Preparing Teachers for Relationships With Students: Two Visions, Two Approaches

May 1, 2021

Source: Journal of Teacher Education, Volume: 72 issue: 3, page(s): 271-283

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article draws on data from the first year of a 2-year ethnographic study that seeks to explore how two different teacher residency programs—No Excuses Teacher Residency and Progressive Teacher Residency—attempt to prepare residents to form meaningful relationships with P-12 students.
In the process, this article seeks to address the following research questions:
1: How do two different teacher residency programs envision teacher–student relationships?
2: How do these programs attempt to prepare residents to form relationships with students?
In this article the author draws upon the idea of an I–Thou relationship as conceptualized by both Buber and Freire as a lens to understand how two different teacher education programs envision and prepare teachers to form meaningful relationships with students.

This article draws from a broader study of relationship development in two residency programs: one based in a progressive independent school, Progressive Teacher Residency (PTR), the other in a no excuses charter school, No Excuses Teacher Residency (NETR).
In this study, the author used ethnographic and comparative case study methodology (Stake, 2013) to explore relationship development in the two different residency programs detailed below.

Research Sites
Both of the teacher residency programs in this study were located in the same large metropolitan area on the East Coast.
NETR was less than a decade old and operated out of the industrial building that housed Excellence Preparatory High School, the prominent no excuses charter school that founded NETR.
In contrast, PTR started several decades ago (well before residencies became popular), emerging out of Xanadu Community School, a progressive, independent P-8 school located on a pastoral hill in an affluent part of town.
Although Xanadu sponsored the program, residents paid a sizable tuition rate that covered most of their program expenses.
The author selected these two programs because both featured an intentional and explicit focus on the development of teacher–student relationships in elementary and secondary classrooms and had excellent reputations within their respective circles (no excuses or progressive).
However, they approached relational work very differently, which offered a rich and illuminating contrast.

Data Sources
From August 2014 to July 2015,the author conducted approximately 40 hr. of observations of relevant coursework, activities, and events in each program.
During observations, he took rich ethnographic field notes (Emerson et al., 2011), paying special attention to content related to the teacher–student relationship competencies identified in the literature review, the pedagogy modeled by faculty, and residents’ comments in coursework.
In addition, he collected and reviewed program documents, including promotional literature, program sequencing, required coursework, and syllabi.
He then employed purposeful sampling in the selection of three to four program faculty and staff (Maxwell, 1996) for semi-structured interviews of 45 to 60 min to understand more about each program; he sought participants who had expert knowledge about program structures, pedagogy, and/or relationship-related curriculum.
Furthermore, the author conducted 60-min semi-structured interviews with a representative sample (in terms of race, gender, content area and grade-level focus) of nine to 10 residents in each program.
These interviews provided him insight into how new teachers in each program made sense of the relational aspects of teaching, including how they felt their programs supported them to develop relationships with students.
Finally, he selected two white secondary humanities residents from his interviewees in each program (four in total) to observe 2 to 3 times in their field placements, which provided him a sense of how white residents—who may have difficulty forming relationships with students of color (Sleeter, 2008)—drew upon program coursework in their interactions with students.
He also interviewed each of these focal residents a second time at the end of the residency year, and interviewed their Guiding Teacher (PTR) or Coach (NETR) to understand how others perceived their developing practice.
Data analysis occurred in a multistep process, relying upon both inductive and deductive coding strategies.

