The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Mel Greenwood

Using a relationships-first approach in the classroom

Prioritising strong relationships with pupils creates happy and eager learners, argues Mel Greenwood. She explains how to build and nurture connections with pupils.

One of my favourite things to do is share a book with a class of eager listeners. Great literature really does provide an in' for talking about a whole number of things.

One of the most impactful books I have used with a class of children recently is Have you filled a bucket today by Carol McCloud. This book generated so much conversation and action about how to support others in their pursuit of happiness. Watching a year group of 60 running around school with notes of gratitude for admin staff, teachers, and other students is truly exhilarating. The joy that can be observed when our young people have space to invest time in forming and nurturing strong relationships with their peers and the adults around them is second to none.

Relationships first, everything else second

This is a commitment to building strong, empathetic, nurturing relationships before we begin putting pen to paper or think about facilitating a lesson. Beyond that, it is ensuring that we are inclusive, that we focus on modelling and nurturing virtues and that we treat all our learners with equality first and equity second. 

Does everyone have equal access to learning and do they have what they need to learn? Building strong relationships with every young person you interact with will help you answer that question. We must ensure that EVERYONE feels safe and welcome and wanted so that they are able to learn.

A relationships-first approach means that when we challenge poor behavioural choices, we have a strong relationship base to back us up.

What does a relationship-first approach look like?

I have had the privilege and pleasure of working with several incredible practitioners that exude what it means to focus on relationships first. 

Below is what I see when I am with them.

  • Smiles and warmth flowing from their pores. Open arms and hearts ready for anything the day may throw at them.
  • A willingness to listen and give up time for the young people they work with and their colleagues. A willingness to find time on a busy day, even if it means they must shuffle things around in their own timetables.
  • Presence. They are everywhere and always have a wave and a kind word for everyone they meet, even when rushing to get a coffee in the morning before lessons start!
  • A genuine interest in those around them. An eagerness to ask questions only when they are truly able to give time over to listening.
  • Greeting their students at their doors by the name they wish to be known by.
  • Openness: they share when they are having a bad day. They apologise for raising their voice or grunting in reply to a ‘hello’. They recognise they are not perfect and they are honest about that. 
  • An eagerness to get involved when they are on break duty by joining in with football with Year 9, kicking leaves with Year 1 or having a chat with someone who looks a little lonely.
  • Having a quiet conversation when things go wrong. Not making children stand up in assemblies for talking, not chastising in front of the class and not using sarcasm to belittle.

We must ensure that everyone feels safe and welcome and wanted so that they are able to learn.

I want to pick up on a point from above and elaborate on this: openness. We are not perfect. We are not machines and we cannot exude positivity at all times.

That is why one of the most important things to consider in nurturing a relationship-first approach is openness and honesty. Openness and honesty with ourselves and with others, including those that we teach.

A simple ‘I am sorry, I raised my voice because I was frustrated’, or ‘I’m sorry I didn’t say hello when I saw you yesterday but I was late for my meeting’  can go a long way to not only rebuilding relationships but nurturing them also.

What does a relationships-first day look like?

  • Showing your availability as pupils enter school. This may be standing at the door welcoming them into class, roaming the corridors with a good morning smile for everyone or working in an office with the door open.
  • Ensuring that all learners are entering tidy classrooms with activities ready. Does everyone seem ready and happy? Do you think any students need specific support and attention before they start learning?
  • Using patient voices and raising your voice only when the environment is unsafe and therefore it is imperative that you do so. 
  • Allowing students a chance to share and open up. This could be through a morning meeting, show and tell or opportunities for open dialogue during form times or at the end of the day.
  • Ensuring that your children and young people feel welcome in their environment and own it. This could be as simple as having a wall where children can pin photographs of their families or of them doing fun things out of school. 
  • Playing and joining in with whatever is going on when you are on break duty and removing yourself from student spaces when you are not and you need a quiet break!
  • Being inclusive in your practices. Ask yourself if you are advocating for all your young people, treating them with equality of opportunity regardless of sex, ability, race etc. 
  • Asking for feedback. Do learners have ideas about changes that would support them to feel more welcome and valued?
  • Creating group bonds between the students in your classes. How much do we really know about each other's strengths and passions? Allow time for the sharing of stories and building culture. 

Building great relationships means that it is easier and more effective when we provide challenges to our children and young people. Boundaries are important and integral to building a community based on respect for one another, for ourselves and for our environment. 

A relationships-first approach means that when we challenge poor behavioural choices, we have a strong relationship base to back us up. Repairing fractured or strained relationships then becomes easier because we have shared experiences and developed relationships already.

We are endlessly busy in this profession and sometimes the narrative that we hear is based solely around progress and attainment but, in my experience, gathered over the years, a real, intentional, genuine focus on building strong relationships first means that our learners are ready and eager to learn.

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