Relationship is the key

Relationship is the keyI have had the privilege of teaching in multicultural settings in five countries across the globe. In my experience, the quality of the relationships I have with my students trumps almost any other factor in shifting student achievement. Russell Bishop calls this relationship-centred education, and he sees it as an essential approach in culturally responsive pedagogy1. He mentions that highly effective, culturally responsive teachers have six characteristics1, i.e.

  1. They care for Mãori students as Mãori. They create a learning context for Mãori students to draw on their own funds of knowledge and bring it to the classroom.
  2. They have high expectations of students and they signal this to students.
  3. The culturally informed pedagogy these teachers use promotes the fourth element of being a highly effective teacher.
  4. Their interactions with Maori students provide the students with academic feedback feed forward and negotiated co-construction of learning (learners among learners) as opposed to transmission models of learning.
  5. They use a range of strategies effectively, implying that they understand the pedagogy behind the strategies, e.g. cooperative learning is not ‘group work’.
  6. They use evidence of students’ performance to guide where they take teaching and learning, and they ensure that students know about their outcomes in a formative way so that students also know what they need to learn and where they are headed.

Research backs up the importance of teacher-student relationships in student achievement, e.g. it had a significant, positive effect size in John Hattie’s meta-analysis of influences on learning outcomes2, and in his book “The Art and Science of Teaching” Robert Marzano states, “Arguably the quality of the relationships teachers have with students is the keystone of effective management and perhaps even the entirety of teaching”3. It is interesting to note that the generalised principles embodied by Russell Bishop’s six points are highlighted by both John Hattie and Robert Marzano’s research into what constitutes ‘effective’ teaching and learning. I believe that the principles of high quality teaching and learning are timeless.

The reality is that very few of us are able to display all of these characteristics consistently and, although we may do certain things really well, there are always areas of improvement.

  • One of the things that our school has started doing well the past year and a half is trying to be more intentional about being culturally responsive in the way we communicate with others. We have worked with one of our Mãori parents to welcome newcomers, like new staff members or special guests, with a proper powhiri whenever appropriate. We recognise that New Zealand is a bi-cultural nation and we want to honour and respect our cultural heritage. These powhiris have enriched our school culture and it instils a sense of cultural pride in our Mãori students.
  • An area that I am still working on is utilising the funds of knowledge that our Mãori, Pasifika and other cultural communities can bring to teaching and learning activities in the technology learning area. It will enable me to facilitate learning programmes that are contextually relevant, promoting higher engagement from all of my students. There are remarkable technological innovations in Mãori culture, such as the waka4, that may be a great starting point for rich conversations about the impact of technology on society.

Culturally responsive pedagogy is not optional. It is an integral part of being an effective teacher. However, it requires an intentional, daily reflection on whether my actions and words have displayed this to my students. The best people to tell me whether I have succeeded or not, and how I can improve, are my students. Let’s strive to be learners among learners1.

References and notes:
1. Bishop, R. (1 September 2009). A culturally responsive pedagogy of relations. Retrieved 24 March 2016 from
2. Hattie, J. (2009). Influences and effect sizes related to student achievement (diagram). Retrieved 24 March 2016 from
3. Marzano, R.J. (2007). The art and science of teaching. Virginia: ASCD
4. “In the past, Māori used waka (canoes) just as we use cars today. New Zealand’s waterways were like roads, running along the coast and up rivers. Waka would be paddled along them, carrying people and goods. Some Māori still build traditional waka today”. Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr. ‘Waka – canoes’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 12-Oct-15. Retrieved from

Photo credit: Zarko Drincic via / CC BY-ND


Relationship is the key — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Looking in the mirror | a mouse in the fortress of education

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.