How do I build positive relationships in my classroom?

What follows is an entirely personal account, based on experience rather than on any literature or research on the subject. My suggestion is that there are four key cornerstones to positive relationships: communication, honesty, humanity, and positive feedback.


Effective communication is at the heart of all relationships. It is essentially a two-way process and, in the classroom, relies on visual, auditory and kinaesthetic elements.

Also, how we model our expectations is important, both in relation to behaviour and to learning. If we want pupils to cooperate and to engage, then it is essential that we show this in how we communicate to both the pupils and to other adults in the room.

It is crucial that when we are working with other adults, we make sure that we work with them as a team and communicate clearly to all what will be taking place today and how this builds on what we already know and what we will be doing subsequently. Central too is ensuring that other adults and the pupils can have a say and give their views. When giving pupils instructions about what they will be going to do, make sure that this is clear and, ideally, presented in both visual and auditory form.

Modelling is key too. One of the reasons why the ‘I do, we do, you do’ approach is so successful is because it is a multi-sensory approach where the pupils can follow the teacher’s model and then try it out alongside the teacher before working independently. When asked, pupils usually say that they like lessons to be active and interactive. In this way the teacher communicates clearly to them, but they also communicate to the teacher and to one another. Much is often said too about teachers’ subject knowledge. However, more important than that is the extent to which the teacher can communicate their knowledge and explain the subject to the pupils.

We probably all knew teachers with great in-depth knowledge of a subject, such as maths or physics, but who couldn’t communicate that to the pupils. One of the best maths teachers I ever met was a drama specialist. Two factors which contributed to this success were great communication skills and an ability to understand what the pupils did not understand and to represent it in a way which then made sense to them.


A second cornerstone is honesty or truthfulness, coupled with humility and a sense of fairness.

Sometimes pupils ask questions to which we do not know the answer. A careful balance needs to be struck between the teacher appearing to know everything and setting themselves up as a false expert and the teacher who appears to know nothing. Clearly this needs to fall somewhere in the middle, with perhaps the teacher sharing what they do know, but then posing a challenge to the pupils for them to find out for themselves or setting a collaborative task where the pupils and teacher find out together.

As a student I was puzzled about a particular aspect of neurophysiology and eventually plucked up the courage to tell the seemingly omniscient professor that I did not understand it. At that point the professor was honest and explained that nobody really knew the answer as this was still being researched. His honesty helped to build his relationships with his students.

Sometimes too, pupils may feel that the teacher is not being honest about why a particular topic is being covered and may fail to see its relevance. On these occasions it may be appropriate to explain that we are covering it because it is in the exam specification and may be useful in certain, but not all, future careers. A recent example was a group of Year 11 pupils who could not see the relevance of trigonometry.

Another element of honesty is to act impartially and fairly. Sometimes, it is easy to jump into dealing with a situation, say of a dispute between pupils, without taking time to establish the truth and reacting too quickly on the basis of the pupils’ reputations. Pupils often comment that ‘it wasn’t fair’ because the teacher did not weigh up both sides of the situation.


Another aspect of building relationships relates to humanity. To understand the human side of something and to relate to it personally can help to make the content interesting. It is important too for pupils to know who their adult allies are, so that they have someone to go to should they be worried or anxious about anything, related both to their learning and to their personal development.

However, while it is important for pupils to understand that teachers are people too and, therefore, have feelings and lives out of school, they can easily be irritated by staff who talk too much about their families or their personal circumstances. This can be seen as a distraction from the content of the lesson and from understanding how life looks from a pupil’s viewpoint. Similarly, pupils may not want teachers to know too much about their own circumstances or to try and pretend to be one of them.

Understanding things from a human perspective is one thing but overstepping the mark as a professional person will not help to form positive relationships with pupils.

Positive Feedback

Finally, meaningful positive praise and helpful feedback are crucial and help pupils to feel valued and valuable.

There should be no put downs or responses from the teacher that makes pupils feel belittled. Encouraging pupils to give one another positive praise and feedback is also helpful. Pupils need training to do this successfully though, otherwise they can be tempted to say to a peer that something is wonderful when it is not.

The teacher may also be tempted to give praise indiscriminately. A book littered with ‘well done’ will not help a pupil to make progress, especially if the pupil knows that what they did was not done well. So, it is best when feedback, whether oral or written, makes it clear what the pupil has done well.

Similarly, a comment such as ‘untidy work’ will not usually help a pupil to make their work any neater, especially if the pupil has difficulties with fine motor skills. Again, a modelled example is likely to be more effective here.

Recognition of the positive aspects of a pupil’s achievement, will also make it easier for the pupil to react well and improve their work and will help to build their resilience as a learner.

Central foundation

If these aspects are the cornerstones, then the central foundation to all positive relationships is mutual respect.

This means that for the pupils to respect us, we need to respect them, whoever they are and whatever challenges they might bring to our classrooms.

Sometimes, pupils will arrive and the last thing they will show us is respect. If we have never met them before, then it is important not to take this personally as this behaviour will arise from previous negative encounters with adults or their need not to lose face with their peers.

Crucially we are the adults in charge, so we need to remain calm and positive in how we respond. That does not mean that the behaviour goes unchallenged, but that the way it is challenged makes it clear to the pupils that such behaviour is unacceptable.

Care needs to be taken that any sanctions do not escalate too quickly up the hierarchy and that transgressions are dealt with in a relaxed and gentle way.

In the past, young teachers in some of the tougher schools were told by more seasoned colleagues, to be very strict and stern and just to pick on anybody, irrespective of what they had or hadn’t done, and to deal out the sanctions. The notion was that such a brutal response would engender fear, so they wouldn’t step out of line after that. I doubt it rarely worked and would just create further confrontation.

One of the most successful teachers of challenging pupils I have ever met was an older, physically disabled woman. She was always very calm and listened to the pupils. Without doubt, they respected her and relationships with her pupils were consistently positive.


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