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Student Teacher Relationship Essay Conclusion

Student-teacher relationships:

The overlooked ingredient for success

© 2013 - 2016 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Supportive student-teacher relationships are more than a charming social perk. Studies suggest they help kids adapt, learn, and achieve.

Imagine 120 children, six-year-olds seated at computers.

As part of an experiment, the kids are taking a series of cognitive tests -- solving problems about shapes, patterns, and analogies. But the researchers aren’t trying to figure out who’s smarter. They’re trying to find out if student-teacher relationships affect the way kids think.

To test this, the researchers have taken photographs of all the children's teachers. And just before being given a new problem to solve, each child is shown her teacher's face.

The image appears only for a split second, a time span so brief the kids aren’t even aware of what they’ve seen. It's subliminal. But it has an effect, because the kids who have close, affectionate teacher relationships – as opposed to distant ones -- end up solving many problems faster (Ahnert et al 2012).  

The correlation holds up even when you compare kids in the same class. So it’s not just about differences in curricula or other classroom characteristics. It seems to be about something more specific, something peculiar to each student-teacher relationship. And there may be long-lasting consequences.

In the weeks that follow, the children -- German kids who’ve been attending what English-speakers might call "preschool" or "nursery school"  -- begin their first year of elementary school.

The researchers wonder. Do the old relationships still matter? Are the new relationships also linked with problem-solving speed? To answer these questions, Liselotte Anhert and her colleagues test many of the children again, 5-6 months later -- this time with photos of both their old, preschool teachers and their new, primary school ones. What happens?

Subliminal images of supportive preschool teachers still have a positive effect. Images of supportive primary school teachers do not.

The power of personal connections

Experiments like these bolster our intuitions. Secure, supportive relationships are important for young children, and may have far-reaching consequences.

But what about older kids? The German experiments seem consistent with the idea that the personal equation matters less as children get older. But there are other explanations.

Most of the children in this study had known their preschool teachers for years -- much longer than they had know their primary school teachers. Perhaps kids need more time to feel personally connected.

And here's another possibility: Student-teacher relationships, even friendly, supportive ones, tend to assume a less nurturing, less physical aspect as kids move from preschool to primary school. Might kids suffer for it? Given what’s known about the benefits of affectionate touch, it seems plausible.

But regardless of how we account for these “speed-of-problem-solving" results, we should keep in mind:

Secure, supportive student-teacher relationships are linked with a variety of beneficial effects, and these extend beyond preschool.

For instance, the same researchers who conducted the "subliminal teacher" experiments also measured kids’ stress hormone levels. They analyzed daily fluctuations of the hormone, cortisol, as the children went through a typical week in primary school. They learned that most kids began the school week with fairly normal stress hormone profiles, but showed increasingly atypical patterns as the week progressed -- a sign that these kids were under strain. By contrast, a subset of children -- kids in supportive, secure student-teacher relationships --  maintained normal stress hormone patterns throughout the week (Anhert et al 2012).

Then there is the evidence from long-term studies. Kids who experience high quality student-teacher relationships in the early years have fewer behavior problems. They show more engagement in the classroom (Hamre and Piata 2001; Rudasill et al 2010; Wu et al 2010; Hughes et al 2012), and better performance, too: Studies of verbal skills have found that positive student-teacher relationships have modest, positive effects on early language development (Spilt et al 2015; Schmitt et al 2012; Maldonado-Carreño and Votruba-Drzal 2011).

There is even reason to think that teachers can help kids cope with other children. In a recent study of 336 U.S. 4th and 5th graders, Lawrence Christian Elledge and his colleagues found that kids actively rejected by their peers at the beginning of the school year experienced less bullying in the spring -- if they had better-than-average relationships with their teachers (Christian Elledge et al 2015).

Can we attribute all these happy outcomes to student-teacher relationships? No necessarily. Teachers are human beings like the rest of us. They find it easier to maintain positive relationships with kids who are cooperative, attentive, socially adept. Moreover, kids with strong verbal skills and high levels of self-control are more likely to succeed in both the social and academic domains. So we can't assume that positive student-teacher relationships cause better classroom engagement or fewer behavior problems. Sometimes it's the other way around.

