Building Strong Relationships with Pupils

All good teaching and good pupil progress is built on strong relationships.

That’s a fact. Don’t believe it? Try listening to some advice from a person you really dislike!

I am blessed enough to have a number of beautiful and enriching relationships in my life. My wife, children, parents and various friends and colleagues. However, sometimes we have fallen out, argued, fought and passionately disagreed. During these times, no one has been willing to listen to the other.

Where relationships are weak, the opportunity to learn is diminished.

With that truth established, I want to share 5 strategies for how to build relationships with your students so that great learning and progress can be made.

1.Be culturally responsive

Find opportunities to package subject content in a way that reflects and values the culture of your pupils. This could be a reference to their country of origin or by introducing a piece of material reflecting their cultural background.

2. Learn names quickly!

This is particularly important for new teachers. Our names are important to us. They give us identity and sense of meaning. Explicitly communicate to a new class that you are going to make an effort to remember their names.

Don’t behave like a robot.

Instead of diving head first into curriculum content, take the first five minutes to play a name game. I usually go around the class asking students to tell me their names, which I immediately repeat back to them. Once I’ve gone round the whole class, I scan the faces and say all of their names back to them whilst making eye contact. This allows me to isolate the names I find tricky. I then make special effort to remember these ones. They often have a good giggle when I struggle to pronounce or remember a name. Which student would miss an opportunity to laugh at the teacher?

3. Set high expectations of pupils

When you settle for nothing less than what they are capable of producing you are building a relationship of expectations. Give them something great to live up to and they will often aim to meet your bar.

4. Run a club

That student who wants to be the class joker will often be the one carrying the bags, helping you take the register and organising the set-up of activities in out of class settings. Create opportunities for students to thrive outside of the classroom. The respect you have for them will grow and this will only strengthen the relationship.

5. Enquire about their welfare

A simple ‘how was your weekend?’ or ‘how did the singing audition go?’ can communicate to pupils that you actually care about their lives outside of school. This is particularly important for pupils who have dealt with family abandonment and have separation anxiety. We all desire love. Teach with some love.

So, now what?

With these 5 suggestions under your best, now can experiment. Choose one class with whom you will make a conscious and deliberate effort to establish a deeper relationship with. After a period of time, take an opportunity to reflect and make a note of your observations to gauge what impact this has had.

Mistakes vs Errors

As an early career teacher I was advised to correct most pupil mistakes in their work. One piece of advice I received concerning spelling mistakes was to write the correct word for the student and then have them write it out three times, even if the mistake was made through a lapse of concentration or sheer laziness. I often found that I was writing out several spellings for each piece of work and naturally this increased with groups that had greater weaknesses in literacy. Needless to say, their spelling never improved much.

As I’ve become more a more informed teacher, I now know that this is not the best way of doing things. Arguably, what is more impactful is to point out the mistake but have the student make the correction for themselves. Feedback, in this context, becomes more nudging as opposed to instructional.

Don’t bail the student out and rob them of the chance of taking ownership of their learning and making self-corrections.

Consider when you were learning to drive. After the first few lessons you would have learned how to apply adequate pressure on the brake and accelerator. However, there were times when you were a little foot heavy, even after several lessons. Imagine your instructor stopping the car, telling you to switch sides and then taking your place in the driver’s seat to correct your mistake. Sounds ridiculous, right? Every time a teacher steps in to correct a mistake, we are in effect doing this and denying the student the opportunity to solve the problem and become more reflective.

Having thought about the nature of mistakes, now consider student errors. The difference between errors and mistakes is that error is done through lack of knowledge, skill or a combination of both. To use the driving analogy, if you were unable to parallel park and kept hitting the pavement, this would be erroneous. Your lack of know-how would result in a skill deficit. It would then be pertinent for your instructor to show you exactly how you should perform this manoeuvre. Being left to figure this out on your own could exacerbate the error and leave you floundering at the wheel. The instructor’s feedback would need to be more didactic and instructional. Student error in the classroom needs to be treated as such. This could come through the following to name a few: re-teaching, telling the pupil the right way, or writing a comment in the exercise book.

