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2451585McHugh et al.Urban Education
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University of Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Rebecca Munnell McHugh, Psychology in Education, University of Pittsburgh,
5928 Wesley W. Posvar Hall, 230 South Bouquet Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA
Bridges and Barriers:
Rebecca Munnell McHugh
Christy Galletta Horner
, Jason B. Colditz
Tanner LeBaron Wallace
In urban secondary schools where underpreparation and dropping out
are real world concerns, students understand that their relationships with
teachers affect their learning. Using descriptive coding and thematic analysis
of focus group data, we explore adolescents’ perceptions of the bridges that
foster and the barriers that inhibit supportive relationships with teachers,
and the boundary expectations that function as both. The characteristics
of supportive student–teacher relationships identified by youth participants
suggest a number of teacher practices capable of meeting adolescents’
developmental needs and, as such, are likely to positively influence adoles-
cents’ developmental and academic trajectories.
adolescents, student–teacher relationships, high school, relatedness, focus
10 Urban Education 48(1)
Vulnerable youth, both those disadvantaged due to historical (e.g., racial and
ethnic minorities) and socioeconomic (e.g., those from low income, low
parental education households) factors, face a number of economic and
sociopolitical risk factors, such as underfunded schools and the exclusion of
their families from decision-making processes related to educational quality
(Ladson-Billings, 2006). Ultimately, these risks can culminate in lower aca-
demic achievement and increase risk for dropping out (Orfield, Losen, Wald,
& Swanson, 2004). Dropping out of high school is theoretically understood
to be a process rather than a discrete event (Finn, 1989; Hernandez Jozefowicz-
In an attempt to understand the multiple processes that can lead to school
withdrawal or failure, many researchers have sought to understand the under-
lying processes that lead up to early school leaving (Finn & Owings, 2006).
Feelings of not fitting in can lead to distraction (Crosnoe, 2011); this distrac-
tion can lead to disengagement from school-based tasks (Connell & Wellborn,
1991). On the other hand, identification with school, fostered through sus-
tained and multilevel participation, can connect youth to school in ways that
are thought to prevent early school leaving (Finn, 1989). Therefore, prevent-
ing early school leaving and encouraging positive youth outcomes appears to
depend on both positive relationships with school-based peers and adults and
a commitment to school (for intervention evidence of such see Catalano,
Haggerty, Oesterle, Fleming, & Hawkins, 2004).
Further evidence of these two separate school connection components,
relationships with teachers and participation/identification with school, is
found through recent factor analytic investigations of school connection mea-
sures. For example, McNeely (2005) found school connectedness to be com-
prised of two distinct factors—perceptions of the quality of teacher
relationships and a more general sense of school belonging. When tested, the
predictive power of the teacher relationships factor was a significantly stron-
ger predictor of youth outcomes (McNeely, 2005).
Additional support for the critical importance of student–teacher relation-
ships to subsequent academic achievement is derived from a variety of
sources. For example, analyzing National Educational Longitudinal Study
data, Wimberly (2002) determined three school relationship characteristics—
School Personnel Expectations, Teachers Talking with Students, and
Extracurricular Participation—were particularly salient factors for African
American students relative to later educational achievement. Likewise, using
a comprehensive change model to examine a dataset of approximately
600,000 students in Texas public schools, Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005)
McHugh et al. 11
determined a one standard deviation increase in teacher quality had signifi-
cant effects on student achievement in both reading and mathematics.
We know that relationships matter, but it is also important to critically
examine the romanticized notion of “supportive relationships.” For example,
distinctions between aesthetic care, sentimental phrases with little to no
action, and authentic care, actions that incorporate genuine consideration of
the person being cared for and their capacities, are critical (Toshalis, 2011;
Valenzuela, 1999). Current theories and measures for understanding teacher
relationships tend to focus on the responsiveness of a teacher during a single
observational period (see for example Hamre & Pianta, 2010). These data
provide some important information of student–teacher relationships, but
may lack an understanding of the history and context within the specific
classroom. Moreover, these adult-centric observational approaches overlook
adolescents’ unique and personal experience of school.
In order to guide educators on how to translate the slogan “relationships
matter” into preservice training, professional development and/or the evalua-
tion of effective teaching, a research-based theory of the interaction-specific
processes is needed. Fortunately, previous literature provides a set of thought-
ful qualitative inquiries reviewed below. The foundation for such work
focuses on three key components of a high school experience: instruction,
classroom management, and postgraduation planning.
This study aims to contribute to this important line of research by iden-
tifying in our data those specific processes which adolescents report foster
positive student–teacher relationships, referred to as bridges, as well as
those processes which hinder the development of such relationships,
referred to as barriers. By examining previous works regarding perceived
support among ethnically diverse urban youth (Ozer, Wolf, & Kong, 2008),
culturally responsive classroom management (Milner & Tenore, 2010), and
school networks for support and guidance (Farmer-Hinton, 2008), we link
our findings to previous research. Additionally, we use self-determination
theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000), to explain why certain
teacher practices are identified by youth as particularly powerful. Self-
determination theory highlights the role of needs fulfillment within rela-
tionships as well as the ongoing self-evaluative processes likely to determine
whether a positive student–teacher relationship will translate into positive
outcomes, such as academic achievement, for a student. In light of our find-
ings and the confirmation and extension of previous findings provided, we
offer action-oriented suggestions for increasing the quality of student–
12 Urban Education 48(1)
Engagement Processes Activated
Through Interpersonal Structures
All humans have a fundamental drive to satisfy the basic need to belong
through persistent, positive, caring relationships (Baumeister & Leary,
1995). Contextual conditions outside the domain of school such as family
economic risk or neighborhood risk can influence an adolescent’s ability to
“hang in” and develop school-based relationships able to satisfy belonging
and relatedness needs (Connell, Halpem-Fisher, Clifford, Crichlow, &
Usinger, 1995). For some youth, however, simply hanging in there may not
Youth are continually assessing how they believe others in their environ-
ment to perceive them, and in some cases, school-based adults intensify what
Spencer (1999, 2006) describes as the patterns of interpretations of these self-
appraisals, which link to experienced stress on the part of the adolescent.
Within classrooms, teachers form expectations of their students often focused
on anticipated achievement (Brophy, 1983; Davis, 2003). Differential teacher
expectations can have negative consequences for students for the fact that
students’ awareness of these differentials result in varying student behavior
(Brattesani, Weinstein, & Marshall, 1984; Kuklinski & Weinstein, 2000;
Though many teacher assessments may be both appropriate and accurate
(Brophy, 1983), it remains that many may not be. These faulty expectations
may instead be based on faulty assessments, counterproductive interaction
patterns that the student learned from previous bad relationships with teach-
ers (Davis, 2006), or even be influenced by race or ethnicity (McKown &
Weinstein, 2008). Whatever their origin, and to an extent even their accuracy,
when these expectations result in the teacher treating the students differently,
it can have unfortunate consequences, such as the increased risk of lowered
achievement of those students who do not receive the support that they per-
ceive that their peers receive, particularly when the students themselves are
attuned to these differences in treatment (Brattesani et al., 1984; Kuklinski &
Weinstein, 2000; McKown & Weinstein, 2008).
In the classroom, a student’s relationship with the teacher can foster aca-
demic value systems, sustain long-term engagement, and inform enduring
self-appraisals the student will form of him or herself as learner (Connell &
Wellborn, 1991; Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). Students experi-
encing anxiety, apprehension or alienation as a result of perceived negativity
of classroom climate or negative student–teacher relationships may be dis-
couraged from any subsequent attempts to form interpersonal bonds with the
McHugh et al. 13
teacher (Bernstein-Yamashiro, 2004) or future academic tasks (Connell
et al., 1995).
