The teacher-student relationship: What if you don’t click?

The teacher-student relationship: What if you don't click?How to say this? You do your best for every student,  but you find it much easier to form emotional bonds or connections with some students rather than others, as uncomfortable as it makes you feel to admit this.

A new study in The Elementary School Journal says this is nothing to be concerned about as long as you have a good “working alliance” with all of your students.

Research repeatedly shows that students’ relationships with teachers are critical for social and emotional well-being, academic performance and sense of belonging. But this relationship mostly has been characterized as an emotional bond of liking, connectedness and absence of conflict.  It’s time to expand our concept of the student-teacher relationship to one that is focused on collaboration and learning goals, according to the authors.

“When relationship is defined exclusively as an emotional connection (e.g., liking, bond), we may be overlooking the potential difficulties that teachers and students have in forming these connections,” they write.

To help educators reconceptualize the teacher-student relationship, researchers adapted the Working Alliance Inventory (WAI), an instrument from the counseling field, for use in the classroom. The relationship between therapist and patient is critical to effective treatment. The WAI is based on 3 interdependent components:

  • Bond–positive and emotional attachments based on mutual trust, liking, respect and caring
  • Task–the more cognitive and collaborative aspects of a relationship such as understanding and agreement on task relevance and willingness to complete tasks that relate to goals
  • Goal–the degree to which both parties develop shared objectives based on individual needs.


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Researchers tested the effectiveness of the Classroom Working Alliance Inventory (CWAI) as a measure of the working relationship between teachers and students with a sample of 430 3rd grade students and 33 teachers in a Florida school district.  Both teachers and students answered different a 12-item questionnaires.  Teachers completed the teacher version and students completed a student version.

Researchers determined that a 2-factor model–emotional bond and collaboration–was most appropriate for the classroom. Evaluation of tasks and goals are so intertwined with the classroom that they can be folded into the concept of “collaboration”, according to the researchers.

“The obvious impact of teacher-student relationships on students’ functioning makes it imperative that teacher professional development emphasizes the importance of understanding and promoting relationship.”

“Reconceptualizing Teacher-student Relationships, Applicability of the Working Alliance within Classroom Contexts,” by Jessica Toste et al., The Elementary School Journal, 2015, Volume 116, Number 1, pp. 30-48.

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