The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Realizing Trust in Transition: Examining the Impact of Teacher Collaboration and Culturally Responsive Practice On Ninth Grade Immigrant Youth

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 4:30 PM
Nautilus 4 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Andrew Brake, PhD Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose  

The transition to high school is a challenging moment for many adolescents, particularly immigrant youth, who face unique constraints related to academic tracking, limited school mental health resources, and cultural and language barriers associated with the quality and capacity of teaching and discipline practices. Trusting teacher-student relationships act as critical protective factors during this transition, significantly improving ninth grade students’ engagement, achievement, and graduation outcomes (Roderick & Camburn, 1999). Small learning communities (SLC) and culturally responsive classroom practices have each been found to enhance teacher-student relationships (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Oxley, 2005), yet few studies have closely examined their impact on immigrant youth during the high school transition. This paper asks: (1) How do ninth grade teachers’ collaborative and culturally responsive practices build trusting relationships with immigrant youth and (2) how do these youth explain the impact?


Because ninth grade student performance in English, math, science, and social studies is highly predictive of high school graduation rates (Allensworth & Easton, 2005; 2007) teacher practices were examined in and across these courses in one ethnically-diverse public high school in Chicago that used a SLC model. Fifteen first- and second-generation immigrant youth, including those from Mexico, Guatemala, Iraq, Ghana, Romania, South Korea, and Vietnam, participated in individual semi-structured interviews at five time points throughout one academic year. Additionally, eight ninth grade teachers were interviewed across three time points and each classroom was observed nine times. To be responsive to the complex, dynamic interactions and practices which shape teacher-student relationships, a grounded theory method was used as the analytic approach and data were analyzed and coded using the qualitative software package NVivo9.


Of the three teams of teachers in the study, one team intervened most effectively with struggling learners. Teachers on this team consistently implemented common practices for enhancing teacher-student relationships, ultimately building students’ sense of school safety and pride along the way. However, there were also important ways in which this team varied in how they built relationships with students. These include distinct approaches to academic tasks and activities, communication style, monitoring and feedback systems, and classroom management. Their approaches also varied in their cultural responsiveness to students’ interests and needs, and in their ability to meet curricular mandates for each academic subject throughout the year. Despite this variation, compared to teachers from the other two SLC teams, students with teachers from the most collaborative SLC team consistently reported greater genuine teacher care, content interest, classroom participation, help-seeking, peer value, and trust with multiple teachers during interviews.

Conclusions and Implications

This study underscores that traditional barriers to immigrant youth’s successful high school transitions can be minimized through teacher collaboration and classroom practice grounded in culturally responsive practices which prioritize building trusting teacher-student relationships. As such, policy makers, administrators, teachers, and school social workers should closely consider how the alignment of grade-level teams, teacher classroom practice, and social work consultation can enhance teacher-student relationships to meet the unique needs of immigrant youth during this critical school transition.