But researchers are well aware of these complexities, and try to take them into account. Student-teacher relationships in the early years have predicted outcomes later on, even after researchers control for relevant baseline child characteristics like attention deficits, defiance, socioeconomic status, and IQ (Hamre and Piata 2001; Rudasill et al 2010; Wu et al 2010; Hughes et al 2012). 

Furthermore, kids who struggle aren't doomed to poor outcomes. When teachers maintain supportive relationships with students at special risk for behavior problems, those kids improve over time. In fact, studies suggest that "at risk" students are more likely than other kids to benefit from supportive student-teacher relationships.

So it's hard to escape the implications of these studies. Positive student-teacher relationships can protect students from toxic stress. They may forestall behavior problems, enhance a child's academic prospects, buffer kids from the risk of peer victimization. And the benefits don't dwindle away as children grow up. On the contrary.

In a meta-analysis of 99 published studies, investigators found that, relative to older students, kids in primary school suffered more setbacks when student-teacher relationships were negative. But positive relationships were particularly beneficial to older students, and overall, "stronger effects were found in higher grades" (Roorda et al 2011).

Indeed, in one large study of American teens, the single most important school-based predictor of academic growth in mathematics -- from the 8th to 12th grades -- was a student’s perception of "connectedness" with his or her teachers (Gregory and Weinstein 2004).

Building stronger connections: What teachers and parents can do

How do we foster better student-teacher relationships? One way is to promote successful teacher practices.

For example, in recent experiments, British children (aged 7-11 years) were presented with two different kinds of teacher criticism. One involved personal criticism (e.g.,"I'm disappointed in you.") The other was focused on the behavior that the teacher wanted to correct ("Can you think of a better way to do it?")

Did the type of approach matter? It seems to have made a difference to children's perceptions. The kids who received personal criticism concluded that their teachers liked them less, and the experience cast a long shadow: Even after success in a subsequent task, the kids continued to view their student-teacher relationship in a negative light (Skipper and Douglas 2015).

Such results are consistent with studies of younger children. Certain types of criticism can sap motivation, leaving kids feeling disheartened, frustrated, or helpless. As I've argued elsewhere, classroom behavior charts -- and other disciplinary techniques that publicly embarrass children -- might also have this effect. Do these techniques undermine student-teacher relationships? Nobody yet has studied this, but it seems plausible.

Meanwhile, it's clear that teachers need and deserve professional guidance for handling classroom conflicts in positive ways. When experts in the Netherlands and the United States have offered such specialized training, student-teacher relationships have improved (Spilt et al 2012b; Capella et al 2012).

But even if we help train teachers to handle defiant students, their are other factors to consider. For instance, in a large U.S. study, researchers found that female and European-American students were more likely to experience positive student-teacher relationships. Positive relationships were also more common for (1) kids who had parents who stayed in frequent contact with teachers, and (2) kids who had teachers who were well paid. Elementary school students were more likely to maintain positive teacher relationships over time when their teachers received higher salaries (O’Connor 2010).

So a variety of social forces influence student-teacher relationships (Saft and Pianta 2001), and while we should tread carefully when making inferences from correlations, it's reasonable to think that our cultural expectations – about kids, teachers, and what counts as appropriate behavior in the classroom – have something to do with these links.

Why, for example, are girls more likely to enjoy positive, supportive relationships with their teachers?

The research seems pretty compelling on this point. During the early years of schooling, girls outperform boys in attentiveness, task persistence, impulse control, and social skills (McWayne et al 2004; Rimm-Kaufman et al 2009).

As a result, girls may find it easier to adapt to school and get along with teachers.

If the sex difference reflects a difference in the timing of development – and that seems likely – then we ought to ask if our expectations about school are realistic for young boys. If we change these expectations to reflect what the average little boy can do, might student-teacher relationships improve?

Similarly, we should consider the culture of the classroom. There are many ways to run a classroom, and it’s easy to see how misunderstandings might arise when you and your teacher come from different backgrounds.

For instance, a small Dutch study found that ethnic- majority teachers reported less positive relationships with students of Moroccan heritage (Thijs et al 2012). This might reflect in-group favoritism, but even if people showed no preferences for members of their own ethnicity, they would still face the challenge of cross-cultural communication.

