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The special role of the teacher-student relationship for both sides

November 27th, 2018

A positive development of students and teachers depends on their relationship to each other

Karen Aldrup

Ever since Hattie’s meta-analysis at the latest, it has been widely known that the teacher-student relationship is closely associated with students' learning success. Furthermore, empirical studies also show that a good teacher-student relationship strengthens students' confidence in their own abilities and their motivation. A high quality of the teacher-student relationship is reflected in mutual attention and a supportive, patient approach to comprehension difficulties (= proximity). It also becomes evident in the teacher successfully steering the behavior of the students (= influence).

Previous work, however, focused primarily on the development of the students in relation to a specific subject (e.g., the students' mathematical self-concept). The question as to whether a positive teacher-student relationship is also associated with outcomes that are not restricted to specific subject domains and indicators of general school adjustment such as school satisfaction, self-esteem and truancy remained unanswered. Beyond that, only one direction of the relationship had been examined, namely the importance of the teacher-student relationship for students. In contrast, the question of whether a positive teacher-student relationship is linked to teachers’ occupational well-being remained unknown.

Therefore, my study examined the association between the teacher-student relationship and students’ general school adjustment (sub-study 1). In addition, I investigated the questions of whether the teacher-student relationship is linked to teachers’ occupational well-being (sub-study 2) and which psychological processes could explain these connections (sub-study 3).

Is the teacher-student relationship associated with general school adjustment?

In this sub-study, I investigated whether a positive relationship with the homeroom teacher is related to better school adjustment (such as school satisfaction, self-esteem and truancy). Both students and teachers were asked to assess the quality of their relationship. This allowed me to investigate the question of whether the different perspectives show differential connections with school adjustment.

Students who felt supported reported greater school satisfaction, higher self-esteem and lower truancy than those who experienced less proximity to the teacher. The teacher's assessment of how appreciative and helpful she was to the class was not linked to students' development.

Looking at the teacher's ability to exert an appropriate degree of influence, students were less likely to skip classes when they experienced their learning environment as quiet and orderly. In addition, student learning increased when the teacher assessed her influence on students' behavior positively.

Does the teacher-student relationship play a role in teachers’ occupational well-being?

With the second sub-study, my aim was to answer the question whether a positive teacher-student relationship plays a role not only for the students, but also for their teachers’ well-being. In contrast to the first sub-study, proximity now refers to the appreciation and sympathy that students have for the teacher. Influence here refers to student misbehavior such as disturbances or tardiness.

Teachers who reported more frequent student misbehavior had greater emotional exhaustion and reduced work enthusiasm. As in the first sub-study, I could examine whether these associations differ depending on the perspective of the rater. Although the correlation pattern was similar, there were no statistically significant links between teachers’ well-being and student misbehavior when students assessed the presence of disturbances or tardiness in their class.

Furthermore, teachers who perceived more proximity, i.e., appreciation and sympathy from students, reported an increase in enthusiasm and a reduction in exhaustion. It was also found that proximity mediated the connection between student misbehavior and enthusiasm. In other words, not student misbehavior per se was associated with lower enthusiasm. Rather, disturbances and tardiness were associated with the teacher feeling less liked, which in turn was associated with lower enthusiasm.

What significance does the feeling of relatedness with students have for teachers’ occupational well-being?

Building on the results of the second sub-study, the third sub-study focused on the psychological significance of establishing a close personal relationship between teachers and students. In the context of the self-determination theory (according to Ryan & Deci, 2000), the question arose as to whether this merely fulfilled a professional goal, so that teachers could experience themselves as competent, or whether the proximity to students also fulfilled the need for relatedness.

For this sub-study, the teachers involved in the study kept an online diary of their daily professional experience. The results of this diary study showed that on days with a higher level of relatedness with students, teachers also experienced a higher level of work enthusiasm. However, there was no connection between the degree of relatedness with the students and teachers’ emotional exhaustion.


A positive teacher-student relationship is important for students and teachers alike. This results in students making positive general school adjustments: They show better learning outcomes, they are generally more satisfied at school, have a higher self-esteem and lower truancy. Looking at teachers, a positive teacher-student relationship is associated with higher work enthusiasm and less emotional exhaustion.