Nurturing Positive Relationships: Reflections on World Homeless Day

Can positive relationships diminish the chances of youth homelessness as well as improve wellbeing and mental health? Head teacher Billy Burke shares his experience.

Today is World Homeless Day, a day on which we reflect on what we could do better to reduce the numbers of people unhoused and forced to rough sleep or sofa surf. At the SCCR we focus on youth homelessness. Relationship breakdown remains the leading cause of youth homelessness in Scotland. What we try to do at the SCCR is get upstream, and help families gain the skills to resolve their own issues before they get to the stage where young people are leaving home. One area we work with towards that goal is within education, which is how we first met head teacher Billy Burke.

As part of an online SCCR event held recently on World Teacher’s Day, head teacher Billy Burke delivered a talk that emphasized the importance of fostering positive relationships in schools and in life generally. Drawing from the fields of science, psychology and personal experience, Billy Burke's message is a compelling call to action for educators.

Billy highlighted the contributions of neuroscience and cognitive psychology to our understanding of human behaviour and relationships. One key takeaway is that no two individuals experience the world, or their relationships, in the same way. Recognizing this diversity is fundamental to effective education.

Nurturing positive relationships is a mindset and a skill that can be learned. These skills are rooted in principles of dignity and human rights, emphasizing the importance of respecting and valuing each individual.

In today's world, where challenges like climate change, pandemics, and rising living costs abound, prioritizing the creation of positive relationships is urgent. Mental health struggles are increasingly prevalent, in part thanks to the challenges societies today face, underscoring the need for supportive and empathetic connections.

During the event, Billy urged his audience to reflect on moments when they felt their best during the week, which attendees shared via the chat function on the online platform we were using to videoconference the event. Common themes emerged: being with loved ones, physical well-being, and engaging in learning. This insight underscores the link between emotional wellbeing and effective learning.

One hallmark of positively nurtured relationships is mutual respect. While the term ‘love’ has sometimes been shied away from in educational contexts, Billy suggests that the time-honoured wisdom of ‘love one another’ still carries value when it is authentic and based on mutual respect.

Billy introduced the concept of an emotional bank account, where positive relationships are deposits, and negative experiences are withdrawals. Building reserves through nurturing positive relationships helps mitigate the impact of the inevitable occasional setbacks.

Positive relationships in schools are not boundary-less or ‘soft’. They encompass forgiveness and perseverance, while still maintaining boundaries and expectations.

Billy acknowledges that change is needed in schools. Creating the time and space for nurturing positive relationships may require bold reforms, such as smaller class sizes to allow teachers to build meaningful connections with students.

Nurturing positive relationships is not a checklist item but a mindset and a call to action. It's a journey that starts with understanding the principles of neuroscience and psychology, and it's a commitment to shaping the future of young adults.

Head Teacher Billy Burke's talk on nurturing positive relationships serves as a clarion call to educators and stakeholders in the field of education. By understanding the science behind human behaviour, respecting individuality, and prioritizing relationships, we can create an environment where young minds flourish. Change, as Billy aptly reminds us, begins one person at a time, one conversation at a time, one relationship at a time. It's a journey worth embarking on for the betterment of our education system and, more importantly, the well-being of students.

Billy Burke was head teacher of Renfrew High School from 2013 to 2023 and has 25 years experience in various roles in Scottish education, starting his career as a maths teacher. He is a Past President of School Leaders Scotland and has served on various national education groups and projects. He co-hosts the Changing Conversations podcast.