Complexities of non-academic teacher-student relations
(Ohio) It is the sort of thing that great teachers do instinctively—the incidental contact with students outside the orbit of instruction: a chance meeting at the supermarket; a greeting or a joke while passing in a hallway; a careful prod after class to help overcome some social or academic barrier.
There are mountains of studies that probe the interactions between students and teachers engaged in pedagogic functions. But researchers are beginning to turn their attention to the many occasions that teachers or other campus adults have contact with students outside the context of learning.
What they are finding is that how adults handle those non-academic communications can be important not just to individual student performance, but to school climate in general.
“As a field, I think we're beginning to learn how big a deal this sort of interaction is,” said Christy Galletta Horner, a developmental psychologist at Bowling Green State University and co-author of a 2015 study that examined non-academic student-teacher contact.
“There are important and under-studied questions about the emotion socialization that takes place between adults and youth in schools that is naturalistic,” she said. “This is all the socialization that isn’t embedded within any specific social-emotional learning curriculum.”
Even as Congress and many states have moved away from the single point emphasis that test scores held under the No Child Left Behind Act, the stakes in classroom productivity remain enormous. Many teacher evaluation systems are linked, at least in part, to student performance. And with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards or some form of it in many states, lawmakers and the voters have renewed expectations for improvements in the public schools.
As a result, educators have little choice but to keep instructional time the top priority.
But as the 2015 study suggests, there is a potential reservoir of insight that might be drawn from a better understanding of the complex relationship between students and campus adults.
We know a lot more about social-emotional learning that is directly related to the content of SEL curricula,” Horner said. “But there are all these other emotional interactions that take place and we are just beginning to learn how much impact they have on students.”
The study, which Horner conducted with Tanner LeBaron Wallace (University of Pittsburg) and Matthew Bundick (Duquesne University) when all three of them were at the University of Pittsburg, used focus group session transcripts with 72 students attending urban high schools in California, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
The specific query had to do with the degree that students felt comfortable sharing their emotions with the school’s adult personnel. They wanted to better understand the cultural triggers of when both the adult and adolescent could communicate about life issues and when and why they didn’t.
One of the overall findings was the perception among students that they should suppress emotional feelings when dealing with school-based adults. That sense came from a belief that the alternative would violate the norms of the educational setting as well as the fear that it could be read as an act of disrespect to the adult.
At the same time, the researchers said, on those occasions where the divide was bridged, students said the interactions were often very valuable.
One student, called out in the report, said that an art teacher took time after class to talk. “I wasn’t really doing good in school because I had other stuff in my head,” the student recalled. “We pretty much just went through all these things—feelings, likes, dislikes and goals.”
When asked if other teachers had ever shown the same interest, the student said no.
“Other teachers are just interested in your learning, even if you’re just sitting there not doing nothing, some teachers will just call on you and tell you, ‘Hey, do your work,’” the student said. “But they’ll never tell you, like, ‘Oh, what’s wrong? Are you feeling all right? Do you need something?’ or stuff like that.”
The research noted that some of the isolation came from the social structure of high schools. Some students reported having closer relationships with their teachers in middle school, where the sites are smaller and, perhaps, where teachers may have felt more inclined to make personal interaction.
Horner said participants in the study reported that high school can be a “restrictive environment in terms of what is socially appropriate” when it comes to expression. Some students said they only felt comfortable talking about their feelings when an adult was able and willing to invite the conversation.
“Students are relying on their teachers to pick up on these very subtle cues,” she said. “But they valued these rare opportunities to talk out their feelings and problems and to get emotional coaching.
“I think it’s important that teachers be able to turn up their sonar and pick up on those really low frequency signals that students are sending,” she said.