When I came to Finland for my Master studies, I wanted to research about a topic that already intrigued me in Brazil when I was working as school psychologist in a rural school of Ceará.
I was interested in understanding how some teachers managed to have such a good relationship with their students, which impacted positively on the students’ learning; while other teachers struggled with it. By good relationship I mean when teachers and students are focused on teaching and learning the content while they are also relaxed. Spontaneous actions such as jokes, laughs, personal reflections, and life stories’ sharing color the interactions and are important parts of the education process. I could observe that the students were more focused on the content when they had such a good relationship with the teachers, than when they did not. I could also see how this impacted on the teachers’ satisfaction regarding their work from the way they talked about it.
In Brazil I had already started searching for answers. I asked one of the best teachers of the school: “what took you to develop such good relationships with this group of students?”. The answer was more complex than I thought. The teacher explained that once she had a fight with one of the students, and that fight impacted the whole classroom atmosphere. The relations were stuck and she felt anxious just with the thought of going to teach there. One day, she decided to change things and she organized a day just for playing video games with them. They had a lot of fun together and after that, things changed from water to wine. They became a class very united and cared for each other. Sometimes, the teacher said, it was even too much, because she was emotionally too involved with the students and when something happened to them (e.g. a family member passed away), she would feel the pain for all of them. And sometimes this was overwhelming.
The lesson I learned was that teachers are constantly learning from daily classroom situations about how to relate better with their students. I understood that developing relationships with students cannot be taken for granted and it takes a lot of time and effort. And it might need surprising actions that do not even have an education purpose per se, but are focused exclusively on the human relations of the group. And sometimes it might cost too much emotional involvement for the teacher. I wanted to find a balance on this equation and I decided to look for it in Finland during my Master program.
In Finland, I have visited some schools, participated in classes and facilitated workshops. Mostly I’ve observed classroom activities and interviewed teachers about their routines. By the end of my Master program, I developed with Havu-Nuutinen and Go the exploratory framework Teachers learn by interacting that attempts to represent how teachers constantly learn how to build positive interactions with their students. According to the developed framework,
1. Teachers need to be motivated to learn about supporting their students’ growth;
2. They also need self-efficacy beliefs to overcome the challenges they will face when learning on how to support the individual learning paths of their students.
3. Both their motivation and efficacy beliefs activate a broad range of learning strategies. “Everyday practices of providing emotional support to pupils, such as (1) showing sensitivity, (2) building a positive climate, and (3) taking the pupils’ perspective into account were the most important actions reported by the participants.” (Leite et al., 2020). First, showing sensitivity means to be attentive to pupils’ academic and socio-emotional levels of functioning and actively respond to them. Second, building positive climate is done through horizontal conversations, trust, and life history sharing. Third, actively promoting dialogues and seeking feedback are powerful strategies to account for students’ perspectives.
4. Surprisingly, the study also revealed that teachers’ “learning processes support their interactions with pupils, but do not radically alter their interactions over time, because these interactions are actually grounded in their identity as a teacher and as a person” (Leite et al., 2020). Therefore, how teachers see themselves as responsible for promoting their students’ growth and how much engaged they are in learning about how they can do it, ultimately create authentic interactions between teachers and students that develops into positive and good relationships.
By the end of my Master, this framework represented a sort of teacher toolkit comprising “transferable skills that support a deep pedagogical understanding of the learner and his/her individual learning process.” (Leite et al., 2020). However, it is important to consider that “engaging and sustaining positive relationships in an everyday manner can be supported not only by personal factors, but structural factors as well. ” (Leite et al., 2020). Such structural factors in Finland are well developed and available for school teachers here. The challenge is to promote change at organizational level in education systems that, sometimes, burden teachers’ work instead of supporting it.
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Leite, L. O., Go, W., & Havu-Nuutinen, S. (2020). Exploring the Learning Process of Experienced Teachers Focused on Building Positive Interactions with Pupils. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 1-15.