An Educational Epiphany on the Link between Student-Teacher Relationships and Student Achievement:

From the Perspective of African American Middle School Boys

School is one of the most influential systems in a child’s ecology and it is that ecology that almost irrevocably shapes a child’s subsequent disposition toward learning and the pursuit of new knowledge.

So imagine this – a child eager to explore, willing to take risks, enthusiastic about engaging his/her peers, and earnestly willing to respond to prompts from teachers. Image this same eager beaver experiences schooling experiences constructed day after day, year after year by adults who have made a series uninformed judgments and decisions about this learner’s intellectual capacity based, even partially, on his/her race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, family structure, or residential zip code.

Not one conscientious educator or policy maker reading this blog post would allow their offspring to be knowingly subjected to adults who would, even in the slightest, underserve their child for any of the aforementioned reasons. Yet every day, in America, children are too often met by adults who harbor low expectations for the same children whom they have taken a pledge to serve to the best of their ability. This assertions is far from true about the vast majority of educators in our nation, but if it is true about one of us, it is true about one too many.

And you know what?

Many of our children can sense the low expectations that adults have of them. They often know and can sometimes articulate how adults with low expectations make them feel, but are we listening? Equally disconcerting is the fact that many of our children do not have a mechanism for processing or confronting the intangible, low expectations to which they are subjected. So as a result, that same eager beaver can – over time – turn inward, disengage, refused to be available emotionally to receive the education that they deserve and inadvertently their subsequent behavior reinforces the stereotypes projected upon them by the adults who should have known better than to judge children by their covers.

My scholarly research and experience as a teacher and school administrator (at the elementary, middle, and high school level) has shown me, without exception, that outside of expert-level knowledge of the content and effective delivery of instruction, the greatest catalysts of improvements in academic outcomes is a student-teacher relationship characterized by care, mutual respect, and high expectations. After all, the unit of change for student achievement and school improvement is not central office; it’s not a new textbook or basal; and it’s not even a new set of statewide curricular standards. The unit of change for student achievement and school improvement is the classroom. It’s where the real magic of school improvement takes transpires.

Wanting to better understand the impact of student-teacher relationships and teacher expectations on student achievement, I extensively interviewed eight African American middle school boys in a high-poverty, urban middle school in the Northeast. Each pupil reported the existence of a strong relationship between respectful interactions, high expectations, and their demonstrated ability to achieve academically. Without reluctance, the boys explicitly stated that it was their teachers who had the greatest effect on their desire and subsequent ability to achieve academically.

Note: [I have used aliases to protect the identity of the students who participated in the research].

Anthony and Andrew were specific about how their teachers motivated them to achieve academically. They described the motivating force as teachers’ concern for them as students. Anthony stated,