Getting to know you: Why telling new teachers to ‘build relationships’ is bad advice.

As we move inexorably towards the start of a new school year, thousands of trainee and newly qualified teachers are waiting to embark on their careers. If they are anything like I was as, they’re desperately clinging on to every piece of advice and guidance they can with open, grateful and anxious arms. And, like an over-protective parent, Twitter is awash with hashtag-NQT-advice.

This tweet in particular seems to have gained some support, appearing in my timeline on several occasions and receiving nearly 1000 retweets.

The idea here is one I’ve encountered many times before. This tweet is obviously about the first lesson, but it reflects a bigger idea in education that I think is unhelpful. This idea is that building relationships is the primary goal of a teacher and that this either takes primacy over, or is in opposition to enforcing rules and successful classroom management. There are a couple of reasons why I think this is wrong.

Firstly, I think that the idea of ‘building relationships’ needs a little discussion. Every teacher is different, and as for children, they’re magical, frustrating, eccentric, spiteful, kind, surprising and infuriating – not in equal measure – but in unmeasurable amounts. My relationship with Harry is vastly different to my relationship with Sally. The suggestion that ‘building relationships’ with these students is a sort of activity one can do in a lesson is a little absurd. Why, for instance, would playing a game or doing an icebreaker type activity build relationships any quicker than a normal lesson? For me, relationships are built around knowing my students, their personalities, their moods, their strengths and what they struggle with. In short, I need to know how Harry and Sally work in order to push them further. This takes time. It’s not a thing I can just ‘do’. It’s the aggregation of hundreds of little things happening over a longer period. It won’t be the same for every student, and it won’t happen without a well managed classroom.

This leads on to my next point regarding the opposition set up between ‘rules’ and ‘relationships’. I’m not at all trying to suggest that building relationships isn’t important. My contention is that behaviour management must come before positive relationships, because for any relationship to be positive, it has to be one where students can learn in a safe environment. Making sure students know the rules doesn’t prevent positive relationships, the former is a necessary condition for achieving the latter. Similarly, rules and boundaries shouldn’t be held up to new teachers as somehow cruel or uncaring. Rules, boundaries and routines are perhaps the kindest and most loving gift a teacher can provide, because only with these in place can students flourish. Why not set the tone from day one?

Sure, it’s probably true that most students know the rules anyway. Deep down, most kids know how to behave. Recapping the rules, however,  might still act as a helpful reminder after 6 weeks of holiday. For new teachers this is especially important; they need to show that they are completely familiar with the school rules and policies for reasons I’ll discuss later.

I don’t profess to be an expert in behaviour,  or an expert in anything at all for that matter. But, as a senior member of a department which will welcome two NQTs in September, I do feel responsible for ensuring they are best placed to develop as teachers. So for what it’s worth, here are my top five behaviour management tips for new teachers. Because behaviour management is necessary for learning, and learning is necessary for positive relationships.

1. Understand the policy

The responsibility for behaviour in a school lies with the senior management team. As classroom teachers, we have to know the behaviour policy inside out and apply it with unwavering consistency. And that includes the uniform policy. And the rule that other teachers might sometimes let slip. And the rule that you might not agree with. New teachers should make sure they’re absolutely clear about the behaviour management policy and speak to their department head to make sure they are applying it consistently. It’s important to remember that even if we feel a little isolated in our classrooms, every teacher in the school has a responsibility to stick ardently to this policy. If a rule is let slip in English, it makes it harder for the Geography department and vice versa. Together we’re greater than the sum of our parts.

2. Control the noise

A child should never talk over the teacher, either through calling out or interrupting, and this same level of respect should be extended to other students when answering questions or during discussion. This is the first rule of teacher club. Or maybe the second rule after ‘always take your tun to make the coffee’. It may seem blindingly obvious, but it doesn’t always happen. I’m sure all NQTs have a way of getting students to be quiet and listen. I count down from five, but there are, of course, many ways to skin a cat. But this alone is not enough. You have to have the conviction to wait, not simply reach ‘1’ and launch into your explanation when students are still chatting. Hold your nerve, and never talk over a student. If they don’t follow the cue to be silent, refer back to the behaviour policy and sanction accordingly.

