Building positive relationships: mutual respect.

10 Sep 2016

“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”
James Come

The new classroom:



















If I may be so bold as to offer a humble and wholeheartedly objective assessment: delightful, vibrant, organised, engaging, motivational. Subliminal messages of care, commitment and passion abound. Students have literally fainted upon entry, swooning with instant and new found love for English.


The reality dawned on me very quickly this week, it is a mere sideshow; a set of walls that houses the absolute crux of what enables genuine learning to take place in the classroom: relationships. Nothing reiterates this more than the exhausting, demanding week that is the first week of the school year. New faces, new personalities, new and ever more nuanced responses demanded. All these young people require an individual investment and careful reflection about the best way to enable them to access English. Exciting stuff: each class full of thirty identities that will play such a (loud!) and focal role in our lives for the next year.

Teaching and learning is not osmosis; it is not a didactic process that will magically enter the minds of these young people. Learning will not happen in isolation, it will happen as a product of trust, a product of security, a product of a shared commitment. Students will not walk into my classroom and suddenly become superb students of English. The first week is so mind bogglingly overwhelming because we are on a mission to begin to secure that shared commitment. Yet the first week has merely planted and rooted a seed that has the potential to flourish beautifully over the next few months (give me that, it is very early on a Saturday morning!) Here is what I have been striving to find the balance between this week and will continue to walk the tenuous tight rope on for the next few:


assertivenessPerhaps the biggest shock this week is to instantly switch back into ‘teacher mode’. After six weeks of serenity; of easeful conversations; of passive listening – facing thirty sceptical faces is a real shock to the system. Yet this is a switch that needs placed on immediately: a briskness of manner, a fair firmness, a sense of confident control and an eerie calm that radiates. In adult life it would be frankly delusional to demand that “all eyes are this way, pens are on tables” (although interesting to try!) Yet without such simple and pragmatic requests learning in the classroom will not be as effective. Moreover, relationships based on mutual respect cannot be generated.

Our department’s lovely cleaner, Linda, took one sceptical (scepticism appears to have been a ubiquitous response this week!) look at my lofty and metaphorical classroom endeavours from last week and insisted on a bet: ten pounds the cards/pots/resources won’t last till the end of the term. I like a challenge so instantly agreed. I have used it this week to be ridiculously pernickety, sweating the small stuff in bizarre detail. With this relentless attention to detail and ownership I am hopefully reducing the likelihood of any escalation of behaviours. Having spent a small fortune on the classroom I am determined to have that tenner nestled in my hand at the end of the term!

Talking of determination. This may smack of egotism but it is fundamentally true: there is a hierarchy in the classroom and we need to be clearly in charge. We need to establish guidelines, modes of being, structures that will be set until the school year. I prefer to use identified moments in the first few lessons to illuminate this to students, rather than beginning with an arbitrary and draconian drone of thirty rules. They will have heard this approach numerous times already that day, and glazed and vacant eyes will be the response. By using moments in the first few lessons this models to the young people exactly what expectations are when the occasion occurs,  providing visual clarity about what will or will not be expected. Expectations are rocket high and consistent from the very start.

We show our students we care most when we are willing to be tough, to be clear, to be assertive – because they then recognise that we have extremely high expectations of what they are capable of and that we are determined to have the conditions to enabling them to do their best. The behavioural guru Bill Rogers is superb reading, brilliantly encapsulated in this blog by Tom Sherrington:

The Three Es: engagement, energy, enthusiasm.


I will be putting most of my poor unsuspecting classes through four hours a week of being in the same room as me this year. What can I do to try to motivate them for each one of those hours (including Friday period five!). Common sense dictates that the individuals who we want to spend time with, who we form positive relationships with, are those who enjoy being in the company of. We are intrinsically drawn to energy and enthusiasm; it makes us actively want to be in that individual’s company.