By offering a roadmap to the interplay between some of the major human
drives fulfilled through relationships and cognitive/affective processes, self-
determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985) provides a model of how an
individual student’s reading of the relational climate of a classroom can lead
a student to engage, disengage, or reengage in the learning context. The basic
needs component of self-determination theory suggests that humans are
driven to satiate three innate needs; these are the need for (a) autonomy, or a
sense of personal control and direction; (b) competence, or a sense of effi-
cacy within a context; and (c) relatedness, or quality interpersonal connec-
tion (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Reeve, 2012; Ryan & Deci, 2000). According to
basic needs theory, different levels of engagement across an environment are
due to the fact that psychological and developmental needs are fulfilled to
varying degrees, depending upon context-specific factors. In a classroom, for
example, students disengage or engage in a manner intended to prompt a
change within the environment.
In the context of student–teacher relationship formation, a student deter-
mines whether or not to continue to invest in a relationship with a teacher
based on these evaluations. For example, a student–teacher relationship
which provides a student access to resources needed to successfully reach
academic goals, and thus supports feelings of competence, would likely be
pursued. On the other hand, a relationship in which feelings of incompetence
are communicated would likely be dissolved. By considering the drive to
form and sustain interpersonal connections to others within a shared context,
we can begin to understand how a student decides whether to engage with or
disengage from a classroom environment. Therefore, we focus on the con-
cept of relatedness.
The basic human need to form interpersonal connections. Feelings of related-
ness within a given environment have tremendous potential to impact an indi-
vidual’s response to that environment. The concept of relatedness describes
an interpersonal connection within a given social context that is perceived as
secure and satisfying (Deci et al., 1991). Relatedness, therefore, plays an
essential role in fostering engagement, especially when initial intrinsic, or
innate, motivation is low or lacking. When the need for relatedness is being
met through the student and teacher working together to construct a positive
student–teacher relationship, external motivations for the aspects of the
14 Urban Education 48(1)
learning context that are not intrinsically motivating can be internalized,
which in turn prompts engagement (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Niemiec & Ryan,
2009). This can foster task persistence, or continued engagement, and
increase the chance of reengagement in challenging academic tasks leading
to greater appreciation and even eventual internalization of external values
(Reeve, 2012; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Empirical support for such claims comes from several recent studies. One
study examining these processes in two different samples, one consisting of
elementary students and the other of college students, found that both intrin-
sic motivation and internalized external motivation predicted academic
achievement (Burton, Lydon, D’Alessandro, & Koestner, 2006). Likewise,
relatedness between students and their teachers has been demonstrated to
predict students’ emotional and behavioral engagement (see for example
Skinner & Belmont, 1993). Additionally, the provision of emotional support,
a hallmark of feelings of relatedness, helps to sustain a students’ engagement
in the face of difficulties and adversity (Connell & Wellborn, 1991).
Conversely, when these needs are not being met, students may rightfully
resist environments perceived as negative; this behavior is often misunder-
stood by adults as defiance (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). Self-determination
theory recasts this rightful resistance as a behavioral communication of an
outstanding need. For example, a student may avoid attending or “ditch” a
class in which he or she feels “judged” or “stereotyped” by the teacher.
Careful attention to how students and teachers negotiate relationships through
a series of mutually determined understandings of the language they use, the
power each wields, and the behaviors they engage in (Davis, 2003; Meyer &
Turner, 2006) restructures student–teacher relationships as a collaboratively
constructed cooperative understanding. Each person in a relationship holds a
unique perspective and assessment of the relationship (Davis, 2003). Dyadic
interpersonal relationships constantly evolve as the two people negotiate and
renegotiate, evaluate and reevaluate their roles, their feelings toward each other,
and how they want their relationship to unfold (Davis, 2006; Kennedy, 2011).
Such relationships are naturally complex, and consist of many different features
and processes. Student–teacher relationships are no exception.
This study explores the manner in which urban youth make meaning of their
interactions with their teachers in both a concrete way, reflecting on their
lived experiences, and in a hypothetical, idealized way. Grounded within the
McHugh et al. 15
data and working from an emergent perspective, iterative data analysis
guided the development of our research questions:
• What do adolescents perceive as typical of their interactions with
• What do adolescents believe should and should not be typical of
their interpersonal interactions with their teachers?
• What do adolescents report their teachers should know more about,
and how do they feel that teachers should gather this information?
Design and Method
We collected focus group data (N = 13) at three urban sites across the United
States using an open-ended protocol. We employed descriptive coding to
explore emergent themes regarding student–teacher interactions to illumi-
nate a fuller understanding of adolescents’ perceptions of their classroom
experiences and their appreciations of these interactions.
Participants and Data Collection Procedures
Focus group data were collected in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (3 sites, 7 focus
groups), Minneapolis, Minnesota (1 site, 3 focus groups) and Los Angeles,
California (1 site, 3 focus groups). Researchers recruited study participants
(N = 78) for focus groups (average participants per group = 6) primarily
through after-school and community programs. In Pennsylvania, the protocol
was first developed with a convenience pilot sample of university freshmen
(n = 6); the second site was youth (n = 12) in a school-based after-school
program aimed at promoting youth leadership; the third site was youth (n = 25)
in a community-based program (as were the groups in both California, n = 22,
and Minnesota, n =13). The coinvestigators of the study had working rela-
tionships with the school-based and community-based recruitment sites, but
did not have prior relationships with youth participants. Program personnel
conducted the recruitment by mentioning the focus group opportunity to
program youth at a number of self-selected sites one week in advance to the
focus group date. During the focus groups, participants were compensated
with a catered meal. Parents of participants under the age of 18 provide con-
sent for their children to participate in the research prior to the focus group
sessions, and verbal assent was obtained before focus groups began in accor-
dance with the primary site’s IRB.
16 Urban Education 48(1)
Participants ranged in age from 14 to 20 years of age (M = 16.92,
SD = 1.30 years). The adolescents sampled represented a diverse racial com-
position, with 39.7% reporting as Black/African American, 23.1% as Asian/
Asian American, 16.7% as White/Euro-American, 3.9% as American Indian,
and 5.1% as multiracial (11.5% of participants did not report racial identifica-
tion information); additionally, 19.2% self-identified as Hispanic. Regarding
gender, 34.6% self-identified as female and 65.4% as male; though provided
the opportunity, no participants self-identified as transgender or nongendered.
Instead of asking youth to report parental occupation or income directly,
we used three items from the internationally validated Family Affluence
Scale (FAS II; Boyce, Torsheim, Currie, & Zambon, 2006). This decision
reflects our desire to avoid poor answering rates associated with traditional
socioeconomic status questions such as soliciting parental occupation
(Molcho, Gabhainn, & Kelleher, 2007; Wardle, Robb, & Johnson, 2002) and
maintain the possibility for cross-cultural comparison studies. An example
FAS II item includes, “How many cars, trucks, or vans does your family
own?” Our focus group sample’s mean score of 3.71 (SD = 1.29), on a scale
from zero to six, indicates a sample of high-midrange family affluence within
a global context. Considered in the context of U.S. standards, however, this
is a midaffluence sample.
