Cheers to tough love

On Friday night, I kicked back with some lovely champagne, which was a gift to me from a student. As the year wraps up, I have been given a few little treats from students; mostly chocolates. Thankfully, one student bucked this trend and went for an alcoholic treat. Cheers!

What’s most rewarding, though, is the cards or letters they write to me. No one ever comments about literacy skills they’ve acquired throughout the year, or a specific mark they got for an assessment. No one reminisces back to exams or NAPLAN. What the cards tend to say is more focused on emotions and relationships. I am so heartened to hear that the student has felt safe, respected and valued. I also feel a great sense of pride when they tell me they have felt challenged and have achieved their goals in my class.

Teaching can be fast-paced and downright hectic. Sadly, as Jane Carro writes, “teachers have little time and energy for doing what actually helps kids to learn – and that is making learning creative, unexpected and fun.”  It is unsurprising that teacher-student relationships suffer as well, as “teachers must now spend so much time filling in forms, creating portfolios, describing classroom activities, undertaking risk assessments, justifying their existence and worrying about reporting their ‘outcomes’.”

OK, I often say to myself, deep breaths. Step away from the emails. Step away from the planning and the edu-related websites. Let’s focus on one of the key parts of this job: relationships.

In John Hattie’s article, What Everyone Needs to Know About High-Performance, Teacher Student Relationships, he asserts that “strong teacher student relationships are crucial… and teachers who actively build such relationships have a strong effect on the lives of their students.”

According to Hattie’s research, the three keys to caring relationships are;

  1. Warmth – accept your students for who they are and care for them as a good parent cares for their child. Show them that they are important to you.
  2. Empathy – understand how your students think and feel about what is going on around them.
  3. Time – take the time to physically and mentally present when talking with your students.

This may not seem surprising news at all. However, I think it’s vital to remember that the good results will not just come from a warm smile or inquisitive conversation about Joanie’s pony club meeting on the weekend. What really makes the difference is not only caring, but also pressing students to do well. This comes down to your unwavering belief that the students can succeed, and your ability to press them to do it.


Hattie goes on to describe four key relational styles. I’ve pasted these style descriptions here directly from the article:

  • Authoritarian teachers show high amounts of press and low amounts of care. While they may want students to learn, they view their relationships with students as an us-vs-them phenomenon, where it is important for them to come out on top. Authoritarian teachers are rigid, and value rules for rule’s sake. They often overact to small infringements, and they are sometimes sarcastic and cynical.
  • Friendly teachers show a high degree of care but a low amount of press. While they may care deeply about students’ self-esteem, they misguidedly accept minimal effort and mediocre work. Friendly teachers let their belief in student-directed learning prevent them from giving students the instruction and guidance they need. This often leads to chaotic classrooms and students working independently on tasks they have not been shown how to do.
  • Aloof teachers show low amounts of press and low amounts of care. While they may go through the motions of teaching, they do so mindlessly. They are often apathetic and indifferent, as their minds are elsewhere – think Bad Teacher. Aloof teachers don’t seek conflict with kids, yet their indifference and lack of structure lead students to act out. Then, over-reactions, escalating conflict and passive-aggressive behaviour often follow.
  • Teachers who forge high-performance relationships care for their students while simultaneously pressing them to excel. They have a passionate desire to help students learn and improve, which leads them to demand high standards of behaviour and effort. Yet, they also value their kids as people and take an interest in their lives. These teachers provide their students with strong guidance (both academically and behaviourally), while also nurturing personal responsibility and self-regulation.

Let’s use the proverb, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink’ as an example. In a school context, imagine this horse is a student. The Authoritarian teacher might yell at the horse to drink. The Friendly teacher might sit down next to the horse and discuss the weather. The Aloof teacher might stroll away thinking their duties are complete; after all, they did lead the horse there.

Finally, the high-performance relational style teacher would not stop believing, caring and pressing the horse to drink, no matter how long it took. But there would be a warmth to this pressure, a sort of ‘tough love.’


While there are so many other components to teaching, if I can make high-performance relationships the foundation of my teaching, I know I am heading in the right direction.



One thought on “Cheers to tough love

  1. I am glad that you’re so devoted to creating multifaceted, positive working relationships with your kids. I am a social worker and will use your insights with my clients, such as focusing on warmth, empathy and remembering that relationships take time.

    Liked by 1 person

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