Understanding how student-teacher relationships affect academic outcomes is essential, yet researchers primarily explore teacher perspectives of students rather than student perspectives of teachers. Further, few studies explore the student-teacher relationship from the perspective of African-American males who have successfully navigated K-12 education and enrolled in college. Understanding participants’ perceptions of teacher relationships and how they influenced their educational experiences is particularly significant for social work professionals who want to work within schools and increase academic opportunities for African-American students.
Methods: A qualitative, grounded theory investigation was completed to uncover participants’ (n=22) perceptions of relationships with their teachers during K-12 schooling. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with African-American males, aged 18-26, enrolled in four-year, post-secondary educational institutions. Purposive snowball sampling was utilized. Interviews were analyzed using the qualitative analysis program Dedoose to procure data and generate a substantive theory explaining the process of building relationships with K-12 teachers, the nature of said relationships, and how these relationships helped or hindered successful enrollment in college. A central phenomenon was generated by utilizing crucial components of grounded theory methodology.
Results: Participants characterized their relationships with many teachers, most of whom were white, as disconnected and oftentimes non-existent. Participants reported that the majority of their teachers either completed a minimal amount of their job responsibilities (e.g., doing the “bare minimum,” providing little personal assistance or academic guidance, being there to “draw a paycheck,” etc.), treated them unfairly based on race (e.g., misjudging academic ability, spending more class time with white students) or both.
However, participants cited that experiencing at least one positive relationship with a teacher served as a protective factor within their K-12 environment and helped facilitate academic success. Specifically, the central phenomenon that emerged from the data was the ability to build a relationship with at least one teacher that was marked by: 1.) closeness (e.g., “being a second mother”); and 2.) a commitment to and investment in their education (e.g., “knowing that I was going to be something great,” “working hard to make sure I succeeded.”)
Conclusions/Implications: The nature of student-teacher relationship was important to participants’ academic success, as these relationships served as either a potential deterrent to pursuing higher education, or as the foundation that allowed for the explicit, hands-on role that some teachers played in increasing participants’ likelihood of college enrollment. Social workers have a unique opportunity to work directly with teachers, families, and students in order to enhance cultural sensitivity and competence, advocate for culturally inclusive learning environments, and facilitate positive student-teacher relationships. As such, an increase in school social workers is necessary, as are programs offering academic support and mentorship for racially marginalized youth.