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Poor start between a class and its teacher almost impossible to rectify

23 October 2009 NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research)

The relationship between a teacher and class is important for the learning achievement of pupils and their pleasure in learning. Dutch researcher Tim Mainhard discovered that these teacher-class relationships are very stable over the course of a school year. Consequently if teachers get off to a bad start, it is almost impossible to put things right.

During four studies in high school classes, Mainhard observed pupils and asked them to complete questionnaires under different circumstances and at different times. Teacher-class relationships were found to be pretty stable. And if they did change then the relationship over the course of a school year was more likely to became worse. This is particularly the case for classes that start the school year with a teacher who exerts little influence on what happens in the class and whose 'proximity' in the class is relatively low. In such cases the quality of the relationship gradually decreases even further.

Relationship more likely to deteriorate than improve
The research revealed that characteristics such as being strict or friendly were appreciated equally by pupils who experienced the teacher for the first time and pupils who had known the teacher longer. This suggests that the teacher-class relationship is established almost immediately during the initial contact. Therefore the most important implication from this study is that it is probably very difficult for a teacher to fundamentally change a disrupted relationship.

And that is a real cause for dismay because a disrupted relationship does not benefit the learning outcomes of pupils. If the teacher has a good relationship with the pupils then their interest for the subject taught is greater, and if the teacher exerts a large influence on what happens in class, the pupils learn more. Therefore trainee teachers who do not have good contact with a class would probably be better off teaching other classes, rather than trying to improve the relationship in a class where things are not going well. Teaching other classes will increase the chance of trainee teachers learning to enlarge their behavioural repertoire.

Coercion and sanctions fail to increase influence
Mainhard advises teachers to try to build up a relationship with a class from the outset that is characterised by a large degree of 'influence' and 'proximity'. The study has also revealed that if the relationship is good, a single poor lesson does not mean that the rest of the school year is 'lost'. Instead the relationship often recovers over the course of a week. The researcher does, however, advise against the frequent use of coercion or sanctions in class. Besides causing clear and immediate damage to the relationship with the class, such measures do nothing to increase the teacher's influence in the class.

The PhD research 'Development of teacher-pupil relationship and the interpersonal teacher's competencies' was funded by the Programme Council for Educational Research, part of NWO.

 

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