Every now and then I come across the argument that the success or failure of a teacher is due to the quality of their relationships with students. Poor behaviour? Ineffective lessons? “It’s all about relationships.”*
Most people are incapable of maintaining much more than 50 relationships and the number of people we actively care about tends to be far fewer. Most of the people we encounter we know slightly if at all. How then do we contend with the Hobbesian idea that the natural human condition is a “war of all against all”? Why don’t we just take what we want from those weaker than us and gang up on those we fear in order to overpower them? What stops our lives from being “nasty, brutish and short”? In Hobbes’ view we maintain standards of order and public decency because of the imposition of law. Essentially, self-regulation is enforced. If we can’t or won’t regulate our behaviour to fit within societal norms, we’re sanctioned until we change or until we’re no longer a threat to the smooth running of society.
I have an expectation that I can buy things from shops without being cheated, that I can walk down the street without being assaulted and that my home is inviolate. Thankfully, none of this depends of the quality of my relationships. Clearly, the relationships I have with my neighbours and others within my community matter. If the street floods – as it sometimes does in heavy rain – we all pull together to unblock the drains. We tend to respect the parking spaces immediately in front of each others’ entrances, and tsk at incomers who know no better. Sometimes we invite each other round for food or drinks. Maintaining these relationships greases the wheels of our community. But without the backstop of law and order, our fragile community could easily descend into a war of all against all.
Schools provide a microcosm of wider society. As well as the expectation that they provide an academic education, schools are also a training ground for civilised discourse and cultural participation. The children are the governed and the adults are the forces of Leviathan: making and enforcing law, maintaining order and ensuring justice. Because children are still learning about how to fit in we cut them a lot of slack. We help them manage their reactions when they feel angry, hurt or disappointed and, generally, hold them to lower standards than those to which they’ll be held when they enter the adult world.
Relationships between adults and children within school communities matter as much as they do anywhere else. Children will like some teachers more than others; teachers may also have favourites. This will, no doubt, effect the quality of interactions between them and I would accept that children will probably learn more from those teachers they respect and who they believe respect them. The point is this: the quality of children’s education should not rest on the quality of their individual relationships with their teachers. We tend to accept that teachers ought to provide the same education to all their pupils regardless of whether of not they like some children more than others. Likewise, we should expect that children treat all adults (and all other children) with the same basic respect regardless of their relationship. We might be nicer to those we like, but if there’s not an expected standard of decency for all, then children will quickly learn that they are allowed to choose where and how they behave based on their whims and preferences. This is not a good life lesson.
Sadly though, it is an attitude that’s sometimes encouraged by school leaders. I recently encountered a school leader saying that at his school there are no behaviour problems in either the English or maths departments because the teachers in those departments give up their lunch times to work on their relationships with students. I think there’s a lot wrong with this view.
If teachers need to give up their lunch in order for this to happen we can infer that good behaviour is not the norm. The implication is that behaviour is worse in areas of the school where teachers don’t make this sacrifice. If this is the case, then the senior leaders in this school have abrogated their responsibility to maintain an effective behaviour policy. If there are pockets of good behaviour in a school this will be due to pockets of effective leadership – either by classroom teachers or middle leaders. Good schools are ones where students and teachers can expect a minimum standard of respect whoever they are and whoever they interact with. This depends on school leaders doing the hard work of ensuring these standards are met. When basic respect is guaranteed, relationships can flourish and schools can become the joyful communities we would all wish them to be.
*Interestingly, I rarely hear anyone claim that children’s outcomes are “all about relationships.” Perhaps this seems a step too far?