The Necessary Redefinition of the Teacher-Student Relationship in Post-COVID Classrooms

Beau Johnson
Jul 1 · 4 min read

“We’re seeing kids experience deterioration of their mental health at a time when we’re all exiting the trauma of this pandemic and reentering into a more normal life. Our kids have run out of resilience, their tank is empty.”

-Dr. David Brumbaugh, Chief Medical Officer — Children’s Hospital Colorado

The effects of the COVID pandemic on a generation of students are just starting to be realized. For months there have been predictions about the loss of learning, the impact on future academic success, and a hard look once again into the racial and social inequities of public education. However, there has been little action resulting from the outcry surrounding the mental health of American students. Months of isolation have created a miasma of behavioral health conditions and schools, while acknowledging what science is now supporting, do not have the ability to meet the needs of their student populations. Trained professionals who help students deal with trauma, depression and anxiety were already in desperate need all over the country pre-COIVD. In the coming months, budgetary constraints will keep these professionals out of schools.

The post-COVID educational reality is not going to be defined by on-line quiz generators or more dynamic Zoom meetings — it’s going to be about creating a more responsive and healthy mental environment in schools.

Like many socio-emotional issues, this is going to fall to the teachers to negotiate. COVID has also reinforced- yet again — the strenuous and ever increasing job requirements foisted upon educators. There is a bright shining beacon, however, a lighthouse of hope in the constrictive coils of the ever-growing fog of expectation — the best thing a teacher can do to help students is do what teachers really want to do in the first place. Most teachers would agree that they want to make a difference in the lives of their students. They want to know their pupils, and be able to relate to each and every young person in front of them on a personal level. This is the core of teaching — making those vital connections. While it seems too obvious to need justification — the teacher-student relationship is vital to the developing mind, an indispensably important part of the education process.

…positive student–teacher relationships enable students to feel emotionally secure, which in turn, enables them to adjust to the classroom environment in a healthy way.

Roorda, D. L., & Koomen, H. M. (2021). Student–Teacher Relationships and Students’ Externalizing and Internalizing Behaviors: A Cross‐Lagged Study in Secondary Education. Child development, 92(1), 174–188.

When a student is able to connect with a teacher on any level, a new depth of understanding and recognition is created. Teachers gain valuable insight into the truth behind the social identity of a student and the student feels seen, and heard. This valorization is necessary to a student’s deeper investment in their classroom and academics.

…affective relationships with teachers contribute not only to their conception of themselves as learners but also their general well-being, confidence and aspirations.

Stahl, G. (2021). ‘They make time for you’: upwardly mobile working-class boys and understanding the dimensions of nurturing and supportive student–teacher relationships. Research Papers in Education, 1–17.

While it seems a simple enough transaction, the requirements of the everyday teaching routine stand in opposition to the development of these kinds of relationships. Schools are not built to facilitate the kinds of holistic and genuine connections that teachers and students need to sustain their interest or ignite their investment.

In order to truly respond to the influx of issues that will emerge upon full reentry into the academic school year this fall, teachers need to be provided with the time, space, and tools to simply be there for their students. This is not an issue of quantitative analysis or standardized assessment — this is the core of what teaching is all about — the human connection between teacher and student. The science backs up what we already know,

The foundation of what makes lives go well is not the individual but the quality of our relationships; the development of trust, the giving and receiving of love and support and the myriad ways in which relationships can be life-enhancing. (p. vii)

Huppert, F. A. (2012). Forward. In S. Roffey (Ed.), Positive relationships: Evidence base practice around the world (pp. vii–ix). Springer Social Sciences.

It’s hard, though, to get to know every student. It’s frustrating to spend time and energy trying to make a connection to be met by the indoctrinated wall of resistance too many of our students suffer from. While curicula that focus on Social and emotional learning, or responsive pedagogies can only do much if there is no relationship top build on. Grander concepts like personalized learning require a deeper knowledge of the students than their assigned seat and overall grade.

At Enlight, this is our foundation. This is how we change the world. We give teachers the information they need to facilitate deeper communication and relationships with their students without changing the fundamental structures already in place or adding to the overcrowded plate of both teachers and students. Building a relationship is a process, especially if you only see a student for 45 minutes a day in a room full of 20–30 more students who want and need affirmative relationships with their instructors. Enlight can help create the on-going steps needed to secure the foundation of a genuine relationship between teacher and student.