1250 Broadway, 27th Floor New York, NY 10001


Why a Best Friend at School Matters for Students and Teachers

by Tim Hodges

Do you have a best friend at work?

That simple question represents a complex concept.

We've posed a version of that question to tens of millions of employees and managers throughout the years because it measures a key element of workplace culture and engagement.

More importantly, though, the concept of having a best friend is profoundly essential to the human experience and, still, not immediately available to everyone.

Perhaps nowhere is that juxtaposition -- and challenge -- as evident as in our schools. But not in the way you might think.

Students More Likely Than Teachers to Have a Best Friend at School

Using the Gallup Student Poll, we have interviewed more than 6 million students in grades five through 12 to better understand their experiences with school and their beliefs about the future. The poll specifically asks students to what degree they agree with the statement, "I have a best friend at school." It is one of the question items we use to measure student engagement, a key attribute defining the relationship between each student and their school.

The good news is that a majority of students surveyed are experiencing the power of best friends at school. During the fall 2017 administration of the Gallup Student Poll, 70% of the nearly 800,000 students who took the survey strongly agreed that they have a best friend at school.

The 70% of students who strongly agree that they have a best friend at school is 16 percentage points higher than the next-closest measure of student engagement. The Gallup Student Poll measures nine such elements of student engagement, which 78% of adults say is a "very important" factor in measuring the effectiveness of public schools. Social and emotional factors like engagement and hope even slightly surpassed graduation rates as a measure of effectiveness -- and far outpaced the 14% who said standardized test results are a very important measure.

In all of our research, we've found that having a best friend at school gives students a reason to show up, helps them enjoy their days and encourages a range of positive behaviors. Simply put, having a best friend is a key part of the student's daily school experience.

The same holds true for employees -- the teachers in our schools. Gallup's extensive employee engagement research shows that having a best friend at work is one of the key drivers of performance with links to efficiency, innovation and enjoyment on the job. Having a best friend at work is the best predictor of having higher well-being and engagement.

So, it is more than concerning that in schools -- as is the case in other workplaces around the world -- the "best friend" measure of engagement is among the lowest rated by employees. While we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, only 30% of employees report having a best friend at work. Without a best friend at work, the chances of being engaged in your job are just one in 12.

It doesn't have to be this way.

'Flip the Classroom' to Create a Stronger Culture

The best employers recognize that people want to build meaningful friendships and that employee loyalty is built on these relationships.

Great principals have a natural talent for creating school environments where close relationships among teachers are valued. Schools that value trust and meaningful connections among teachers enjoy higher teacher retention rates, lower absenteeism and higher levels of student success.

Educators have attempted a variety of strategies to adapt to the needs of the changing world. One of the more widely discussed instructional strategies is "flipping the classroom" -- an idea that reverses the traditional education experience by delivering content, often online, outside of the classroom. The theory holds that this approach allows for more classroom time to be spent on activities that may have traditionally been assigned as homework.

Best friends are a key element of engagement -- our students know it and are better for it. It may be time that we "flip the classroom" regarding school engagement as well. What can our teachers learn from their students -- the experts on the importance of this issue -- to elevate the value of trusted relationships for everyone in the school?

Embracing the importance of having best friends among teachers can improve their experiences at work, which no doubt has a positive effect on their students and their own engagement at school.

Experience how Gallup can help your school engage students and teachers:

Tim Hodges, Ph.D., is Director of Research for Gallup's Education Practice.