Nurturing teacher–student relationships in an online world

Friday, 11 September, 2020

Nurturing teacher–student relationships in an online world

UNSW’s Dr Rebecca Colie believes strong and positive teacher–student bonds are important during the pandemic and says that caring, fair and attentive relationships help ease the anxieties and uncertainties this strange time has created.

Dr Collie is a DECRA Fellow and Scientia Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology and has worked on a range of studies that look at the impact teacher–student relationships have on academic outcomes like motivation, student engagement and achievement. Though it is too early in her current research to ascertain the exact impacts of COVID-19 on relationships, she believes it is “possible to make educated guesses”.

“In places like Victoria, where students are learning remotely, it can be hard for teachers to have time for one-on-one conversations with students,” she said.

“At the same time, there might be other cases, where the shared sense that ‘we’re going through this together’ may help forge stronger connections.”

Teacher–student relationship research

Dr Collie conducted a 2019 study titled Teacher-student relationships and students’ engagement in high school, with Scientia Professor Andrew Martin, which found that the more positive relationships students had with their teachers, the better their engagement in school.

They also found that the level of engagement did not increase for students who had more negative than positive relationships with their teachers.

“And by engagement, we mean that we looked at their enjoyment of school, how much they participated in school, and what their future aspirations were,” Dr Collie said.

The study surveyed 2079 students across 18 Australian high schools to rate the strength and positiveness of their relationships with five of their teachers over the course of a year.

But whatever the context and situation for each school or teacher–student relationship during COVID-19 — and there are many — Dr Collie said that key strategies and practices identified previously are still likely to be helpful for building positive teacher–student relationships.

She said there are three main groups of available strategies: building relationships directly with students; academic and pedagogical support; and promoting student ownership and self-initiation in their learning.

Building relationships directly with students

“This is about taking time to interact with each student, expressing interest in students, getting to know them and what their hobbies are,” Dr Collie said.

“And making students feel noticed and cared for by being attuned to their needs and directing resources to those needs. So that’s about building that rapport.”

Applying these practices and some empathy in direct relationships therefore increases human connection, which is essential for motivating students to stay engaged in school during COVID-19.

Academic and pedagogical support

“This is about providing goals and expectations, so students know what to expect in their learning,” Dr Collie said.

By providing that guidance and support, students can progress in their learning, she said.

“Offering positive and constructive or task-focused feedback … [is also important to] help students continue their learning journey.”

Promoting students’ ownership and self-initiation

Engaging students and encouraging them to take ownership of their learning also enables positive associations with schooling, Dr Collie said.

“This includes things like providing a meaningful rationale for what needs to be done, explaining to students why it’s important and offering choice and control over the tasks that students do, where possible,” she said.

“And really listening to students and acknowledging their perspectives, and then inviting their input whenever you can in decision-making in the classroom.”

Promoting positive teacher–school relationships

Dr Collie’s work also looks at teacher wellbeing. She said principals can adapt the same three key strategies in building relationships with educators in their schools.

When teachers feel supported by the principal, or team leaders, this improves their motivation, instructional practice and how they interact with students in the classroom, she said.

“For example, really listening to teachers’ perspectives, so they feel heard and the principal understands what teachers are experiencing,” Dr Collie said.

“But also, providing those clear guidelines about the expectations and values in a school can help teachers feel more connected and enable them to experience a more positive relationship with the principal.”

Dr Collie said she is also looking at research that references the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, and the impacts it had on teacher wellbeing for years after the tragedy.

The research shows teachers experienced a burnout lag by a couple of years “because they put in so much effort and worked so hard”, she said.

“One thing we need to be aware of is making sure we are supporting teachers through this [pandemic]. Because they are going above and beyond to try and make sure students’ education is disrupted as little as possible. And to keep those positive teacher and student relationships going.”

Future research focus

Dr Collie will be extending her research on the academic outcomes of those teacher–student relationships, by looking at the impact on their broader social and emotional development.

“We know from prior research that when students have strong relationships with others at school, including teachers, but also their peers, that this is linked with positive outcomes,” she said.

“These include students engaging in more ‘helping’ behaviours, less bullying, greater empathy and more effective interpersonal skills.”

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