Because people from different cultures display emotion in different ways, teachers from the ethnic majority may miss important cues. When researchers compared Turkish immigrant teachers with native Dutch teachers, they found that Turkish immigrant teachers were more likely to detect anxiety and depression in Turkish immigrant children (Crijnen et al 2000).

Likewise, children may come to school with expectations that are out of sync with those of their teachers. Writing about the United States in 1988, educational researcher Lisa Delpit noted that the White American teachers she observed addressed their students in a roundabout way. Verbal directives were couched as suggestions or questions, like, “Is this where the scissors belong?"

By contrast, Delpit wrote, many Black American teachers stated the message more directly, (e.g., “Put those scissors on that shelf,") and the difference may have had important consequences. Kids who’d been raised to respond to explicit directives may not have recognized a teacher’s question for what it really was – a veiled command. Kids accustomed to indirect commands may have interpreted imperative language (“Do this") as harsh or angry. Either way, there was potential for misunderstanding and trouble.

There are doubtless many others reasons that communication can break down, including purely personal ones. To minimize conflict, we need to achieve a meeting of minds between teachers and students. That means (1) becoming consciously aware of our assumptions about the way teachers and kids should behave, and (2) communicating with each other about it.

Kids need clear instructions about teacher expectations, and teachers need to understand where kids are coming from – both literally and figuratively.

This suggests one of the ways that parents can help: They can work with teachers to identify communication problems and misunderstandings. But if parents and teachers come from different backgrounds, it may be hard for them to bridge the gap. Culturally-savvy go-betweens, like trained counselors, might be helpful. And when -- despite our best efforts -- relationships don't improve, I think we're justified in considering the option of classroom re-assignment. For some kids, there is lot at stake.

For the rest of us, it's time to reconsider the way our schools are organized. Are some school cultures so discouraging of friendly, social touch -- like a pat on the shoulder -- that they thwart the development of emotionally supportive student-teacher relationships? Is the whole premise of mainstream, secondary education -- students bustling from classroom to classroom, rarely getting the chance to develop personal relationships -- counter-productive?

These are questions worth asking.

Meeting the learning needs of all their students is a complex and demanding job for schools. How well students achieve at a school depends on such factors as how well teachers engage with their students and the relationships schools have with their students’ families and whānau. However the assessment of student achievement, or knowing what students know and can do, is fundamental to effective teaching and to students’ learning. Unless teachers know their students well and are knowledgeable about their achievements, they cannot be confident that their teaching is meeting the learning needs of their students.

From this study ERO found that schools faced several challenges in improving the quality of assessment practices and processes. These are discussed below under four headings: understanding assessment; collecting assessment information; analysing assessment information; and using assessment information.

Understanding assessment

Schools need good quality information on their students’ achievements to make both day-to-day and long-term decisions on how best to improve outcomes for students. For assessment systems across a school to work well, school managers, teachers and students need to be aware of the rationale that underpins the decisions being made about assessment.

In many schools in this study teachers did not have consistent and coherent understanding about the purposes of assessment and how the information would be used. This resulted in disjointed assessment activities that were not well integrated into the teaching and learning programmes or reflective of the learning priorities of the school.

ERO found a general need for teachers to improve their assessment literacy.Assessment literacy encompasses teachers’ knowledge about learners, learning and how to gauge that learning; their skills to examine achievement data and make sense of it; and their ability to use that data effectively to make improvements to their teaching, their curriculum management and the organisation of their school.

When teachers did not have high levels of assessment literacy, the effectiveness and usefulness of their assessment practices was affected. This resulted in:

  • teachers investing a great deal of time and resources into assessment activities that were not useful in diagnosing students’ learning needs, informing their learning or improving teaching programmes;
  • teachers gathering assessment information that was not useful to or used by other teachers;
  • school managers and teachers having limited understanding about the fitness of the planned assessment activities for their purpose. In many cases, the information gathered through assessment tasks would not accurately measure students’ achievements and understandings of important educational concepts and conclusions drawn about students’ achievements could be misleading; and
  • inappropriate or overuse of formative assessment strategies such as the development of learning intentions. When used well, these strategies enhanced students’ learning. When they were not well understood or well implemented, the students did not benefit from the formative assessment activities.

