OPINION: My main area of research is student motivation and engagement. Motivation is students’ inclination, interest, energy and enthusiasm to learn and achieve. Engagement refers to the behaviours (such as persistence and effort) that emanate from this motivation.

Increasingly, our research is demonstrating the substantial role that teacher-student relationships play in facilitating students’ motivation and engagement. Put simply, the extent to which students are receptive to anything a teacher may say or do to motivate and engage them will rely heavily on the relationship the teacher has developed with the students.

In our research program we have found that good teacher-student relationships are significantly associated with students’ self-confidence, valuing of school, positive goals, learning focus, planning, educational aspirations, class participation and persistence. We have also found good teacher-student relationships are associated with lower anxiety, fear of failure, and disengagement.

Indeed, our research has suggested that the role of teacher-student relationships is independent of the role that parents and caregivers play in impacting students’ academic motivation and engagement. Teachers are not a seven-hour Band-Aid that is undone once a child gets home from school: the teacher’s influence is unique and ongoing.

Now here’s the catch: teachers can’t set aside 4-6 weeks at the start of every academic year getting to know every child in the classroom. The curriculum and associated accountabilities march on and teachers cannot afford to fall behind.

Thus, the challenge is for teachers to embed relationships into the everyday course of their pedagogy – from day one. This is no easy task.

The other challenge is that teacher-student relationships are multi-faceted. In fact, there are three key facets to teacher-student relationships:

  • The interpersonal relationship (the student connecting with WHO the teacher is as a person);

  • The substantive relationship (the student connecting with WHAT the teacher is saying and the tasks assigned by the teacher); and,

  • The pedagogical relationship (the student connecting with HOW the teacher communicates the subject matter and assigns the tasks to be accomplished).

We refer to this type of relational instruction as “connective instruction”. In fact, we liken a great lesson to a great musical composition: it takes a great singer (WHO), a great song (WHAT) and great singing (HOW).

When a student connects with the teacher and teaching on all three dimensions, there is truly a great teacher-student relationship happening in the learning context. That is when students are most likely to be motivated and engaged.

Andrew Martin is a Professor of Educational Psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW.

This is an excerpt from a panel discussion on 'What makes a good teacher?' first published in The Conversation.