Control the noise during tasks too. When you ask for silent work, mean it and expect it. If you ask for discussion, expect it.

3. Use names

Learning names is vital and should  be done as soon as possible. Not only does this help for the students you teach, but it also helps manage behaviour in the corridors. If you already know their name, or take time to find it out, it’s much easier to ask someone to pick up their litter or ask them to put their blazer on with a friendly smile. Once you know their names use them often: when wishing them good morning; welcoming them to the lesson; or having a discussion about their work. Also, the quicker you learn names, the quicker you can start calling parents. Try to do so regularly, for positive reasons as well as negative.

4. Don’t focus on getting them to like you

It’s perfectly natural to want students to like you, but when this becomes a focus, learning stops being a focus. Without wishing to condescend, it can be very difficult for new teachers to remember this, particularly those who may be only a few years older than their students. When the relationship between teacher and student is blurred by friendship, managing behaviour becomes an unnecessary minefield and teaching becomes even more difficult.

In my NQT year, I let friends sit together willingly, avoided tasks I thought may be considered ‘mean’ like prolonged periods of silent work, and instead favoured tasks where friends could work together. I don’t think I wanted to be liked, I just wanted to be nice. But this desire to be nice made it more difficult for me to manage classes, and I’m sure my student’s learning suffered.

5.  Just Teach… from day one.

Think very carefully about what you do on that first lesson. Go armed with a seating plan so that names can be learned. Go armed with an in-depth knowledge of the behaviour policy. Remember it isn’t mean to sit friends apart and it isn’t mean to get students to work in silence. Remember that building relationships will not happen quickly, and prioritising this above classroom management is unlikely to speed up the process. Above all, remember that students form a judgment of new teachers very quickly, and once this judgment is reached, it can be very difficult to change.

Maybe it’s time to abandon the icebreakers and group activities and, you know, go through the rules?

For more advice about the first lesson, this advice from Tom Bennett is excellent:

https://community.tes.co.uk/tes_behaviour/f/5/p/585616/7709889.aspx#7709889

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10 thoughts on “Getting to know you: Why telling new teachers to ‘build relationships’ is bad advice.

  1. It’s a combination of everything you mentioned – you need the basics. Clear expectations and boundaries with the rules understood by all, but the relationship makes a big difference when you want to engage students and get them to go the extra mile. Special education is a little different to mainstream – in my experience it doesn’t matter how established the boundaries are, without the relationship you won’t get much out of your class.

    • Thanks for the comment Rob. I certainly think that having positive relationships with students is a great help. Perhaps, like you say, you need both boundaries and relationships to get the best out of a class. I suppose my main worry is that for new teachers, if they focus too much on relationships at the expense of establishing boundaries, they get things the wrong way round. We need both, but it’s easier to establish good relationships when the students are behaving themselves!

      Thanks,

      Dave

  2. I’ve always found the biggest difficulty is when NQTs see the relationships that experienced teachers have with pupils – which are built on hard yards and years of clear lines of expectations – and seek to mirror them. It often doesn’t LOOK like an experience teacher does any of things we tell NQTs to do.

    • Yes that’s really difficult to express. Students can be really fickle, especially with new teachers.

      Also, just observing an experienced member teach doesn’t seem to help too. Like you say, what you see is the tip of the iceberg and the result of lots of work, lots of learning and lots of mistakes!

      Thanks for the comment,

      Dave

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  5. Reblogged this on Teacher Voice and commented:
    Very similar thoughts to what I thought at start of NQT Year last year – both rules and relationships are important but rules have to come first chronologically for learning to happen at it’s best.

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