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Behaviour is not all about relationships

March 1, 2020

It doesn’t take long in a discussion about behaviour for somebody who should know better to claim that the key to good behaviour is good relationships. It’s true that a bad relationship could undermine you with a class. It’s true that sometimes a good relationship with some of the dominant personalities will have a really positive effect on a class. It’s true that it’s better to have good relationships than bad with your students. However, we should not confuse cause and effect. It’s much easier to have a good relationship with a well behaved class. It’s easy to con yourself that the good behaviour you get from a class is because the class like you, but it’s far more likely that the class like you when your lessons are safe and orderly and you are not having to constantly tell them off. In my experience, if you visit schools with strict and effective behaviour management, you also see really good relationships between staff and students. This is because relationships thrive where staff and students are happy and flourishing, and that happens best where there are boundaries and students are safe. The opposite of this is the school where good behaviour occurs mainly when students have been “won over”; where strangers and new staff may be treated with contempt and life is hell for the teacher who isn’t liked.

Most of the teachers with the strongest relationships with students have earned them the right way: through firm discipline and commitment to their students’ well-being. In an environment where winning over students is a prerequisite for an absence of abuse and defiance, there will be some adults who have prioritised these relationships above establishing the right expectations. In tough schools I have encountered teachers who have “good relationships” who earned them by never confronting a student. I have sat observing in lessons where the teacher had the most friendly and respectful conversations with even the most difficult students, but never said a word as the students subjected each other to abuse and harassment. Appeasement is a key strategy to surviving in a school where behaviour is based on relationships; rather than relationships allowed to develop due to good behaviour. Because relationships are a two way street, and students can choose who they like, schools where good behaviour is conditional on relationships, shift power to those students who want it. Those students can make it clear to teachers: “If you want an easy life, don’t get in my way”. At best this just means a lowering of academic standards, but often it means the departure of adult authority from the classroom. While this may be empowering for the ringleaders, it leaves most children unprotected from the mob, as staff fear the bullies among the children as much as their peers do.

Another aspect of schools where only good relationships will prompt good behaviour, is the effect on new staff. Typically, it takes a long time to establish yourself. These schools are not a nice place to start teaching, and even experienced teachers will find themselves treated badly when they move schools. Students will have a perception of who they need to obey and who they don’t. Supply teachers will be driven out; new staff will frequently go under, and classes will boast of the teachers they reduced to tears. Worse still, students will learn to coordinate their disruption. New staff are the obvious target, but sometimes a particular part of the curriculum will become known as the one to disrupt. Sometimes staff will be targeted for their gender, sexuality or ethnicity. There are schools where good behaviour depends on good relationships, but you almost certainly won’t have that good relationship if you teach French; if you speak with an accent, or you happen to follow the wrong religion. 

Finally, let’s accept that teachers are all different. Some are more introverted than others. Some like football and crude jokes; others like opera and subtle wit. Not everybody likes small talk. The culture of having to win over students turns teachers into superficial people, more interested in playing to the crowd than imparting something profound. Halfway between a politician and a game show host, the teacher with the most winning personality may “succeed” despite poor subject knowledge and little skill at imparting knowledge. They may even have the tricks of the demagogue: knowing how to manipulate individuals and how to lead a mob. Any teacher who is introverted; any teacher who is on the autistic spectrum; any teacher who cares more about their subject than being liked, is not welcome in the school where good behaviour depends on relationships. And it’s worse still for the misfits among the students. Expectations vary rapidly between classrooms as boundaries shift according to relationships. There’s no chance to learn good habits and follow routines; every lesson will be about navigating the social relationships between the teacher and the class. Instead of learning the useful skill of cooperating with people you don’t like; instead students are encouraged only to learn where the class has tacitly decided the teacher is “fun” enough for them. You wouldn’t want to be an autistic child in a school where the only rule is, “Don’t get on the wrong side of the mob”. Ironically, SEND students are frequently used as an excuse to justify the fuzzy boundaries and relationships first approach to discipline. You don’t have to be a teacher for five minutes to see how often these are the kids who are failed most in these schools.  

Behaviour is not about relationships. Good relationships with your students are worth having whether it will help behaviour or not. Good relationships are, however, no substitute for an orderly and secure environment where every teacher, and every student, can flourish.

2 comments

  1. I have often wondered if the opposing views on this topic relate partially to the subject taught by the teacher. Subjects which require the teaching of lots of facts attract teachers with particular personalities, and a need to keep students very focused to understand those facts. Facts are not about relationships. At the other extreme are subjects which explore relationships and these subjects attract teachers who believe relationships are more important than facts. Just my observations of the spectrum of secondary school teachers I have worked with over the years spanning the personality continuum from Maths and Science, to English and Humanities. This is what makes the division of views so sharp, as it relates to the fundamental wiring of the brains of the different subject teachers that has been reinforced by their subject study over many many years. Just a thought.


    • Interesting point and possibly contains some truth?
      As a maths teacher though, I have to disagree with your characterisation of mathematics; it is almost wholly concerned with relationships, and dependent only on a handful of facts to be memorised. While the dates of kings, or French adjectives or the names of all the organs in a cat have to be rote-learned, a student can just re-derive the great majority of mathematical result from the ether once they appreciate and understand the relationships and connections that link them together.
      Let me play devils advocate and speculate that maths and science teachers have evolved a certain manner because our subjects require student to individually taking time to *sit and think hard* for part of every lesson – this is really hard for students and requires quite a fragile environment, which is very easily disrupted.



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