Mistakes should be owned by students. Errors should be corrected by others.

As you go about your teaching, carefully identify where students are making mistakes or errors and allow this to dictate the kind of feedback you give. Ask yourself ‘is this an error or a mistake?’ and then intervene accordingly.

Notes from a Newbie

This is the second post in a series capturing practices to establish one’s self as a new leader.

The Connector

Have you ever felt like just another nameless face in an organisation? Chances are, we’ve all felt ‘invisible’ in the workplace at some time or another. As a leader, it’s incumbent upon you to ensure that you intentionally aim to reduce the occurrence of this. This is where you get personal. Remember the saying: people don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.

In organisations there are some who don’t want to be seen, instead choosing never to stick their heads above the parapet. They go into mole mode; burying themselves as far under the earth as possible. You know the type. Usually sits at the back in team meetings. When asked their opinion they respond with phrases like ‘I just want a quiet life’ or ‘I’m never one to rock the boat.’ However, I don’t think this is true of most. Many are searching for deep meaning, value and recognition in their work. For many, work isn’t just a means to an end. As a leader coming into an organisation, you must find the people who are seeking to make meaningful contributions.

I recall my first month in my current senior leader role. I made it a priority to have 1-1 meetings with all teaching staff. Simply through asking the right questions and hearing about their passions and unique perspectives I was able to see how people like John, a passionate South African educator, could be a great professional coach or how Kayleigh, a young, bright new teacher, was brimming with practical ideas for implementation which she could share with others who might not have such rich creative thinking. Liz Wiseman call this the multiplier approach. In her book ‘Multipliers: How the best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter’, she details how multipliers connect with people to get team members to do their best thinking and achieve things they never thought possible.

Here are several reasons why it’s important to establish personal/professional connections with team members.

1- Part of a leader’s job is to identify where people can best serve the organisation. Consider yourself as the head coach of a sport’s team. You need to deploy the right people into the right positions. Although observing them within their role is a great way to do this, this takes significant time. Meeting with them and posing the right questions can serve as a way to identify strengths and weaknesses.

2- Building on the first point, as you find out the weaknesses of people in your team, you can begin to consider the right training options for them and make an assessment of whether you think they will be right for the type of organisation you are trying to grow and build.

3- Have personal meetings with your direct reports. This is an intentional first step in building a culture of trust. Trust is often overlooked as a cultural asset but the most effective organisations have high trust cultures. Organisations with high levels of trust take more risks and increase innovation, openly admit failure and learn from it as well as admit weaknesses. If you meet with team members, they are more likely to see your decision as a sign that you care about them. Don’t fake your concern. People will see through this so don’t insult their intelligence. Genuinely show an interest.

So how can I do it?

You’re probably thinking that this is going to take a great deal of time to organise and schedule. You’re right. You can’t short cut meaningful relationships, but there are ways to speed up the logistics. If you have a PA, give them access to manage your diary and have them book the meetings for you. If you don’t have one, use apps like Google Calendar where you can share your diary with colleagues and have them book a time when you are free. An added advantage of this is that you can identify who is keen to meet you and, conversely with whom you might need to do a little more work.

When you have your 1-1 meetings, make them as private as possible. You can meet over coffee, in a private office or over lunch. The choice is yours, depending on your style and personal constraints. Just ensure that you won’t be distracted by other co-workers. You need to be attentive and engaged and clearly show that they have your undivided attention for the next 20 minutes or so. The quality of the interaction is crucial. After such meetings, you can then begin to meet with entire teams. You’ll find yourself invigorated by the intensity of debate and rigorous thinking.

Finally, remember that you as a leader are the orchestrator, the conductor. Not in a grandiose it’s all about me-look guys! kind of wayThis simply means you will require all of your ‘players’ to be in tune and working with you. Draw people in. Don’t be a leader of a nameless, faceless, homogeneous mass. As Wiseman would say, don’t be a diminisher.

Go and book your 1-1!

If you’d like a free guide on delivering a 1-1, please email me directly.