Following a flexible protocol, facilitators guided youth participants
through two hands-on activities and multiple open-ended questions. The first
of these activities asked participants to indicate how much they felt unspeci-
fied adults in their lives knew about them by physically standing on a con-
tinuum line with the two ends representing the extremes knows nothing about
me and knows everything. Then, on the same continuum line, participants
indicated how much they felt the school-based adults in their lives knew. The
reasoning for where they stood at both times was discussed, as were any posi-
tion changes. Next, participants answered several open-ended questions
aimed at gathering information about their interpersonal relationships with
school-based adults. At one point, participants designated which aspects of
themselves (via manipulable cards reading “Likes & Dislikes,” “Goals,”
“Interests” and “Feelings” as prompts) they shared and did not share with
teachers and other school-based adults. Facilitators also asked the partici-
pants about times that they felt understood or misunderstood by their teach-
ers. Finally, moderators asked participants to pretend that they were teacher
educators, and to explain what teachers needed to know about them as stu-
dents and how to go about getting such information. Digital recorders cap-
tured the dialogue during all focus group sessions, and the resultant
de-identified transcripts constitute our qualitative data set.
McHugh et al. 17
Coding Procedures and Data Analyses
Using the NVivo 9 software package (for review, see Bazeley, 2010), we
descriptively micro-coded (units as small as phrases in a sentence, to full
conversations) data and examined how frequently different codes occurred
simultaneously to identify patterns and themes. Examining code co-occurrences
between our structural codes and our content codes provided a multifaceted
understanding of what the adolescent participants perceived as occurring in
their student–teacher interactions, as well as provided insight into the likely
implications of these relational assessments made by the adolescents. One
challenge to a focus group method, however, is that topics may be abandoned
and revisited multiple times within a relatively short span of time. Multiple
processes were frequently discussed simultaneously by participants because
(a) the participant reported experiencing them simultaneously; (b) the par-
ticipant believed them to be interrelated in regards to a specific experience;
or (c) the participant compared and contrasted dissimilar processes for
instructive purposes. As a result, codes occasionally overlapped in uninten-
tional ways. Therefore, to confirm the validity of our analyses, we manually
verified all relevant coding co-occurrences. This instance-by-instance verifi-
cation ensures that all counts of codes co-occurrences are accurate and did
not occur simply as artifacts of multiple sets of codes overlapping within the
same one-paragraph coding unit. Throughout this coding process, we utilized
three distinct types of codes: Mechanical codes, Conceptual codes, and
Structural codes (see appendix for an excerpt of our codebook). In the fol-
lowing paragraphs, we provide a brief overview of each distinct type of code.
Mechanical codes designated functional features of the focus group data
such as the specific speaker (moderator, participant, or other), the specific
actors referenced in any story or example provided by a youth participant (a
student–teacher interaction, a youth–parent interaction, etc.), and which par-
ticular protocol item participants were discussing (continuum of opinion,
identity cards, teacher educator, etc.). The mechanical codes facilitated data
reduction (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Namey, Guest, Thairu, & Johnson,
2008). By selecting only data which referred to teacher–student interactions
or regarded teacher-specific items of the protocol such as those reviewed
above, we generated a succinct, focused dataset with which to explore our
emergent research questions (Schutt, 2006).
Conceptual codes consisted of emergent and literature-based concepts.
We created conceptual codes through an iterative, cooperative process after
multiple readings of several transcripts (Booth, Colomb, & Williams, 2008).
These emergent codes allowed us to identify salient, repeated themes and
18 Urban Education 48(1)
concepts within the data, and form the heart of our analyses, as they represent
the content of the adolescents’ perceptions. Prior to independent coding, rat-
ers read and coded one transcript, compared the density of coding stripes
(Bazeley, 2010), and calculated interrater reliability scores (Viera & Garrett,
2005) in order to ensure coding fidelity (Namey et al., 2008). To ensure that
our codes were not redundant and had thematic unity, we examined the con-
vergence and divergence of conceptually similar codes, and collapsed mul-
tiple codes into one, or split one code into multiples, as necessary. We also
employed a few literature-generated codes specifically related to features of
The final type of codes used, Structural codes (Guest & McLellan, 2003;
Saldaña, 2009), designated when participants expressed hypothetical social
expectations or real observed social behaviors of teachers. This last set of
classifications became especially important when organizing data relevant to
the research questions. While conceptual codes explained the content of the
data, structural codes designated whether or not the adolescent’s story or
example described something that the teacher did or did not do. Additionally,
the structural codes reflected the adolescents’ judgments and values of the
story relayed, as to whether they felt it should or should not happen. Because
applying the structural codes involved a subjective process of interpreting
data, two or more researchers conducted this process collaboratively to reach
a consensus of interpretation.
This type of coding deliberately labeled the perceived effect of the interac-
tion on the closeness of the interpersonal relationship. As such, we were able
to explore the driving question in this coding process, “Did the interaction
bridge the two people to bring them closer together, or did it separate them or
create a barrier between closeness developing?” Finally, by examining the
thematic patterns identified, we gained a full understanding of the processes
that the participants related to us.
Findings and Discussion
During focus group sessions, participants drew on both personal experiences
as well as reported or witnessed experiences of others to describe real and
idealized student–teacher relationships. These stories of interaction took on
a range of forms—some were narrative stories of remembered events, while
others were broad, generalized descriptions of the nature of events or rela-
tionships in school. Students provided rich information about what they
wanted from teachers, both instructionally and interpersonally, and shared
important insights into how teachers may be better able to meet their students’
McHugh et al. 19
needs. This data gives us insight into both how students make sense of their
own and others’ interactions with teachers and also how interactional experi-
ences shape students’ generalizations about how “things are” between stu-
dents and teachers. Finally, our participants demonstrated engagement with
ongoing self-evaluative processes that provided assessments of the degree to
which school-based adults met their psychological and developmental needs.
Students spoke of the desire to collaboratively construct relationships with
teachers within distinct interpersonal boundaries. The need for teachers to
build appropriate and supportive relationships in which students felt known,
cared for, and understood existed simultaneously with the desire for teachers
to detect and uphold student-identified interpersonal boundaries. To make
sense of the complex features of student–teacher interpersonal relationships,
we will first discuss the student-reported bridges to supportive student–
teacher relationships. Next, we will address the barriers students described
that serve, with one notable exception, to stand in the way of positive student–
teacher relationships. In each section, student participants’ practical recom-
mendations regarding how to strengthen student–teacher relationships in
high school are discussed.
Building Bridges to Make Meaningful Connections
Bridges, one major thematic category in our data, consist of those interac-
tions which foster positive relationship development, or bring students and
teachers closer interpersonally. The most commonly discussed bridge was
effortful engagement, an instance in which one person actively and deliber-
ately engages another on an interpersonal level. A similar concept to
Gottman and DeClaires’s idea of bidding, “any single expression that says ‘I
want to feel connected to you’” (2001, p. 4), one student provided the
example of a time when she was struggling socially in school, and a teacher
noticed her distress:
[The teacher] noticed . . . it’s hard to notice from someone like me
because I don’t really like to talk about it . . . She didn’t know what
was going on . . . She thought I was just a good student in school and
not worrying about anything at home and stuff. When I told her my
problems, I felt like she knew me, because she told me . . . “It’s going
to be okay.” (Female CA1)
In this example, the student remembered the impression that her teacher
made when she took the time to pull her aside and ask how she was doing.
20 Urban Education 48(1)
When the student responded with her concerns, the teacher was encouraging
and supportive. The initial question prompted their relationship to deepen, as
the student replied that since they talked, she feels her teacher knows her.
