by Qin Zhu

Teaching extends beyond knowledge transmission or co-construction between the teacher and students; it encompasses a process of building relationships. The quality of the teacher-student relationship profoundly shapes students’ learning experiences and outcomes within the classroom. A positive teacher-student relationship can influence not only academic achievement but also students’ psychological well-being and the overall classroom climate.

Furthermore, the teacher-student relationship can significantly impact both the professional and personal lives of the teacher. Teachers inherently have a basic need for connection with their students. Studies show that teacher-student relationships play a critical role in teachers’ retention in the profession, as these relationships provide intrinsic rewards and assign meaning to their work.  For instance, when we, as teachers, form a strong bond with a student, we may feel a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction when witnessing the student’s growth and success, reinforcing our commitment to teaching. When a teacher struggles to establish a positive relationship with a student, they may experience frustration or disappointment if they are unable to effectively support the student’s learning or address behavioral challenges. This could potentially lead to feelings of burnout or dissatisfaction with their teaching role.

Certainly, the dynamic between you as the teacher and your students can evolve over time. At the beginning of a semester, the relationship may be more formal and unfamiliar as both students and teacher get to know each other. As time progresses and interactions increase, trust and rapport can develop, leading to a more comfortable and supportive relationship. Factors such as communication, mutual respect, empathy, and understanding contribute to shaping this dynamic. Additionally, life events, classroom experiences, and academic progress can influence how the relationship unfolds. Overall, recognizing that the teacher-student relationship is dynamic allows teachers to adapt their approach, foster positive connections, and better support student learning and well-being.

Rimm-Kaufman and Sandilos (2015) have provide strategies for cultivating positive relationships based on research in learning and psychological sciences. While these strategies were originally designed for the K-12 context, the majority of the practices listed below are also applicable to, or beneficial for, undergraduate education.

Strategy #1 Know your students

Knowing a student’s interests can help you create examples to match those interests.

If a student who loves basketball comes to you with a question about a math problem, you might respond  with a problem involving basketball.

If a student who speaks Spanish at home comes to you with a question about English vocabulary, you might answer his question and then ask him what the word is in Spanish and how he’d use it in a sentence. This type of specific responding shows that you care about your students as people and that you are aware of their unique strengths (i.e., fluency in another language).

Knowing a student’s temperament can help you construct appropriate learning opportunities.

If a student in your class is particularly distractible, you can support her efforts to concentrate by offering her a quieter area in which to work.

If a student in your classroom is very shy, appears engaged but never raises his hand to ask questions, you can assess his level of understanding of a concept in a one-on-one conversation at the end of class.

Strategy #2 Give students meaningful feedback

Notice the way that you give feedback to your students. If possible, watch a video of your own teaching.

Are you giving students meaningful feedback that says you care about them and their learning, or are you constantly telling your students to hurry?

In your conversations, are you focusing on what your students have accomplished or are you concentrating your comments on what they have not yet mastered?

Does your body language, facial expression and tone of voice show your students that you are interested in them as people too?

Are you telling them to do one thing, yet you model quite different behavior? For example, are you telling your students to listen to each other, but then look bored when one of them talks to the class? Be sure that the feedback you give to your students conveys the message that you are supporting their learning and that you care about them.

Are you paying more attention to some students than to others?

Make sure to provide social and emotional support and set high expectations for learning.

Strategy #3 Be respectful and sensitive to adolescents

Supportive teacher-student relationships are just as important to middle and high school students as they are to elementary students. Positive relationships encourage students’ motivation and engagement in learning. Older students need to feel that their teachers respect their opinions and interests just as much as younger students do. Even in situations where adolescents do not appear to care about what teachers do or say, teacher actions and words do matter and may even have long term positive (or negative) consequences.

Discussion Questions

  • What is your review of the role of teacher-student relationship in learning and teaching?
  • Have you encountered situations where teacher-student relationships have influenced your role as a teacher, your well-being, and your expectations regarding both students and yourself?
  • What strategies have you used to build strong teacher-student relationships?
  • Based on the strategies provided by Rimm-Kaufman and Sandilos (2015), what new ideas and strategies do you want to try next time in your classroom to foster teacher-student relationships?