Newbie- notes from a new leader

Being a leader in a new context presents its own unique challenges and because of this, being successful requires a unique set of skills and approaches. This leadership series will be particularly helpful to those looking for new leadership opportunities or those recently in post in a leadership capacity. This is the first in the series.

Ask questions

In just a matter of days after starting, and maybe even before you have arrived, you may have heard a lot of information about current employees, the state of the organisation and other matters. Although this could be valuable intel, you will have to draw your own conclusions. One of the most effective ways to really understand your new context is to ask questions. This will involve spending quality time with people and actively listening to their responses as well as posing follow up questions to gain a deeper understanding. You need to be able to ask questions at every level of the organisation: those working under you, those in your direct team as well as those above you. This will give you a vantage point of all levels of the organisation.

This might sound basic but pose questions using a range of probing stems such as:

  • Why are things done in this way?
  • Who benefits from this process?
  • How could it be improved?
  • What outcome am I / they expecting?
  • Use instructive verbs in your questions such as: define, explain, describe. You’ll prompt more detail and richness in responses.

If you’re a new leader or have been in post for some time but can recall when you first started in a new leadership position, I’m keen to hear what advice you’d give to others. Please feel free to comment and get in touch: darren at keystolearn dot org

Teaching in the Middle East

Top Seven things I’ve learned


With it being the end of my first half term, I wanted to share my experience of teaching in an Arab nation. I’ve learned so much in 8 weeks of working alongside my colleagues and with the students. I’ve made some mistakes as well as achieved some successes.

Those reading this might be interested in teaching abroad and hoping to avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made or simply get a first-hand perspective. Perhaps you are new to the post or have been in the Middle East for some time and wanting to be more effective in your role.

Here are my 7 top tips.

  1. Decide to have high expectations of pupils and explicitly communicate these.
    Even though the Ministry of Education in Qatar require students to have a minimum pass of an E to graduate Year 11, I feel it’s important to give students something higher to strive for. I regularly tell students to never settle for a pass grade.


  1. Seek to understand the student’s worldview.
    As a born and bred Londoner, there are so many things I see differently. Neither way is right or wrong- it’s simply a difference of paradigm. For example, in Qatar a teenage boy is considered a man especially if he is the eldest male in the household other than the father. This position affords him a certain amount of respect as well as responsibility. He will take the lead on important matters when his father is away from the home. As a result, such a person might challenge your authority if he feels he is being belittled, or he might expect to be treated in certain ways that might surprise you. Seek to understand such things by asking questions and showing a genuine interest in their lives, but always stand your ground as the adult.


  1. School starts early.
    I mean really early. Students are at school from as early as 6:30am! The early rising can take its toll after weeks and weeks of waking before dawn. Did I say that school starts early?


  1. Plan lessons with EAL students in mind.
    This seems obvious but just because you are teaching a British curriculum in an international school, do not take it for granted that all of your students will understand everything you say. Do lots of explicit vocabulary work with clear modelling on how this vocabulary is used in context. I have also found dual coding, using images to represent ideas and concepts, a very useful tool in explaining things to second language learners.


  1. Don’t be surprised if you are given gifts!
    The Arab culture values gift giving and students might very well present you with tokens of their appreciation. Western culture can often seem clinical and very sterile in comparison and for me it was heart-warming to have received gifts on World Teacher Appreciation Day.


  1. Don’t be alarmed at frank expression.
    As a Brit, I’m used to highly nuanced and subtle expressions of communication. Arabs often tell it how it is. Don’t be offended or take it personally.


  1. Embrace the tactility of the Arab culture.
    Again, having worked in London schools all my career, strict safeguarding measures cause teachers to become very wary of showing too much affection. I have not seen this in Qatar and it has been refreshing to witness teachers and students more relaxed concerning this. High fives, a caring arm around the shoulder or pats on the back abound here. Please note – this is not to be done with members of the opposite sex.


I love teaching and leading in Qatar. I know that I have so much more to learn and will continue to make mistakes, but that’s part of the learning process.