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Creating Positive Interpersonal Relationships in the Classroom


"A significant body of research indicates that academic achievement and students' behaviour are influenced by the quality of the teacher-student relationship. Students prefer teachers who are warm and friendly. More important, positive teacher-student relationships, in which teachers use the skills described in this chapter, are associated with more positive student responses to school and with increased academic achievement. Davidson and Lang (1960) reported that students who felt liked by their teachers had higher academic achievement and more productive classroom behaviour than did students who felt theire teachers held them in lower regard. Similarly, Morrison and McIntyre (1969) reported that 73 percent of the students in their study who were low achieving perceived their teachers as thinking poorly of them, but only 10 percent of high achievers held such beliefs. When examining students' adjustment, Truax and Tatum (1966) found that children adjusted more positively to school, teachers, and peers when teachers displayed empathy and positive regard for children.

An excellent example of the importance of combining acceptance with respect for students was reported by Kleinfeld (1972) in a powerful analysis of teachers' interactions with Eskimo and Native American students who had recently moved to urban settings. Kleinfeld found that teachers who were effective with these children were able to combine showing a personal interest in the students with demands for solid academic achievement. Summarizing her findings, she stated:

The essence of the instructional style which elicits a high level of intellectual performance from village Indian and Eskimo students is to create an extremely warm personal relationship and to actively demand a level of academic work which the student does not suspect he can attain. Village students thus interpret the teacher's demandingness not as bossiness or hostility, but rather as another expression of his personal concern, and meeting the teacher's academic standards becomes their reciprocal obligation in an intensely personal relationship. (p.34)
In an ongoing study at the Center for Research on the context of Secondary School Teaching at Stanford University, researchers are examining the factors in high school environments that support positive student attitudes and learning. The study is designed to determine students' perceptions regarding factors that influence their school performance. In a review of their work, the researchers stated,"A recurring theme in students' comments is the tremendous value they place on having teachers who care ... In fact, the number of student references to "wanting caring teachers" is so great that we believe it speaks to the quiet desperation and loneliness of many adolescents in today's society." (Phelan, Davidson, & cao, 1992. p. 698).

In their extensive study of school environments that meet the needs of students at risk for school failure, Welhage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, and Fernandex (1989) reported the following four common impediments to students developing a sense of school community:

  1. Adjustment: Students at risk need a more personal and supportive relationship with adults than schools typically provide.
  2. Difficulty: "Although we found literal inability to do the work a relatively rare characteristic of at-risk students. it is the case that increased time and more intensive tutoring were required for many ... The educational situation students complained most about was the ubiquitous "lecture-discussion" based on reading assignments " (p.124).
  3. Incongruence This related to the lack of personal-social match between the student and the institution.
  4. Isolation: "We found that students who had persistent conflicts with adults or who found no teacher with whom to establish a personal relationship were at risk of dropping out" (p.131).
The authors also stated that " there are four teacher beliefs/or values, accompanied by corresponding sets of behaviours , that together constitute a positive teacher culture facilitating membership and engagement for students" (p.135). These beliefs are the following:
  1. Teachers accept personal responsibility for student success
  2. Teachers practice an extended teacher role
  3. Teachers are persistent with students.
  4. Teachers express a sense of optimism that all students can learn.

[Source: Creating Positive Interpersonal Relationships in the Classroom - Killen (1998) in Effective Teaching Strategies; Lessons from Research and Practice]