Without the attempt to engage the student enacted by the teacher, their rela-
tionship may have remained more distant, the teacher believing this quiet
student to have no troubles while the student believing her teacher did not
genuinely care about her well-being.
Due to students’ frequent inability to perceive care without effort, teach-
ers’ effortful engagement provided students with information about teachers’
commitment to students’ well-being. These perceptions, then, informed the
student as to whether or not the teacher is fulfilling the student’s need for
relatedness. The fulfillment of these relatedness needs are theorized to affect
students’ assessment of whether or not to engage in the learning environment
(Connell & Wellborn, 1991).
Participants spoke clearly about the importance and value of teachers’
efforts to reach out and connect with them. One female student succinctly
stated, “The ones that do know you, care more.” Another adolescent stated
his experience with teachers:
Teachers are just interested in your learning . . . if you’re just sitting
there not doing nothing. Some teachers will just call to you and tell you,
“Hey, do your work.” But they’ll never ask you, “Oh, what’s wrong?
Are you feeling all right? Do you need something?” (Male, CA1)
This adolescent’s statement indicated when a teacher does not take the
time to inquire about what may be going on in the student’s life, the student
may interpret teachers as just interested in one particular, de-contextualized
aspect of a student, in this case learning. For adolescents engaged in complex
identity work, answering fundamental questions about who they are and who
they want to be, this “just teach” approach is unsatisfying and often leads to
adolescent disengagement (Chhuon & Wallace, 2012).
As evidenced by the frequency of teacher should (a structural code) and
bridging (a thematic concept) co-occurrences (n = 31), many students wished
to strengthen relationships with teachers. The majority of discussions of such
bridges reflected the students’ desire for these processes and interpersonal
experiences to occur with greater frequency. Effortful engagement was sug-
gested as something students thought teachers should do; however, the con-
cept was only discussed about half as many times as something teachers
already do. In fact, the desire for teachers to effortfully engage students was
the most commonly discussed prescriptive concept.
McHugh et al. 21
A roadmap to constructing bridges. Within educational settings, forming and
maintaining persistent, positive relationships in order to fulfill relatedness
needs remains vital, despite numerous constraints such as large class sizes
and a relentless focus on standardized testing. Youth participants described
ways in which teachers could maximize the limited opportunities available
for interactions with students. For example, a female described an experience
of feeling understood by recounting how one of her teachers was able to
connect with his students through simple, but repeated, acts of effortful
[My teacher] will ask you at least one or two questions about you and
how your day is. And all you have to do is just answer within a few
words and he’ll automatically know how you feel, and he’ll give you
motivation and stuff, just really inspirational words and you’re like,
“Oh, he understands where I’m coming from because he’s been
through it.” (Female, MN2)
This student’s example illustrates the strong trend repeated frequently
within our data of students’ perceptions of teachers knowing them or caring
about them depending on the teacher’s willingness to approach and engage
them. By asking students about their day, paying attention to student con-
cerns, and respecting student needs, the teacher let this student know he
cared. Significantly, the student identified this process of effortful engage-
ment as “giving motivation.” Also important is the “understands where I’m
coming from” portion of this adolescent’s explanation of her experience with
this teacher. The establishment of commonalities between student and teacher
helps to eliminates separateness between student and teacher in order to build
connections (Milner, 2011).
Building stronger student–teacher relationships can take place within a
predominantly instruction-focused setting. One participant, for example,
described establishing connections with some of her teachers:
I got to know my teachers really well. And since I had them for two
years, the same teachers, we built a relationship and they knew us, and
they knew that I was focused and I wanted to get my work done. So, it
was more of a relationship I would say. (Female, PA2)
In her explanation of building supportive relationships with teachers, this
student attributed her success to the length of time that they knew each
other. The duration of interaction, or “no end in sight” parameter, has been
22 Urban Education 48(1)
identified theoretically as a key characteristic of relationships able to fulfill
relatedness needs (see, for example, Baumeister & Leary, 1995), but also by
policy-oriented researchers who advocate for school relationship models that
ensure each student has a long-term relationship with at least one school-
based adult (see for example Wimberly, 2002).
Accordingly to our participants, bridge-building processes, such as effort-
ful engagement, do not have to be time- or labor-intensive, but they must be
authentic and genuine. Attention from teachers in the form of effortful
engagement was often appreciated as a form of expressed caring, which acted
to support relationship development. Several participants, while acknowledg-
ing the difficulty teachers might have connecting with students—especially in
the face of persistent disciplinary problems or challenging academic struggles—
maintained the importance of teacher’s effortful engagement in these circum-
stances. For example, one student said:
If a student’s grades are slipping you can call them in and talk to them
or something . . . pull them out of class or something or have them stay
after school and just talk… Talk about the situation. (Female, CA2)
To maintain school functioning, students in distress are in particular need
of supportive relationships with teachers (Juvonen, 2006). Moreover, stu-
dents living in worlds of hyper-segregation by race and class, but also in
terms of educational attainment, might face particular needs in terms of social
support in order to navigate discontinuity between personal experiences and
the college-bound ideal promoted in high schools (Farmer-Hinton, 2008).
This participant understood the critical role supportive teacher relationships
play for vulnerable students.
The special role of support. Adolescents’ interpretations of strong student–
teacher relationships positioned support as a critical factor of such relation-
ships. This support took on a variety of forms; when discussing instances in
which teachers had provided support, students remembered teachers giving
them advice, helping them with learning tasks, and assisting with more
abstract, global issues such as exploring possible goals and career options.
Support-related codes accounted for a large portion (about 40%) of the things
students wished teachers would do. Our findings align with Ozer, Wolf &
Kong’s (2008) findings that adolescents experienced care through the typical
support modes such as discussing problems or seeking advice, but also
through the context of academic instruction (see also Schmakel, 2008’s
example of teacher empathy). These findings also support the concept of
teaches as “institutional agents,” who have the ability to directly or indirectly
McHugh et al. 23
allocate resources or opportunities to students (Stanton-Salazar, 1997), and
the importance of school-based social capital gathered through school net-
works in regards to youth postgraduation planning (Farmer-Hinton, 2008).
The provision of resources towards students’ achievement of goals
accounted for nearly one third of discussions about support students reported
having received, as well as nearly one third of discussions of support students
desired. Students used phrases like “don’t hold you back in the class,” “helps
me get to my interests and my goals,” and “talks about life” to describe past
experiences of receiving resource support via teacher relationships, and also
to describe the types of support students desired more of from teachers. One
student explained that “‘Cause like you could talk to [teachers] about any-
thing and they would motivate you,” but she also described her current school
experience as not meeting that expectation, which “ticks you off a little bit.”
Another student believed teachers can “motivate me to do better in school
[rather] than to just goof off,” because they knew him well enough to have
high expectations of him. Thus, one of the primary perceived benefits of
strong, positive relationships with teachers is continued motivational
resources to persist in academically challenging experiences related to attain-
ing academic goals.
As can be seen above, many of these statements referred directly to
instructional experiences. The value instructional experiences have to
strengthening relationships has been found in other studies. For example, in
Ozer, Wolf & Kong’s (2008) sample of ethnically diverse urban adolescent,
more than half reported respect for teacher was based upon assessments of
teaching effectiveness and clarity of instructional approach, while those same
adolescents lost respect for teachers who did not explain course material or
seem to care whether students understood it. The consistency of these find-
ings across qualitative studies of adolescent–teacher relationships demon-
strate the salience, or perceived importance, of these adolescent interpretations
of school-based experience and of the value that the students assign to this
kind of effort.