It is not necessary about charisma (although this helpful wee book can enable those of us not blessed with boundless charisma with some tricks of the trade!) charismaWhat is important is that young people are drawn to us as adults; enticed into our presence by an unremitting sense that we are passionate people, people who love our subjects. The teachers we remember, who inspired us on numerous levels were always full of these qualities, they were memorable individuals. It might seem superficial (or slightly neurotic!) but it is also about giving something of ourselves, opening our worlds with nuggets of information that feed a sense of interest. It all helps to draw them into us, and by default our subjects.

More importantly this energy and enthusiasm needs to be expressed through the vehicle of our subjects. This week has in many ways felt like a protracted performance – not in terms of lessons being full of superficial bells and whistles, but of the sheer exertion that has gone into content. I am lucky to be teaching all novels at the start of this year and I want the students to be excited about the next six weeks with their literary endeavour. I want them to be thinking about it outside of lessons, talking about it, reading it at home. That means validation of why the novel is important for them and the sense of a collaborative journey, alongside engaging tasks that open up meanings as we read. Friday night saw a comedy collapse into bed at an embarrassingly early hour because of the effort of this: welcome back to term time!

Communication and empathy:


Talk is central to any classroom, and it is complex on so many different levels. It is something I know I don’t reflect enough on throughout the day. Students will remember how we interact with them: how intently we listen to and value their answers; how we address them as they enter the room; how we outline our expectations. They will notice if we are rude, if we are irritated, if we are tired. They will notice if we communicate how much we value them being part of our lessons.

We are role models under the microscope in everything we do in the classroom. Never is this more relevant than in the way we talk to our students. Respect has to permeate everything: otherwise we cannot demand that responsive respect from our students. We have to behave with integrity and strive to encourage students to do the same. I am obsessed with “thank you”: as often as possible, as genuinely as possible. It is amazing how quickly students start to mirror this behaviour and can make for a delightful atmosphere.

It is the individual conversations that also have the most impact with our students. It can be difficult to remember to do this in the busy maze of sixty minutes – but seeking out face level, quiet and focussed interactions with individuals pays dividends. Remembering that the first week for a new year is also remarkably stressful for young people has been on the forefront of my mind this week: empathy is so undernourished in dialogue about communication in the classroom. We need to remember that young people, like us, bring a range of complexities into the classroom – understanding this and communicating with them positively has to be our priority.



We all want our classrooms to be positive places, to be places in which the goal is to share successes, to collaboratively recognise positives. I’m sure we can all remember the opposite environment from our own education – one that feels like a constant berating, where from the first minute nothing is good enough. Mine was my math’s lessons, I dreaded going into that room, anxiety dominated and the fear of being wrong was overwhelming. It is my excuse now for being miserable at anything related to maths!

My mission this year is to find the positive, and share as frequently as possible. My Friday afternoon was fairly long but it was also a privilege; two young people from each class whose parents were engaged with positively with a quick five minute phone call. An excuse to invest the time to say lovely things to a parent about their son or daughter can be seem difficult to justify given the multitude of other demands on us, but it pays dividends – both for our students motivation and our own sense of purpose in what we do all week. It also allowed me to discover that one of my Year 7 students is obsessed with reading and read ‘Persuasion’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ over the summer. Fantastic!

Workbooks of the Week has also worked a treat, particularly when I heroically over egged it and coupled the moment of revelation for each group with this fantastic dramatic music! Both strategies also communicate a message to students: I care, I want to share the best of what you are capable of and I want to celebrate that. The notion of Dweck’s growth mindset is everywhere at the moment, modelling and sharing the very best of what students can do is one means to assist in enabling this.

What happens in our classrooms is the real magic, not the walls that surround them. The novelty of a classroom environment quickly wears off. What lasts a year is relationships. They are things of depth, things that have the potential to enable genuine learning. The relationships we form with our students over the next few weeks will provide us with much solace and happiness throughout the year. They are one of the absolute joys of teaching. My classroom is feeling offended so ‘Wordsworth’s Wizards‘ can have the closing thought:



Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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