Julianna Libro

What teachers need now to survive (hint: not this old trick)

The advice given to teachers entering the classroom for the first time is often ‘Don’t smile until Easter’. The expression suggests hostility, attempting to place the teacher as the enforcer and the one who will wield the power for the year. 

While the phrase might still ring true for some teachers, we, as teachers, are dealing with very different classrooms and students today that require a more socio-emotional approach. Classrooms are more heterogeneous than ever; the breadth of diversity and needs of students has grown. Students are entering the classroom with ever more diagnosed and undiagnosed disabilities, and growing wellbeing issues. 

The classroom can and should provide a warm, safe learning environment where students feel known and cared for. And whilst such an approach is highly applicable in primary schools, it also has its place in secondary classrooms. 

Teaching is social and emotional

We know teaching is a social and emotional practice, and using the first weeks of the term to build positive connections with students can have long term benefits for both teachers and students. Research tells us that positive teacher-student relationships can assist positive social and emotional development in students; influence student motivation and engagement; improve academic outcomes;  support at-risk students; provide a sense of belonging for students; and are beneficial for teachers and their wellbeing. The research is there, but how do teachers build these relationships in the classroom, especially in secondary schools when teachers often teach up to 180 students per week?

My research into teacher-student interactions in the classroom, collected data from 42 teachers across NSW secondary schools, covering all sectors and spanning 17 disciplines. I was curious to know how teachers interact with students in their classrooms to build teacher-student relationships and whether a teachers’ workload may be compromising these relationships. Many of the practices observed and counted are evidence-informed and low cost, high gain. The practices were split into those that teachers can proactively implement directly and those that indirectly contribute to creating and maintaining an optimal learning environment. 

Eye-contact, a warm voice and good manners

The early findings give insights into how teachers are navigating the classroom and their relational interactions with students (Figure 1). Highest counts came from teachers providing genuine praise, modelling respect, reflective and supportive listening, getting to know students and providing feedback. Teachers effectively used praise during lessons for positive behaviour, academic work and actions of individuals or a collective group. They modelled respect through eye-contact, a warm voice and good manners. Supportive and reflective listening through shared dialogue was characterised by teachers reflecting on a student’s thought or idea by supportively listening, then converting that thinking into further thinking and inquiry. Feedback came in the form of verbal advice to students of ways to improve and develop their thoughts. And teachers shared stories of themselves, and used familiar ‘teenage’ or contemporary examples to explain work or reference a students’ interest, to demonstrate knowing their students. 

Figure 1: Counted practices

Hello and goodbye

Two of the simplest techniques, positive greetings and farewells, which were only counted once per lesson, recorded one the lowest of counts. Over a third of teachers didn’t positively greet their students and a quarter of teachers didn’t finish the lesson with a positive farewell. This could reflect a number of things prevalent in the observation of lessons and the teacher interviews; the constant time constraints that teachers face such as the need to work through content or towards an assessment meant that teachers started lessons immediately with little personalisation; or the time it takes to travel to a new classroom each lesson, provide paper, pens and equipment for students, and student lateness often chewed up the time to genuinely greet students. The lack of time to build quality relationships was evidently a major concern for teachers in post interviews, claiming:

 “It’s a bit more of a lack of a chance to talk with them. There’s a lot of…’everything needs to be doing’ things all of the time and that lack of…slowdown to sort of have a chat with them and see them as people, to get them to see you as a person”. (Teacher 21)

“I wish that I had more time to interact with them in the classroom and I wish I had more time to interact with their drafts and things like that and give them that timely feedback. And I think that the fact that I don’t. I just have to go “You’ll be ok”  that makes me feel like I’m not doing enough for them.” (Teacher 28 )

What gets in the way

Many of the lower counts came from interpersonal practices that teachers adopt and can indirectly affect the teacher-student relationship and shape the learning climate (see red in Figure 1). These teacher actions can be done before and during the lesson. They help structure the learning environment, set the expectations and manage students positively. It is a way for teachers to bolster student confidence, build trust, and set and uphold classroom expectations. None of the 42 teachers in this study found time to write in a diary or provide a positive note to parents during the two observed lessons. Instead, time was taken up with constantly documenting student misbehaviour and negative incidences, all of which must be logged. A teacher reported:

I try to make a phone call to parents and say this kid has been good, but I just don’t have the time. I have 3 or 4 ‘negative’ calls to make, to inform a parent that their child is not working in class. (Teacher 23)

What do teachers value

Secondary school lessons can range from 40 to 75 minutes with the expectation that students sit still for the duration of the lesson. Studies show that small movement breaks contribute to less disruptions and better student concentration. Lesson time is often the most inactive part of a student’s day at school with the expectation, in a traditional sense, that students sit, listen and partake in learning. Three quarters of teachers provided no movement breaks during their lessons, even when observing students falling asleep and heads on table. Many lessons observed lacked peer collaborative strategies and student choice of their learning which can contribute to student motivation. Teachers reported resorting to ‘lecture style’ teaching or ‘talk-and-chalk’ due to the demands of additional work or workload which took away from planning and preparing for more engaging, student-centred lessons.  

Teachers were also asked what they value in their teaching, with 42.9% stating relationships, and 57.1%  stating other factors such as the curriculum, getting through the content, planning and preparation, and student understanding. Many of these teachers, speaking about how they form relationships with students, were unclear how this happens, whilst others spoke about specific tasks they may do at the beginning of the year as a way of getting to know their students.


These involved asking students to write introductory letters; informing students about yourself and your interests; learning their names and using them regularly; collaborative making of classroom rules, goals and expectations; playing ‘getting to know others’ bingo; or general discussions, either as a group or individually about likes, dislikes, interests etc. Much of the research, using student voice, reported care as a quality students want to see in teachers often commenting that the teacher doesn’t know them personally. Students also respect teacher competence; not being able to ‘run the room’ can be the quickest way to lose the students. 

Teachers influence their students, not only through their pedagogy and behaviour, but also in teaching and modelling social and emotional constructs. Creating positive teacher-student relationships is not about making friends. As the adults in the room, teachers instruct, direct and guide their students and their behaviour, not hesitating when difficulties arise. But also as the adult and leader in the room, teachers can help students feel safe, known and cared for, something which might not be happening at home.

Smile on day one?

So perhaps standing by the belief of  “Don’t smile until Easter” is an outdated adage. Instead, bring the humanness back to teaching; show a little of yourself, bring humour, get to genuinely know students and show you care. Underpin this with established routines and structure, transparency and predictability, and trust, to create a conducive learning environment that builds strong teacher-student relationships.  

Julianna Libro is a PhD candidate at The University of Sydney. She is interested in teachers’ growing workload and the consequences this has on teachers themselves, their practice and relationships with students. Julianna has over 20 years teaching experience in secondary schools as an English and History teacher and has taken on a variety of leadership roles throughout her career. Recently, Julianna presented her initial findings at ICERI Conference in Seville, Spain and AARE, Melbourne.