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Taking Account of Personal Relationships between Students in Teaching

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Guest Post by Peter J. Cavanagh

How important are relationships in education? Rita Pierson, in her classic TEDTalk, says “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” I thoroughly agree and I would like it mandated that every teacher watches her talk every year!

Peter J. Cavanaugh

I want to expand her sentiment to include student to student relationships.

“Kids don’t learn well in classes where they have bad relationships.”

This statement is proven at the worst end of the relational spectrum, where victimisation and bullying occur. A report by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute's (MCRI) says "Students who are bullied for two or three years in mid primary school fall nearly 10 months behind their peers in numeracy by year 7.”

The correlation between learning and the relational context holds true for positive relationships as well. The best learning environments happen for students not only when the instruction is excellent but when relationships are strong with teachers as well as with fellow students.

If you don’t agree with how important relationships are to education I wish you well as you go on leading schools with teachers teaching subject matter to students they hardly know as A.I. slowly comes in and sweeps away any need for basic content delivery by pedagogues.

For the rest, who do believe that relationships matter greatly for learning, consider these questions.

  1. What endeavours do you implement to increase relationship strength in all of your classes?

  2. Is it possible to keep track of all the relationships of your students?

  3. How do you establish which student relationships need intervention?

  4. What systems do you have in place once you do identify their needs?

  • Firstly we must agree as a school that relationships matter and are worth our consideration and effort regularly. Give your teachers permission (nay, encouragement) to run at least some activities that are designed SOLELY to build successful relationships.

  • Secondly we need to consider how we holistically build relationship tools into our practice. What can be done when teaching English or mathematics which will mean that the classroom context will encourage healthy relationships rather than competitiveness or exclusion?

  • Thirdly we need to follow up broken relationships. Just as we have remediation processes for illiteracy, students who are struggling with relationships will need targeted help. Without going into too much details about mediation, restorative justice and reconciliation (which needs a blog post for itself), teachers need to know which students are distracted from learning because of conflict in their class and have a toolbox of tools for how to respond.

  • Fourthly we need processes to assess and track relationships just as we have processes for assessing and tracking numeracy and literacy.

What do you currently do to track relationships? Most would answer that they use subjective observation of quality teachers. Consider how you could increase effectiveness of these observations.

One simple idea is to encourage teachers to regularly meet with two students who they know like them (there’s always a couple in each class) and interview them about the relational dynamics in their class. They may find issues that are below the surface. This will help them to develop curriculum delivery to match the relational dynamics of each particular class. For instance asking certain students to speak publicly in front of their peers may be disastrous if they are being ostracised by a dominant member of the class. They could ask this student to do their presentation before your staff room instead.

For nine years I have been developing a tool for tracking relationships in schools (yr 3 to 11). For example at St. Paul’s Anglican Grammar School we use this online tool I invented, in all four campuses, so that every term we ask every student about every student in their class. The data is processed automatically and trends are determined, revealing how relationships are developing and changing. Isolated students can have interventions tailored for them before negative experiences occur. Conflicts can be mediated. Students with potential for bullying can be coached and encouraged to build trust rather than abuse it.

You and your school are welcome to pilot Trustmapping at no cost with a class to see if it brings benefit to your plan for building schools with wonderful relationships. Contact me to learn how!



Peter Cavanagh is a teacher and “ideas man”. He lives near Melbourne Australia, is married with two children and is passionate about seeing students become well connected and learning effectively. Pete came up with to help kids in schools. It gives teachers metrics on trust within cohorts to pre-empt bullying and to be proactive in taking care of students who are getting left out by their peers.

So far we are working on 5 continents, 28 campuses, 97 classes and regularly surveying 2887 students.



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