Barriers: Understanding Pattern and Contradiction
We define a cluster of emergent categories, barriers, as processes that pre-
vent the two persons in a relationship from becoming interpersonally closer.
Most often, these processes function to both undermine connections between
students and teachers, and to prevent those connections from growing stron-
ger. The most commonly discussed barrier was inattention: an instance in
which a person does not adequately attend to another person’s actions or
24 Urban Education 48(1)
communicated thoughts. In this section, we describe students’ representa-
tions of some barriers described as detrimental but also a barrier unexpect-
edly described as appropriate and beneficial—that of boundaries.
Barriers that alienate youth. As mentioned above, our adolescent partici-
pants interpreted failed attempts, or the perceived lack of teacher attempts, to
make a meaningful connection and offer support—especially in response to a
problem—as a lack of caring. As one male explained:
I can truthfully say, most teachers now, they don’t care about their
students, they just care about getting money. They just care about get-
ting paid . . . if you don’t know what you’re doing, they’ll briefly show
you but they’re not gonna like really show you. (Male, PA3)
Here, this adolescent perceived his teacher to attend to an instructional
need superficially, and consequently the student equated this inattention to a
lack of teacher investment in his well-being. In a more extreme example, one
youth suggested his teachers cared so little about him, even in dire need, he
would not receive assistance:
Say my mom and dad see me like on the streets. They would help me.
And if, if my—like a teacher would see me, they’d probably just like,
“Oh, you see what you did. You did, you just messed up there.”
[Teachers] wouldn’t care. (Male, CA3)
Here, this adolescent contrasted the investments in his well-being made by
his family with the investments made by school-based adults in order to dem-
onstrate his interpretations of his relationships with teachers. Milner and
Tenore’s (2010) proposal that teachers’ understandings of school as commu-
nity, wherein students and teachers are conceptualized as family members as
a critical component of culturally responsive classroom management, maps
onto this adolescent’s lack of confidence in the teacher’s genuine investment
in students’ well-being.
Statements similar to the one above demonstrate the perceived importance
of teacher inattention. However, more than simply the lack of effortful
engagement, incidences coded as inattention had a negative, not just neutral,
connotation—teachers cared so little about them that they did not even pay
attention. These references include phrases like “[teachers] never ask us
about our background,” they “just teach,” the teacher “always says he has
something else he has to do,” and teachers “just . . . give us the work.” From
the complicated features of their lives outside of the classroom to their
McHugh et al. 25
individual instructional needs, student statements indicated a belief that their
teachers did not understand adolescents as individuals. One student summed
it up saying “they don’t want to get to know us, that’s how it feels.”
Because empirical evidence exists that teachers are reluctant to get to
know their students on an interpersonal level (see for example Davis, 2006),
students likely perceive this hesitation accurately. Due to the fact that instruc-
tional experiences are co-constructed, barriers such as inattention can elicit
behavioral response in students. As one student concluded, “I’m just not rais-
ing my hand or speaking to the teacher at all.”
In addition to the belief that many teachers do not attend to or care for
students, some students reported believing that their teachers’ negative
assumptions about students stemmed from the teacher having a stereotype:
an instance when a person is presumed to behave, believe, think, or experi-
ence something simply because of some external categorization. Stereotyping
moves beyond inattention, which could be due to any number of uninten-
tional circumstances such as being overworked, a high number of students in
a day, or too little time spent with any one student. Rather, stereotyping sug-
gests an intentional neglect of individual differences in favor of overriding
assumed group characteristics; as such, the following examples are more
potentially damaging than the preceding.
Across all focus groups, there were almost as many incidences relayed of
teachers enacting stereotypes as there were of teacher inattention (22 to 25
references, respectively); not surprisingly, no students reported stereotyping
as something they wanted teachers to do. These beliefs were often discussed
as undermining the potential for creating strong student–teacher relation-
ships. Participants relayed multiple incidences of their teachers and school
personnel applying stereotypes to themselves and their fellow students.
These incidents could be stereotypes as broad as stereotypes about racial
Last year when I was here I had my braids in and they thought auto-
matically I was a bad student. (Male, PA3)
as specific as stereotypes about members of the same family,
I have a brother. He’s the total opposite of me and . . . [teachers] judge
me like to my brother’s standards, and I’m a whole different person.
or based upon an individual’s academic achievement:
26 Urban Education 48(1)
. . . the teachers that don’t really know me, they just judge me by my
academics and stuff. (Female, CA2).
Students were quite aware of and sensitive to teachers’ stereotyping
behaviors and negative assumptions. Awareness of stereotyping develops
quite young (McKown & Weinstein, 2003), and some of the students in
our focus groups were deeply affected by teachers’ negative assumptions.
Students wished that teachers would take the time to find out more about
And just don’t look at it like, “our life or our looks”—just [looking] a
little bit inside of the student would be better. (Male, PA4)
Students advocated that their teachers should give them the benefit of the
doubt and expressed appreciation when teachers did evidence a nonjudgmen-
tal attitude toward students. Regardless of the variety of stereotype, students
reported that these overgeneralizations obscured their unique features under
the overlay of presumed characteristics. As we know from previous research,
stereotypes have detrimental effects on how students see themselves and sub-
sequently perform (Steele, 1997), and on how teachers evaluate their students
(Downey & Pribesh, 2004). Our findings illustrate the effects of stereotypes
on classroom functioning. These incidents acted as barriers preventing the
student and teacher from growing closer, thus impacting not only their aca-
demics in a direct manner, but also in an indirect manner by prohibiting the
satiation of the need for relatedness and connection between the student and
Boundaries as a developmentally supportive barrier. As adolescents move
towards emerging adulthood, the optimal student–teacher relationship must
support continued identity work and autonomy-seeking (Arnett, 2007). Ado-
lescents’ desire to form relationships with adults remains, but these relation-
ships must accommodate adolescent development (Davis, 2003). Our data
suggest developmentally supportive school-based adult relationships are, in
part, derived from the collaborative construction of boundary expectations.
Establishing and maintaining clear, mutually constructed interpersonal bound-
aries does in fact keep certain aspects of two persons (i.e., student and adult)
separate. However, within these boundaries students reported experiencing
optimal student–teacher relational experiences. Based on our data, we theo-
rize these interpersonal boundaries, as described by our adolescent partici-
pants, provide a sense of predictability and comfort.
McHugh et al. 27
The desire to coconstruct predictable and appropriate boundaries within
the student–teacher relationship is evident in one student’s comment that
“(i)t’s supposed to be a teacher and student relationship.” Another described
the perceived importance of boundaries in this way:
I’d say [teachers should spend] time to know the student and get close
with them as possible as you can, but not that close that they begin to
feel like you’re doing something wrong. (Female, CA2)
Our participants were very clear that close student–teacher relationships
are not friendships. Statements such as “(t)he teacher’s objective is to teach,
not to have the students like the teacher,” “they’re not in my personal life, so
I’m not going to get to know my teacher,” and “I don’t confide that much in
my high school teachers, ‘cause that wouldn’t be appropriate” demonstrate
that adolescents have different expectations for their relationships with teach-
ers as compared to other social relationships. Based on our analyses, the
student–teacher relationship as described by our participants is a professional
one in which, under ideal conditions, both parties are invested in a common
goal—that of the student’s academic success. For example, as one student
stated in criticism of a teacher who she felt violated her boundary
I feel I’d rather have her sit down with me and critique what it is that
I need in the class to pass and stuff, like—I mean, she talks to me about
some of my interests, but, um, that’s not gonna get me to pass the
class—and that’s my goal. (Female, CA2)
This adolescent focused her attention on passing the class; however, she
felt that her teacher focused too much attention on the more personal question
of her interests. Her expectations for the boundaries in their relationship ori-
ented more towards the professional, while her teacher’s seemed, in the stu-
dent’s opinion, to orient more towards the personal.
