Olympic Relationships: The Importance of Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

Why did you become a teacher? What inspires you and makes you look forward to getting ready for school, day after day? Why do you push yourself to create interesting and motivating lessons? Why do we get first day jitters and work so hard for our classrooms to be welcoming on the first day of school?

I am certain that you, like me, are not in it for the money, the recognition, because you love correcting tests or look forward to marking reading responses. I’m certain that what drives you is your love for your students and to feel those faces light up when they understand something new, when they experience success or have a moment where they feel special. (Yes, I wrote feel it. You really don’t need to see it on your students’ faces. You feel it like a tingle, like a special spidey teacher sixth sense.)

Unfortunately, we also feel it when we don’t have those special connections, and we often know that these kids are the ones who are going to struggle academically or socially.

This is the same with Olympic athletes and their coaches. Marianne St-Gelais, a Quebecois athlete, knows first hand how important that relationship is and how a negative relationship can affect our path to self-actualization, the final block on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In November 2017, Callum Ng, a reporter for CBC Sports, wrote an article called “How Marianne St Gelais Got Her Groove Back”.

In this article, Ng describes Marianne’s journey as a Canadian Olympic short-track speed skater. He explains that In 2010, Marianne won two silver medals at the 2010 Olympic games. However, in 2012 her team’s coach left and was replaced by Frederic Blackburn. Marianne had had a lot of success with her former coach and didn’t believe in Blackburn’s coaching style. Their communication suffered as a consequence. In her interview with Ng at CBC Sports, St-Gelais admits that instead of opening up to her new coach, she closed herself off and didn’t want to work with him.

At the next winter games in Sochi, St Gelais did not have the same success as at her first Olympic Games. During the 2014 games, St Gelais says that she felt like she was doing laps and that she did not push herself to her full potential. She did not enjoy herself or have fun. She’d lost her drive.  

In the article, Ng writes, “Nearly two years into their working relationship, the skater and the coach finally resolved to move in the same direction. And it worked. During the season where Marianne and her coach did not get along, she won a single World Cup medal.” The following season, after working out her issues with her coach relationship with her coach, Marianne won eight medals, and the next season, 11.

Ng proceeds to describe what a sports psychologist calls a “prime need” for an athlete. He explains that it is important for an athlete to feel part of the relationship or process.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs illustrates the foundation for self-actualization and self-fulfillment. Even if a human’s basic needs are met, without psychological needs being met, such as positive relationships with peers, positive self-esteem, or a feeling of respect for and from others, a person cannot reach their full potential as an Olympian. Marianne’s lack of respect for her coach, as well as her impression of not being cared for by her coach, prevented her from flourishing. Whether her impressions were correct or not, I believe Marianne felt that her psychological needs were not being met. This prevented her from growing to surpass her own accomplishments and made her question her ability and even desire to continue to push forward with a sport she had previously felt passionate about.

Miss Chantal Cares

In the educational system, isn’t this also true? Isn’t the relationship between teacher and pupil, like the relationship between a coach and an athlete? Aren’t the trust, the risk-taking, and the belief in one another, prerequisites for a student’s academic success?

As teachers, our primary goal is to build positive relationships with our students. Before teaching arithmetic, spelling or grammar skills, before teaching organization or problem-solving skills, we need to make sure that our students trust us and know that we respect them.

Several research papers, such as “The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students”, by Emily Gallagher, describe how the positive relationships between teachers and students, and more specifically, a student’s perception of a positive relationship, will increase the student’s desire and motivation to learn and may be the key to academic outcomes and explain how students’ motivation to learn is positively affected by a supportive relationship with a teacher.

When Marianne’s started to view her relationship with her coach in a positive light, her performance drastically improved. Gallagher’s work supports the athlete’s theory that Marianne’s success depended on her relationship with her coach, the same way a student’s success depends on his or her relationship with his or her teacher.

Marianne is an adult who is working with another adult. She is able to articulate her difficulties and make the first move to build or repair a connection. Our students are children who need guidance and assistance. They are likely to have trouble verbalizing their need to have a positive relationship, let alone know the steps to take to repair one.

Miss Chantal Cares

So knowing this, the question is, what do YOU do on a regular basis, to ensure that students feel important and are motivated to perform and grow in your classroom? When, and how, do you work on building your relationship with your students? How do you prioritize relationships in our busy days packed with academics, evaluations and remedial assistance, with phone calls, reports to fill out, planning activities and emails to respond to?

Maybe it’s worth taking a few minutes every day, during morning routines, while preparing for recess or when kids are reading quietly, to book a few “coffee dates”, where you can just sit down and chat with a student about a topic that connects you for a minute or two.

Perhaps if we took time to connect with our kids, our students’ overall development and academic success would improve more steadily than by investing time in remedial courses, test retakes, and tutoring.

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