Although a working relationship between teacher and student is not imperative, it is most certainly helpful to the student's well-being, academic success, and behavior. And, it makes teaching more rewarding for the teacher who also benefits from the relationship and the gratifications it provides. Here, I will attempt to describe the most salient attributes of the working relationship, which include teacher (1) effective listening, (2) warmth and empathy, (3) support for behavior, and (4) collaborative involvement.
Effective listening has much in common with mindfulness. It involves paying careful attention to the student and concentration upon whatever it is he or she is saying and doing. The student's nonverbal behavior may be as (or more) important than what the student is saying. "Listening" therefore requires the teacher to "hear" what the student is communicating through body language.
Teachers can develop their capacity to attend to and concentrate upon student communication through the practice of meditation or mindfulness meditation. An excellent introduction to mindfulness meditation may be found on YouTube right here: Mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn. There is a growing body of literature on the subject, and other helpful videos, I am sure.
In my own work as a psychologist, practicing mindfulness meditation at home makes it almost effortless to listen to clients in my office; and, to later remember in great detail what they have said to me and how they have behaved. Mindfulness meditation permits me to absorb my clients' communications in a way that I could not when I was just starting out in my profession.
Do yourself a favor and start practicing mindfulness meditation.
Warmth & Empathy
Real listening is a volitional act: by which I mean that to be helpful, the teacher must truly want to listen and to be engaged with the student in communication. If a teacher is busy or otherwise preoccupied with schedules, personal or professional problems, it is probably best that the teacher not try to listen unless a student is in dire need of help.
Assuming the teacher is willing and able to attend to and concentrate upon the student with a concern, the teacher should project warmth by smiling and welcoming the student to communicate. A relaxing environment is helpful but not critical. Teacher empathy, however, is another matter.
Empathy is critical to developing the student-teacher working relationship. It is through empathizing with the student that the teacher shows (1) concern and (2) understanding. The techniques of paraphrase and reflection along with appropriate nonverbal behavior on the part of the teacher may prove very helpful.
Because the website linked to (above) describes paraphrase and reflection well (as "reflecting") I will not elaborate upon those techniques here, but will say this about them: they require practice to be used in a maximally effective manner, but are also self-correcting if misused. So, consider this brief dialogue between student and teacher:
STUDENT: I hate math! Every time I try to solve a problem I come up with the wrong answer! I really, really hate math!"
TEACHER: You don't like math, I know. I think you must try harder.
STUDENT: You just don't get it, do you! I really hate math, and I don't want anything to do with it!
TEACHER: I see. You absolutely hate math, don't you, and you'll never like it.
STUDENT: You got it. I hate math!
At first, the teacher failed to support the student's exclamation that she really hates math, and gave the student advice that was quickly rejected. Then, the teacher corrected herself, reflecting the student's genuine feeling about math. As a result, the student told the teacher that she "got it." The working relationship between teacher and student was then reinforced.
Here is a short video featuring a teenager talking about the importance of listening with empathy.
Support for Behavior
The teacher who keeps a close watch over a student can often tell if the student is becoming distracted, frustrated, or more interested in socializing than in completing assigned work. Teacher can then intervene, providing support for appropriate behavior. To the extent that the teacher has built a working relationship with the student, the intervention will prove more (or less) effective.
As long ago as 1952, Fritz Redl and David Wineman described Surface Management Techniques that have proven their usefulness over decades of teaching. These techniques -- which generally move from less obvious to more intrusive -- provide the teacher with brief, useful interventions supporting the working relationship. More on how to support student behavior later!
Big Picture Schools (Littky & Grabelle, 2004) have shown themselves to be highly successful in addressing the educational needs of adolescents who have become disenchanted with the instructional methods that typify public schools. Big Picture Schools are student-centered institutions that -- as Littky describes them -- are about "the three R's": Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor. They support "personalized learning" or instruction that is driven by student interests, and designed by teachers, students, an parents in a collaborative manner.
Of course, it may be difficult for a teacher in a traditionally-run to school to permit students to design their own curricula as is the case in Big Picture Schools, but it is certainly possible for any teacher to draw upon student interests and concerns when framing a unit or lesson. Even the interests of very young children can be worked into the lesson plan. It is the teacher who uses a "top down" approach to instruction who risks making learning irrelevant -- and therefore unappealing to -- students.
Littky, D., & Grabelle, S. (2004). The big picture: Education is everyone's business. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
Redl, F., & Wineman, D. (1952). Controls from within: Techniques for the treatment of the aggressive child. New York: Free Press.