Our adolescent participants, like the one above, quite clearly stated which
aspects of their personalities they felt comfortable sharing, and which they
did not. Universally regarded as important, participants named students’
strengths and weaknesses as learners as the most vital personal information
for a teacher to know. Interests and goals, almost universally agreed to be
appropriate, were far less controversial than personal history, which typically
split the adolescents in two groups, often differing on what they defined as
28 Urban Education 48(1)
personal history. Specifically, deep personal history, family circumstances,
or anything that they could “get in trouble” about were not acceptable mate-
rial to be shared; however, the fact that there are family circumstances that
might warrant some leniency crossed back into acceptable information to
share. Feelings and emotions, however, were typically regarded as too per-
sonal to share; one participant summed up this finding perfectly,
It’s supposed to be a teacher and student relationship. When you put
feelings in it, it makes it like a friendship, but it’s not supposed to be.
The statements above seem to contradict—on the one hand promoting
effortful engagement and support and on the other promoting interpersonal
boundaries. These delicate distinctions indicate the complex reality of student–
teacher relationships in high schools. Regardless of intentions, teachers’ bids,
or attempts to engage students, might be misinterpreted as intrusions upon
the students’ privacy, or as punitive actions. One student described this con-
cept of bid misinterpretation in the following way:
The students probably take it in a different way, like a negative way, and
they’re probably thinking in their mind, like get off my back or some-
thing . . . you know, you can’t breathe around [teachers]. (Male, CA3)
The challenge each student–teacher dyad faces lies in the construction of
interpersonal boundaries that maximize the potential of the relationship to
meet the student’s developmental needs and are close enough so that students
feel cared for and supported, but not intruded upon. Social mores, power dif-
ferentials, respect for privacy, and characteristics of each individual are likely
all at play in the co-construction of these boundaries.
Ozer, Wolf and Kong (2008) suggest distinctions between the student as
person and the student as learner are critical. Currently, though, these remain
undifferentiated in the literature. Based on our results, one could make the
parallel to those aspects of the adolescent which fall on either side of the
boundaries—the self as learner consisting of the accessible aspects of
the student, and the self as person consisting of those aspects that remain
inaccessible. This distinction is exemplified in the following participant
. . . I think teachers need to get to know you like in the goals and inter-
ests area, but not in the feelings in area because that’s that kind of
McHugh et al. 29
respect boundary. So they don’t need to know your past, like your
whole past, everything that happened. They don’t need to know how
you feel about everything. But, if they know what you’re interested in,
they know where you want to go, not necessarily where you’ve been
. . . I don’t know, just get involved somehow. (Female, PA2)
The respect boundary the adolescent referred to brings to the forefront a
key characteristic of student–teacher relationships linked to academic
achievement. As the youth says, teachers don’t need to know a student’s
“whole past,” but teachers do need to know where a student wants to go and
what that student is interested in, and this information will be highly indi-
vidualized. Determining the aspects of the student most relevant to reach
academic goals is a level of specificity needed so that the positive student–
teacher relationship is not the end of itself; rather, it is the translation of that
supportive relationship into academic achievement and positive outcomes
Building bridges while respecting boundaries. Effortful engagement leads to
knowledge and connection, but its success depends on existing knowledge.
In other words, possessing some degree of knowledge about individual stu-
dents, then, gives the teacher a greater opportunity to individualize interac-
tions based on student’s characteristics. Participants described a multitude of
initial approaches teachers might take in order to unobtrusively collect infor-
mation. Similar to the suggestions for simple modes of effortful engagement
offered above, our participants also suggested methods for gathering infor-
mation about students. For example, several students recommended learning
through classroom observation:
Well, I don’t think the teacher should really ask the student, I think the
teacher should study the student. Not like in a stalking way, [laughter]
but just like study them. (Male, CA3)
This student clearly voiced his desire for the upholding of boundaries
regarding the solicitation of personal information along with the simultane-
ous desire to be known by his teachers within these comfortable boundaries.
The participants promoted observation for several reasons, including the
notion that “how you interact with your friends in the classroom” allows for
a “double-sided view” of the student. Some adolescents even recommended
specific things for teachers to attend to, and these recommendations focused
on the teacher gathering some degree of tricky emotion information without
alarming the student or forcing them to discuss a personal issue. However, as
30 Urban Education 48(1)
our participants pointed out, this kind of classroom environment needed to be
established from the beginning of the school year in order for students to feel
Additional suggestions demonstrated the adolescents’ opinion that instruc-
tion is closely linked to this process. For example, participants recommended
simply asking the student if they needed help or if everything was alright on
a frequent basis. Participants also suggested teachers have students write
about their goals, interests, questions or concerns and then using that infor-
mation to plan for interpersonal and instructional interactions. Finally, the
participants recommended caution, both when teachers joke around with
their students in that it can cross the line into too offensive, and also when
asking students questions. One participant cautioned against “(b)eing nosey”
saying that this when questions are too intrusive and cross the boundary,
whereas being “friendly is just get to know the person; . . . (a)nd then keep
that into yourself,” stressing maintaining confidence as key.
Students reflected on how teachers might communicate positive intentions
during attempts to effortfully engage that could decrease a student’s likeli-
hood of becoming defensive. One student presented one way in which teach-
ers might be more likely to make a meaningful connection:
I guess they just need to make it known that they’re there for support,
but not to force talking upon anyone. (Female, PA1)
This type of bid gives students the ability to choose whether or not to
engage in help-seeking, personal disclosure, or any other act of relating,
while simultaneously working toward meeting the students’ needs for relat-
edness by demonstrating both a degree of care and respect for the student as
a unique individual. Thus, boundaries can simultaneously be understood as
appropriate and desired support for adolescents’ establishment of an indepen-
dent identity, as well as indications that adolescents clearly understand the
role of teachers as gatekeepers to critical resources.
One youth’s lament about a particular teacher provides a key takeaway from
our interpretations of adolescents’ understanding and experiencing relation-
ships with teachers in high school:
One of my teachers, sometimes, I feel that her way, her approach to
trying to [engage] her students is by getting her students to like her.
McHugh et al. 31
And I think that that’s not, that shouldn’t be the teacher’s objective.
Here, this female student recognized what Toshalis (2011) calls the “rhet-
oric of care”—a care that “ultimately produces symbolic violence through
the deflection of accountability, the foreclosure of opportunity, and the disre-
gard for sociopolitical inequities.” By not taking responsibility for providing
a genuinely caring, supportive environment, taking steps to provide opportu-
nities relevant to the adolescent’s needs, or even acknowledging some stu-
dents simply need more assistance than others, but instead choosing to merely
garner surface level affection, this teacher is a disappointment to her student.
As a case example of missed opportunity for genuine student–teacher con-
nection, this critical perspective of impersonal, shallow care offered by the
adolescent focuses us on teachers’ objectives.