Collecting assessment information

Teachers’ information on student achievement should demonstrate what students have achieved and the progress they have made over time. This information can be drawn from a wide range of sources including the knowledge gained by teachers in their day‑to‑day interactions with students; analysis of students’ work and from more formally designed and administered assessment tasks. The information must be rich enough to provide comprehensive information about what students have achieved and their future learning requirements.

In almost all primary schools the teachers gathered information that accurately demonstrated their students’ achievements and progress in aspects of English and mathematics. They were less effective at gathering information in other curriculum areas that demonstrated their students’ achievements and progress accurately and effectively. Effective assessment practices established in English and mathematics were not being transferred to other curriculum areas.

Secondary school teachers were generally more effective than primary teachers in gathering assessment information that demonstrated students’ achievements within the respective curriculum areas. However, very few secondary schools had gathered information that effectively demonstrated students’ progress in all curriculum areas and were unable to show students’ progress over time.

Many schools reported a substantial investment, in terms of time and resources, in professional development activities related to assessment. Schools now need to develop ways of transferring the good practices learnt through professional development to all curriculum areas.

Analysing assessment information

Many teachers and school managers found the process of analysing and interpreting the results of students’ assessment activities difficult and challenging. ERO found a widespread need for school personnel to improve their data literacy – their ability to analyse both numeric and narrative assessment information accurately and proficiently and interpret the results so that they are understood by all potential users of the information including trustees, school managers, teachers, students, parents and the schools’ communities.

When teachers and school managers did not have a functional level of data literacy they were unable to analyse and use assessment information well and might draw incorrect conclusions from the assessment results. Decisions about students’ further learning could, as a consequence, be based on flawed information.

Using assessment information

The time and effort required to gather and analyse assessment information is only worthwhile if that information is used to improve outcomes for students. In this evaluation ERO reviewed how effectively information about students’ achievements was used by teachers to improve teaching and learning by students for further learning; by school managers and trustees to review programme and resourcing decisions; and to report to the school’s communities.

Students, teachers and school managers can use assessment information to improve learning only when they have:

  • collected good quality information that fairly represents what students know and can do;
  • analysed the information to accurately determine the achievements of students; and
  • correctly interpreted the information to report the achievements and progress of individual and groups of students and to identify their next learning steps.

When students are well informed about their achievements, progress and next learning steps they are better equipped to make good decisions about their own future learning. In many schools teachers were neither using good quality formative assessment strategies including having rich conversations with students about their learning; nor ensuring students understood the purpose and success criteria of learning activities; nor giving students effective and useful feedback. In these schools the students were not well informed about how well they were achieving or what they needed to do to improve their learning.

Students’ learning and achievements do not happen only in classrooms. Parents, families and schools’ communities should be active contributors to their children’s learning. They need to base their decisions on comprehensive, good quality information on students’ knowledge, abilities and learning needs. Only half the schools in this study reported achievement information to parents and the community effectively. A true three-way learning partnership of student-school-community can occur only when all parties are fully informed about achievements and progress.

ERO found that many schools did not effectively use the information gathered about students’ achievement to identify groups of students that needed extra assistance. It is unrealistic for schools to identify and monitor the progress of every aspect of diversity within their school. However, there are some groups of students in each school whose progress and experiences should be closely observed.

These groups of students should include:

  • the students whose assessment information shows that they may not be achieving to their full potential;
  • groups of students (particular to each school’s differing context and communities) that make up significant proportions of the schools’ roll; and
  • groups of students who have comparatively low success rates in attaining national qualifications.

Noting the disparity of achievement between groups of students is not sufficient - schools must work actively at addressing disparities. Schools need to identify the groups of students whose progress they will monitor and gather comprehensive data on their achievements. The information will provide a basis for identifying any trends and patterns in students’ achievements and for comparing the achievements of groups of students in the school. The teachers and school managers will then be able to make evidence-based decisions on how to meet the needs of their students.

Supporting assessment practices

This and other ERO evaluations have shown that, overall, assessment practice in schools can be considerably improved. While the Government has invested considerable resources in professional development programmes and developing assessment tools, with a strong focus on literacy and numeracy, this evaluation shows that many schools still need help in developing school-wide assessment policies, procedures and practices across all aspects of students’ learning.

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