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Putting student relationships first


Teacher talking to a student.

Research shows that students learn best when they experience positive relationships with their teachers. This blog post offers strategies for developing positive student/teacher relationships. It provides school stories and resources to inspire teachers to put student relationships first.

Evidence generated from the Best Evidence Synthesis programme indicates that students are increasingly engaged and motivated when their teachers value them as individuals. Te Kotahitanga, an extensive long-term study of Māori student achievement, advocates relationship building with students through the implementation of the Effective Teaching Profile.

The New Zealand Curriculum recognises the importance of strong teacher/student connections. The effective pedagogy section states that:

  • students learn best when they enjoy positive relationships with their fellow students and teachers
  • effective teachers foster positive relationships within environments that are caring, inclusive, non-discriminatory, and cohesive.

There is no single approach to building positive relationships with students. It requires time, effort, and in some cases, perseverance. What follows are several suggestions to help teachers know their students better.

Take time to know your students

To experience positive relationships with your students you need to take the time to know them and build connections. By knowing your students well, you can understand their interests and plan learning experiences that reflect these interests. Knowing your students well helps you identify the best approaches to help them learn.

School stories

Strengthening relationships
This video from the Pasifika Education Community emphasises the importance of relationships and shows that when teachers and Pasifika students develop strong relationships with each other, they each gain a more holistic view of the other person. The video includes reflective questions for you to consider.

Transitions: Students at the centre
This video explores the importance of relationships and getting to know your new students so that you can build on their interests and strengths.

Be culturally responsive

Every student is a culturally located individual whose identity is shaped by their life experiences, interests, religious beliefs, political beliefs, gender, and social background. As you build relationships with your students, it is important to understand and celebrate their culture. Manaakitanga, the first element of the Te Kotahitanga effective teaching profile, advocates that teachers care for their students as culturally located human beings above all else.

School stories

Te Mana Kōrero: Culture counts
In this video, teacher Julia McLaughlin from Tolaga Bay Area School describes how she adapted the cultural context of her lessons to make them meaningful to her students.

Demonstration of teaching approach – ADHD
In this video, Donna Wheeler from Onslow College describes how she selects learning materials that connect to students' life experiences.

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Cultural diversity in the classroom
Rae Siilata, lecturer in bi-literacy at Auckland University, describes what the cultural diversity principle might look like in the classroom. She urges educators to create opportunities for all students to bring their valued knowledge into the school.

Develop learner profiles

Image of teacher and child.

Supporting students to develop a learner profile is one way of getting to know them better. A learner profile is usually created by students to share information with teachers. Adults who work closely with the student may contribute to the profile. A learner profile sits alongside assessment information and helps teachers understand things from a students' perspective.

Through a learner profile, students can express who they are, share their aspirations, and address assumptions. Learner profiles can be presented in any format – video, photographs, blog, slideshow, etc.

For more information on learner profiles see developing an inclusive classroom culture; valuing what each student brings to the classroom.

Learner profile examples

Word 2007 icon. Laiza's transition (Word 2007, 599 KB)

An example of a primary school student’s learner profile, developed by adults working with her.

Rachel's learner profile
An example of a secondary school student's learner profile.

Stephen's letter
Stephen introduces himself to his teachers before starting college.


What students remember most about teachers
This Edutopia blog post, written as a letter to a busy teacher, emphasises the importance of being there for your students.

Every kid needs a champion
In this rousing TED Talk, Rita Pierson calls for teachers to believe in their students and connect with them on a real, human, personal level.

Reflective questions

  • In what ways do you build positive relationships with your students? Could you set aside more time each day to connect?
  • How do you care for students as culturally located human beings? What other steps could you take?
  • Do you remember a teacher who established a positive relationship with you? What did they do to build a connection?
  • Is there a story or resource in this post that has inspired you to do things differently? What changes are you going to make?

We would love to hear your thoughts and questions. Please email them through to [email protected].  

Teacher talking to a student.

"Why should a student show an interest in our classes if we do not show an interest in them? Show them you care. Student relationships must come first."

Jeff Charbonneau, 2013 National Teacher of the Year

effective pedagogy