Our focus group participants, representing a diverse cross-section of urban
US high school students, had very clear and consistent perceptions of typical
student–teacher relationships, and of how these relationships should function
optimally. In our data, we identified bridging processes, the most important
of which were incidences in which the teacher undertook intentional actions
so as to engage or connect with their students. The adolescent participants
repeatedly endorsed appreciation for and clarified the value of the effort that
their teachers expend when they make bids or overtures at interactions with
them. Though these overtures may be as small as demonstrating an under-
standing of how the student is feeling or helping with a difficult learning task,
these bids let students know that their teacher cares about them and is invested
in their success as individuals.
We likewise identified barrier processes, the most salient of which were
incidences of perceived teacher inattention and stereotyping. All of the barri-
ers discussed by our participants demonstrated a lack of investment in the
student as an individual, and again, our participants demonstrated a marked
attunement to the repercussions of these interactions, and stated a strong
desire for these occurrences to be less prevalent in their daily interactions.
We also identified an essential process of establishing mutually con-
structed boundaries. While these processes do not bridge two people together,
they also do not act as a typical barrier. Instead, mutually constructed bound-
aries establish shared respect and guidelines for appropriate behavior within
the normative roles of teacher and student. Based upon our data, we hypoth-
esize students and teachers working together to establish these boundaries
allows for a direct translation into academic achievement and positive youth
32 Urban Education 48(1)
We argue attention to both bridges and barriers will improve student
engagement and academic achievement models. Relatively few participants
reported consistently experiencing positive, supportive relationships with
teachers in which their needs were met; instead, many reported generally
feeling un-cared for and misunderstood by teachers. By recounting rare sup-
portive encounters with teachers and revealing perspectives on ideal student–
teacher relationships, participants were able to provide valuable information
about how teachers might simultaneously meet students’ academic and rela-
Implications for Educational Practice
Despite this evidence that student–teacher relationships matter to youth out-
comes, policymakers tend to focus on increased student achievement rather
than the social processes and relational aspects of schooling that may
strongly influence this achievement. A brief review of several successful
Race to the Top (RTTT) recipients illustrates how policymakers systemati-
cally neglect considerations of student–teacher relationships. In these recipi-
ents’ proposals, the quality of student–teacher relationships is reduced to
to-be-determined status or undefined references to school climate, or are
considered the domain of external community partners who service such
concerns (e.g., Delaware Department of Education, 2010; Massachusetts
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 2010; Tennessee
Department of Education, 2010). Current economic and political pressures
generate conditions that are not conducive to high levels of contact between
students and teachers; understanding how to maximize the limited interac-
tions that students and teachers do experience is critical.
To be fair, however, our empirical understanding of how and why positive
student–teacher relationships translate into student engagement, and ulti-
mately student achievement, is still developing. In particular, how students
and teachers collaboratively construct supportive relationships and the con-
tribution of these relationships in promoting student engagement in learning
is of particular relevance. Additionally, our findings regarding the desire for
interpersonal boundaries may seem to contradict previous work which indi-
cates that students desire deep, more intimate relationships with their teach-
ers (see, for example, Cammarota & Romero, 2006; Valenzuela, 1999).
However, we propose that rather than constituting a contradiction to these
previous works, our findings regarding boundary expectations instead reflect
a reaction to the pragmatic concerns of such contextual factors as the inten-
sity of maintaining status among peers, instructional strategies that lack
McHugh et al. 33
enacted purpose, and hostile interactions with school-based adults faced by
our youth participants.
Teachers face tremendous obstacles in establishing meaningful relation-
ships with even some of their students, let alone all of them (Weinstein,
Madison, & Kuklinski, 1995). In a hypothetical school, a given teacher may
have classes of anywhere from 20 to 40, and may have up to eight different
classes a day, which they may only see two or three times a week. Likewise,
a high school student may have up to eight different teachers in one day;
switch classes half-way through the year and therefore have courses with up
to sixteen different teachers in a year; only see each for 45 min to an hour
each day; and only have a given teacher for one course. In today’s economic
climate, schools are being asked to do more with less, intensifying already
Sadly, some schools may pose even more challenges than these pragmatic
ones. As Valenzuela (1999) points out, in many schools where students’
strengths, such as their cultural heritage, are devalued, student–teacher rela-
tionships are “often fragile, incomplete, or nonexistent” (p. 5). However,
when students are given the opportunity to form relationships with their
teachers based on interpersonal communication, valuing of opinions, and
purposeful activities, they may grow to desire and appreciate more intimate
understandings of their teachers (e.g., Romero, Arce, & Cammarota, 2009).
Previous research has found that negative student–teacher interactions can
consist of the teacher engaging in gossiping, stereotyping, or even bullying
(Whitted & Dupper, 2008). In rushed, anonymizing, and even hostile school
environments, determining which teachers are “safe” to form a relationship
with is a risky gamble that many students may not wish to make. In such a
high-stakes environment, in which the student’s academic future, social
standing and emotional health may face ramifications for trusting in the
wrong person, many students may do as our participants suggested when they
expressed a preference for caution via the maintenance of interpersonal
These realities do not negate the need for what Valenzuela (1999) and
Toshalis (2011) have labeled authentic caring, but do mean that adolescents
may temper their expectations regarding the extent to which a supportive
interpersonal relationship can be formed within a given school context.
Thus, by understanding relatedness and autonomy existing simultaneously
within the mutually constructed boundary expectations, as endorsed by our
youth participants, these boundaries can function in dysfunctional environ-
ments as protective structures within which students can maintain a positive
sense of self.
34 Urban Education 48(1)
Building positive student–teacher relationships does not need to occur
outside of everyday instructional practices. It is likely that a set of high lever-
age teaching practices could be identified as high leverage precisely because
they increase student learning and build connections between students and
teachers simultaneously. This strategy represents a no-cost, high impact
approach. For example, teachers can structure learning activities to explicitly
recognize an adolescents’ evolving identity as an individual, such as have
been found to engage youth in productive explorations of both self and con-
tent (Bondy, Ross, Gallingane, & Hambacher, 2007; Faircloth, 2009). These
experiences, we believe, provide an organized structure for youth to actively
explain what they think and why they think it, rather than passively consume
prepackaged information; research on early-career teachers has found that
such collaborative experiences of joint learning positively benefit the teacher,
too (Donnell, 2007). Likewise, a teacher’s ability to engage in “proximal
formative assessment” (Erickson, 2007), or in-the-moment taking stock of
individual student comprehension, assists teachers in planning future instruc-
tional moves. This coincides with the observational strategies promoted by
our adolescent participants. And finally, by using “revoicing techniques”
teachers can connect students’ everyday language with academic language,
in order to maintain students’ ownership of ideas yet promote their usage of
scientific language (Windschitl et al., 2010). We believe these kind of revoic-
ing techniques promote the teacher’s authentic listening, and demonstrate to
youth the teacher’s commitment to student learning.
Limitations and Future Research
An inductive data analysis approach combined with a focus group method
effectively yielded the depth of information required to undertake a thematic
analyses of students’ perspectives on student–teacher social interactions.
However, our study is not without limitations. Group dynamics may have
played some role in individuals’ willingness to share dissenting perspectives
(Stewart, Shamdasani, & Rook, 2007), especially in cases where groups
were large and consisted of peers of differing social status within the group.
Our participant recruitment through community-based extra-curricular
programs may have led to sampling a more limited population of youth than
sampling through a school-based setting would have afforded us. Though our
sample did represent an ethnically diverse cross-section of youth, our selec-
tion of recruitment sites focused on low-mid affluence-level neighborhoods
and the programs that service them. Although using community-oriented
McHugh et al. 35
sites limited the school and academic standing data that we were able to col-
lect, this sampling strategy did afford us the ability to analyze across schools
and across geographic location (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Los Angeles,
California; and Minneapolis, Minnesota) for consistency of themes.
