Strong and positive teacher-student bonds are important during the pandemic, says educational psychology researcher Dr Rebecca Collie.
Dr Collie says while it is too early in her research to know the exact impacts COVID-19 has had on teacher-student relationships, “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,” the DECRA Fellow and Scientia Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology says.
“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.”
In NSW, about 3,700 students have not returned to their classrooms since schools reopened in late May, former NSW Teachers’ Federation president Denis Fitzgerald told the independent inquiry into the value of teachers’ work.
“Most of those absent are high school students who were ‘teetering on the edge of engagement’ prior to the coronavirus pandemic,” Mr Fitzgerald told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“They need human connection, [and] when the human connection is gone you lose that form of engagement.”
Teacher-student relationship research
Although Dr Collie is not involved in the inquiry, she has worked on a range of studies that look at the impact teacher-student relationships have on academic outcomes, like motivation, students’ engagement and achievement.
A recent 2019 study titled Teacher-student relationships and students’ engagement in high school, that she conducted with Scientia Professor Andrew Martin, 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 says.
The study surveyed 2,079 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 says that key strategies and practices identified previously are still likely to be helpful for building positive teacher-student relationships.
She says 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 says.
“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 says.
By providing that guidance and support students can progress in their learning, she says.
“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 says.
“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 says.
“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 says 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 says.
“For example, really listening to teachers’ perspectives, so they feel heard and the principal understands what teachers are experiencing,” Dr Collie says.
“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 says 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 says.
“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 says.
“These include students engaging in more ‘helping’ behaviours, less bullying, greater empathy and more effective interpersonal skills.”