learning and using first names as quickly as possible, getting involved in extracurricular activities, asking kids about their day, greeting pupils in the corridor with eye contact and a smile. Personally I think this is an issue ignored by teacher training courses, yet it is perhaps the most important aspect of becoming a successful teacher.


  17. Rufus

    The football manager analogy interests me.

    The crucial part of a relationship between a manager and players is ‘winning’.

    A manager can have a great personal relationship with players but he will still lose the dressing room if the team is not successful. This often happens. Indeed at Liverpool under Roy Evans, the players were so comfortable with him that it ended up undermining the team, whereas Benitez wasn’t universally liked but won respect by being a winner.

    In the analogy with teaching, ‘learning the curriculum’ is the 3rd crucial component, analogous to winning. I reckon a fair proportion of teachers try to bypass the effort of establishing a great learning environment (which *is* effortful and difficult) by just getting the kids to like them. The relationships between managers and winning and players and winning, and the relationships between teachers and learning the curriculum and students and learning the curriculum precede all other relationships.


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