Additionally, descriptive data on student characteristics would have strength-
ened our investigation. For example, current academic standing or level of
engagement in school, personality traits, and belief systems all may influence
what factors different individuals perceive as bridges versus barriers.
Understanding how student characteristics such as gender, race, ethnicity, family
affluence, and academic achievement influence school-based social processes is
critical. It is likely that some students prompt positive environmental responses
and others do not; examining student–environment interactions paired with a
detailed investigation of teacher practice is needed to fully understand how
student–teacher relationships function in high schools. Further, exploring schools
which support student–teacher relationships to both high and low degrees would
allow for an exploration of the contextual factors hypothesized to account for
apparent discrepancies regarding the degree of intimacy desired by adolescents.
Conducting similar focus groups with secondary school teachers would
provide an enriched understanding of the themes and perspectives identified
in this research, because we could explore the convergences and divergences
of perspectives among teachers and between teachers and students. In par-
ticular, teachers may contribute additional information regarding how to suc-
cessfully navigate around practical barriers, such as increasingly large class
sizes and mounting pressure to focus on test preparation, which can impede
the formation of substantive relationships with students.
Finally, observational studies of teacher practice would provide an eco-
logically valid understanding of the salient themes identified in this article.
Ultimately, we believe attending to adolescent perceptions not only under-
scores the importance of relatedness within high schools, but also provides
theoretical insight into the mechanisms by which this can be achieved.
Back-Channel Communication: incident in which two or more
people are talking about another; most frequently, topic person is not present
(though this may occur), and such communications are inferred by or later
related to topic person.
36 Urban Education 48(1)
Boundaries: participant expresses that someone is expected to act or speak
in some way based on rank, role, or relationship.
Carelessness: instances or occurrences in which the participant or the
person about whom the participant is relating failed to adequately take into
consideration another person’s needs, desires or likes/dislikes; may refer to
verbal, physical, engagement, emotive, or relational.
Consequence: a repercussion of a given action, behavior, statement or
Inattention: instances or occurrences in which the participant or the person
about whom the participant is relating failed to adequately attend to another
person’s actions or communicated thoughts or feelings; may refer to verbal,
physical, emotive, or relational.
Stereotype: when a person is presumed to behave, believe, think, or expe-
rience some emotion simply because of some external categorization; typi-
fied by an intensified, overgeneralized, and frequent reinterpretation of a
perceived attribute to an extreme degree and applied regardless of contrary
Unspecified Barriers: processes which act as barriers to a relationship
growing closer, but that do not meet the definitional criteria of another spe-
cific barrier process.
Bridges. Connecting: participant refers to or describes the process by which
someone transitions into “being known” by the participant, or by which the
participant is “known” by them; the act of connecting with another person, or
Effortful Engagement: an instance in which one person actively and delib-
erately engages another on an interpersonal level.
Help-Seeking: the act of requesting and/or receiving assistance from
another person; may be educational, verbal, financial, physical, or advisory;
the request for one to enact one’s resources for the benefit of another.
Personal Disclosure: participant describes or relates an occurrence in
which they either shared something personal with another person, or when
another person shared something personal with the participant; may be posi-
tive, neutral, expression of uncertainty or vulnerability, or any of these in
combination with negative.
Prediction and Interpretation: when a person demonstrates the ability to
anticipate another person’s reaction (verbal, active, emotive, etc.) to an action
(verbal, active or emotive) performed by the predictor, and to accurately
gauge their intention underlying communication, actions undertaken, etc.
(Understanding) Constraints: temporal, monetary, physical, familial/
relational, etc. features of a participant’s life which, per participant report,
McHugh et al. 37
may make connecting to others or completing a given task a more compli-
cated and/or difficult proposition than would otherwise be.
Support. Unspecified Support: the act of providing or sharing emotional
assistance, reassurance or bolstering, or other form of support that do not
meet the definitional criteria of another specific support process.
Catharsis: mutual emotion sharing or emotional expression between two
or more persons.
Companionship: the desire to share time, physical space, or communica-
tion with another person, typically in a friendly or emotionally positive
Conflict Resolution: the act between two or more people to work collab-
oratively on resolving a point of disagreement, conflict, misunderstanding,
etc.; primarily verbal, though may incorporate resource allocation.
Empathizing: an attempt to share in or recreate another’s emotional
Leniency/Willingness to Work Out Difficulties: the emotional and cogni-
tive intention and commitment to resolving conflicts, differences of opinion,
etc. that occur between two or more persons; this implies the intention to
Problem Solving: request and/or receipt of assistance from one person by
another in dealing with a real or hypothetical problem, conflict, tumultuous
situation, or issue; primarily verbal in nature, and tends to be focused on
social situations or circumstances.
Protection: the act of buffering or guarding another person; may be verbal
(e.g.: verbal defense), physical, legal, or emotional/relational.
Resource: various different types or degrees of assistance that one person
can or does offer another person; may be financial, emotional, temporal, pro-
tective, work/education, etc.
Sharing of Difficulties: discussion of the revelation of personal problems,
concerns or issues to another person; participant may be discloser, or dis-
closed-to, but specific subject matter regards a negative occurrence in the
Soothing: the desire of a person for the consideration, kind words, or
soothing actions of another person; the act of providing the above.
Structural Codes. Teacher Does: incidents in which a participant relates a
specific instance or example of behavior that was specifically done by the
Teacher Does Not: incidents in which a participant relates a specific
instance or example of behavior that was specifically NOT done by the
teacher; these incidents are most typically paired with a value-judgment.
38 Urban Education 48(1)
Teacher Should: incidents in which a participant relates a specific instance
when they feel that a teacher SHOULD have done something (coded regard-
less of actual occurrence of the behavior), or example of (potential or actual)
teacher behavior that the student relayed feelings (or an affirming value judg-
ment) that such behavior SHOULD happen.
Teacher Should Not: incidents in which a participant relates a specific
instance when they feel that a teacher SHOULD NOT have done something
(coded regardless of actual occurrence of the behavior), or example of (poten-
tial or actual) teacher behavior that the student relayed feelings (or a negative
value judgment) that such behavior SHOULD NOT happen.
Two additional manuscripts in this series have been submitted for publication—
please see references for full citations.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The authors disclosed the receipt of the following financial support for the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article: The Central Research Development
Fund at the University of Pittsburgh funded this research; the authors received no
financial support for the authorship, and/or publication of this article.
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Rebecca Munnell McHugh, currently a PhD student in the applied developmental
psychology program at the University of Pittsburgh, has served as a research assistant
for several psychiatric studies. Her research interests include development and mean-
ing-making in adolescence.
Christy Galletta Horner is a doctoral student and graduate student researcher in the
applied developmental psychology program at the University of Pittsburgh. She stud-
ies social and emotional development across diverse contexts.
Jason B. Colditz is a graduate student in the social and comparative analysis in edu-
cation program at the University of Pittsburgh and serves as a research coordinator at
the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. His current research interests include
implementing quantifiable metrics in qualitative data analyses and investigating
pedagogical strategies for improving students’ academic and professional outcomes.
Tanner LeBaron Wallace is an assistant professor of applied developmental psy-
chology for the Psychology in Education Department at the University of Pittsburgh,
USA. Her research focuses on youth–adult relationships and the intersections of
developmental tasks, psychosocial perceptions and effective teaching and the knowl-
edge development function of evaluative studies.