The Importance of Relationships in Teacher to Pupil Connections

Michele Heimbauer, MA CCC-SLP
Associate Director, Winston Innovation Lab

Beginning in 2013, WPS kicked off the Lives Over Time study (LOTS). The study explores the post-high school experiences of our alumni. Our goal was to better understand what factors promote success and life satisfaction.
Lives Over Time Study (LOTS)

Winston Prep leaders work to integrate the findings of this ongoing, longitudinal study into our professional development. This is the case not only for the WPS community, but at professional education conferences.

We take pride in sharing our findings and how we apply what we’ve learned to our current programming. The Winston Prep community has already shared our data with educators and administrators at the local, national, and even international levels.

Implication of Findings: Relationships Matter

When we analyze the survey results collected, what emerges is a clear pattern. Our students not only value feeling connected with their instructors, their success depends on it. 

Students who reported having at least one supportive teacher in addition to having a supportive homelife develop strong social-emotional skills. You can find these skills outlined in WPS’s Qualities of a Sustainable and Independent Learner (QSIL) framework. When these skills remain strong throughout a student’s experience, they are more likely to achieve and report positive life satisfaction.

Building Student-Teacher Relationships

Establishing rapport is an important first step in building student-teacher relationships. Ask questions to learn about students’ lives and share bits about yourself as well. 

It is especially helpful if instructors highlight and build upon genuine connecting moments -- you love lizards?! Me too! And then share a photo of your pet bearded dragon. 

Sharing articles or photos with individual students based upon their interests and offering follow-up questions. For example: I remember you mentioned that you had a piano recital this past weekend; how did it go? Good luck on that job interview tomorrow! 

Send the message that someone is listening to them. Let them know they are appreciated as a whole person (not just a student in the classroom), and they matter. 

Demonstrating that the instructor understands and supports their students' lives beyond the classroom establishes that important connection between teachers and students.

Boast About It: The Power of Praise in Our Community

One particular form of praise also seems to be particularly effective in contributing to strengthening those teacher-student relationships. At WPS, a student’s team of instructors are in constant communication with one another throughout the day. When a student experiences success in a class, the teacher shares it with the team. 

Later in the day, a teacher in a different class will highlight that success. For example, “Hey Ash!  I heard you independently applied the DEC strategy to fully respond to questions in science class earlier today! Would you be willing to kick off our writing segment? Start by talking through how you would apply the DEC strategy to our history question.” 

Or, “Amari, Ms. H shared that you showed great Resilience when solving that challenging math problem. You must have felt so proud!” 

Hearing that a student’s teachers are ‘boasting’ to one another about them fosters those meaningful connections between students and teachers.

Feeling Understood

Understanding each student’s individual learning profile is also how we build student-teacher connections at WPS. This understanding begins in the admissions process and continues to deepen throughout the student life cycle at Winston Prep. 

Winston Innovation Lab and campus leaders provide faculty with year-long professional learning opportunities. They support understanding and application of the neuropsychological paradigm of learning and learning disorders.   

Our instructors are continually having conversations with their students about how their brains work. They emphasize why certain skills are challenging, and how we should approach remediation specifically based upon that understanding. These conversations empower students. 

Learners know their instructors are working intentionally to support the development of skills particularly pertaining to them. They are aware of their inclusion in the conversation of ‘why’ and ‘how’ this happens. This leads to students feeling better understood.

When that feeling is realized, we see students’ shoulders drop, and an openness to taking academic risks appears. They’re willing to put themselves out there and approach challenges with resilience, knowing that their teacher is their champion.

Empowering Students with Independence

Effective feedback and guided reflection is one of the cornerstones of the WPS program. Our philosophy is built upon a Continuous Feedback System (CFS). The CFS is the process-oriented approach that drives WPS’s skill-driven program. 

Permeating all facets of a WPS education, the CFS not only informs differentiated programming but, in essence, is the WPS program. The CFS is implemented continuously by instructors and leadership.  Meanwhile, students are instructed in the understanding and application of the approach to all that they do. This contributes to our effort to develop life-long, independent learners.

The process begins with assessment during the admissions process. We conduct a thorough analysis of submitted evaluations, parent, student, and professional observations and comments. We also consider the formal and informal assessments which take place during the interview phase. This leads to an understanding of the student’s history, learning, and social-emotional profile.

We then develop a skill-based program, beginning with this initial understanding. The focus is on the student’s individualized needs rather than on the curriculum delivery system.  

The student then responds to the individually designed program. The response or experience of the student is then assessed in relation to the program and current understanding. The response informs a refined understanding of the student’s specific learning strengths and needs. From there, we can adjust the program to better serve the student.

The cycle repeats continuously. Concurrently, the student is empowered by learning how to continually assess their own experiences and responses. They are constantly reflecting to develop an awareness and understanding of themselves. Students go on to base future decisions, actions, and creations on their new self-understanding. 

Teachers explicitly discuss and model this multidimensional process. In this way, the instructor helps the student develop a meaningful understanding of their specific learning profile. They integrate their understanding into the process as a whole. 

We measure and assess the student’s skill level in applying this process using the CFS process, too. This allows the instructor and student to become aware of which facets still need development. It opens up communication regarding how to approach the facilitation of those skills. In other words, we believe self-assessment and self-understanding are as critical as reading and writing. 

Teachers systematically minimize the level of modeling, guidance, and support. Over time, the student becomes more adept in applying the CFS. As a result, they emerge as a sustainable and independent learner. Our ultimate goal is to ensure students are fully prepared to transition to life outside of the WPS walls.

Relationships at Home

What can you do at home to provide support promoting post-graduate life satisfaction? Through our Lives Over Time study, we asked alumni via survey and interviews to elaborate on this point. 

Simply, be your child’s cheerleader. Though some mentioned financial support being helpful, the vast majority shared a family member’s belief in them had more impact.

This did not have to come from a parent. Sometimes, it was an aunt or uncle, grandparent, older sibling or cousin. As long as alumni had someone at home in their corner sending the message that they could succeed, they did. 

What can this look like? Start with outright sentiments of “I believe in you. I know this assignment/situation is tough, but I also know you can persevere and succeed.” Pair them with active listening and reflective guidance. 

Resist ‘rescuing’ and sheltering the child from the challenge and the problem-solving process. 

This helps the child to develop critical thinking skills, self-confidence, and resilience. This equips them for independence later in life.

Connect With Winston Prep

Winston Online is a fully-online program for students through 12th grade with learning differences such as dyslexia, nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD), and executive functioning difficulties (ADHD). Learn more here.
Winston Preparatory School is a leading school for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, executive functioning difficulties (ADHD), and non-verbal learning disorders (NVLD).

WPS does not discriminate against applicants and students on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin. The Winston Preparatory School provides programs and services and equal opportunity in the administration of its educational and admissions policies, financial aid programs, employment, and the selection of its governing board without regard to gender, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability status, or any status recognized by federal, state and local civil rights and non-discrimination laws.