Teach First

Success in the most challenging schools - the power of building relationships

Our ‘Outliers’ project sought to understand why some teachers succeed in the most challenging schools. Interviews with twenty-five participants (and two colleagues of each) highlighted the importance of an underlying vision. Three things helped them realise this vision: resilience, relationship building and a drive to excel. Twenty-two teachers emphasised relationships: this post explores their beliefs and behaviours.

“I can see the potential that’s there”, Liza told us. “I really, really like the kids at the school. I think that they have had a really raw deal in life in general and because of the state of the school and because of their behaviour they just see teachers walk away all the time.” Her statement exemplifies the nineteen case studies in which attitudes of care and empathy emerged, alongside belief in students’ potential and enjoyment of working with them. These attitudes seemed to underpin teachers’ ability to build strong relationships with young people.

“All they want is to be appreciated and liked, and loved”, Kyra believed, a sentiment echoed by thirteen interviewees. Ollie was one; he described “letting them know that I’m here to support them and just keep telling them that until they realise.” Enjoying working with students was mentioned by five teachers, including Darren: “I enjoy the kids. I don't know what they're going to say or do... you've got to have your heart in it and have good relationships with the kids...” Samantha’s colleague explained that she “really does love working with young people … it is what really gives her the buzz. I think that that has enabled her to keep going or to be positive because that’s the side of things that she enjoys, the pastoral side of it.”

A number of outliers articulated empathy and belief in students’ potential. Adita was one of eight who discussed empathy: “I know what it’s like on the other end when you’re not supported” she explained, so she “can relate to students quite easily.” Three other teachers referred to the help their background provided in ensuring they could empathise, including Darren: “I would say that set me up well, because… I understood where they were from... you really need to understand their backgrounds...” Belief in students’ potential was emphasised in five cases: Ollie said he would “never lose faith” in a challenging student; “when he decides that he wants to come and learn, I think I’m ready and I will always be there.”

Outliers put their beliefs into action: in seventeen cases we identified specific ways in which they built relationships. Some interviewees described teachers ‘building relationships naturally’, others described high expectations, carefully chosen actions and seeing students’ points of view.

For some teachers, relationship-building seemed to come naturally. One of these eleven was Josh, described as “very patient and very kind... and I think the kids really respond”. Kyra was “people-focused,” demonstrated “endless positivity” and patience, “never blaming them or becoming frustrated”. Ollie was considered “full of life” and “charismatic”. In three cases, outliers were described as intuitively understanding students’ feelings: having worked in primary schools previously, Liza “had an understanding of what made children tick and how to engage with them and talk to them properly.”

Other interviewees described intentional approaches to building relationships. Liza explained it was “impossible” for her to identify with students from backgrounds so different from her own, so she set out to “find out as much about my students and their lives as I can.” Two teachers referred to attending students’ sport matches, while Cathy talked about holding individual conversations, talking on students’ level and employing humour. Peter noted the importance of: “ensuring that if [the students] feel like you don’t like them or don’t care about them, going out of your way to make sure that they know that that’s not true.”

Josh was one of eight outliers who set out to listen to and empathise with his students; he explained that: “once you take into account some of the problems and issues they [the students] have, it makes things easier and you can understand some of the actions you choose to make.” Warner believed that relating to students as people was a prerequisite if they did not already care about maths. Three teachers described setting out to be open, including Eleanor, who advised: “Don’t try and create a barrier because they’ve got enough barriers, some of these kids, they don’t need more. Open yourself up a little bit.” Five outliers emphasised that a sense of a shared background helped them to empathise with their students.

Deliberately seeking to improve relationships was not at the expense of holding students to high standards; for nine outliers, relationship-building was specifically marked by high expectations and consistency. Teachers were ‘supportive adults’, not ‘friends’: Sara’s Teaching Assistant said she struck the “fine balance” between being caring and ensuring lessons were productive. Amanda was described as “very strict with them and I think they like that boundary.” Eleanor was “Very warm... very friendly,” while insisting on the highest standards: “it’s something she calls a quality audience... the kids know exactly what that means.... the kids know that she is very, very strict, but they really like that... they do like it because they’re making loads of progress.”

Actively building relationships was crucial to teachers’ success in the most challenging schools. A basis of care, enjoyment, empathy and belief, informed intentional relationship building combined with high expectations. Not only did these relationships help ensure students learned, they reinforced teachers’ sense of mission and made their resilience worthwhile.

Blogposts summarising other aspects of the Outliers study:

All names have been changed.