Findings and Discussion
The author describes two teacher residency programs with an explicit focus on the relational side of teaching.
Each program’s vision for relationships, however, was quite distinct. NETR conceived of teacher–student relationships as instrumental, a process of acquiring “relationship capital” that teachers could “leverage” to improve student effort and desired behavior.
Wary of too much “thinking and feeling,” coursework to support such relationship development focused on actions, like connecting with families, classroom management, and displays of aesthetic care (Valenzuela, 1999) about students.
The instrumental, action-based, outcomes-focused nature of NETR’s relationships is consistent with Buber’s (1958) concept of an “I–It” relationship; the program focused on performing relational motions, rather than connecting on an emotional level.
This approach may perpetuate superficial gains in compliance and achievement but obviates deep human connections.
It also echoes a broader trend in teacher education that Philip et al. (2019) critique:
moving toward core practices and away from fundamental issues like humanism, equity, and justice.
Conversely, PTR viewed relationships as reciprocal—a dialogical process that shapes both teachers and students as co-constructors of the learning process; this is more consistent with how Buber (1958) describes the meeting of both parties in an “I–Thou” relation.
Toward this end, PTR focused on the development of relational knowledge and dispositions: residents developed deep self-knowledge through extensive reflection, cultivated knowledge of students as “whole people” primarily through dialogue with them, and read about and discussed racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Fieldwork and activities supported the development of relational dispositions like their authenticity as teachers and their empathy and care for students.
However, PTR did not prescribe relational actions, believing “there’s not one way to be a teacher.”
Instead, they allowed residents to learn relational actions in their fieldwork.
This approach supported deeper student connections at Xanadu, but residents struggled to foster similarly meaningful connections with students in public schools, perhaps partially because they lacked support to connect with students in a more traditional setting.
The way residents learned to form relationships was deeply intertwined with the pedagogy promoted by each program.
NETR’s directive and largely teacher-centered lessons established the teacher as the sole authority and dispenser of knowledge.
This model is antagonistic to a pedagogical relationship of dialogue, for instead of reciprocity in the learning process, it represents a “violent hierarchy” (Derrida, 1981) where students are “govern[ed]” by teachers and treated like receptacles to be filled with a predetermined set of knowledge and skills (Freire, 1970).
Conversely, PTR emphasized the role of critical thinking, self-advocacy, and dialogue in learning, positioning residents and P-8 students as co-constructors of their educational experiences in much more “horizontal” relations (Freire, 1987).
Because instruction is the primary medium through which teachers and students interact (Hawkins, 1974), the pedagogy espoused and modeled by these programs largely set the stage for the type of teacher–student relationships each program envisioned.
While residents expressed appreciation for their coursework on relationships in both programs, they cited their clinical placements as most influential in their learning to connect with students. This is not surprising, given that meaningful clinical or field experiences, especially with racially diverse students, seem to result in profound learning for novice teachers (Hollins & Torres Guzman, 2005; McDonald et al., 2013).
In each program, however, residents characterized only one of their field experiences as most helpful in advancing their relational expertise.
In PTR, this was the fall student teaching placement at Xanadu, where residents worked in one class with 16 students and spent a great deal of time interacting with individuals.
This served as a highly coherent extension of PTR coursework.
However, PTR residents struggled with their public school placements, in which they had less support and their interactions with students were more structured.
This second placement had the opposite of its intended effect, dissuading most of the residents from teaching in public schools.
In NETR, residents said they learned the most about forming relationships with students in Tutorial:
the least “coordinated” and coherent field experience.
In Tutorial, residents still aimed to advance student learning, but they also had time and space for unstructured interactions with a small group of students over the course of a year, which was not the case in their highly structured student teaching.
Ultimately, residents in both programs said they learned the most about relationships when “situational factors” (McDonald et al., 2013) enabled them to connect with students in less-structured contexts where more dialogue was possible.
This suggests that teachers, too, may find relationships closer to the “I–Thou” ideal to be more rewarding and educative.
In the end, the teachers from NETR who learned to form more superficial “I–It” relationships (Buber, 1958) with students to improve their behavior and achievement, went on to serve students of color from low income backgrounds.
These relationships objectified historically marginalized students by communicating that their value was dependent on the degree to which they worked hard and behaved in line with what mostly white authority figures demanded, not in their own right, which essentially conditioned students for positions of subservience (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Golann, 2015).
Some studies find that no excuses schools raise test scores but do not improve life outcomes (e.g., Dobbie & Fryer, 2016), and the way students are conditioned to interact with teachers might shed some light on this phenomenon.
Meanwhile, the PTR teachers who were taught to form holistic and reciprocal “I–Thou” relationships (Buber, 1958) with students as the foundation of their co-constructed learning process went on to serve mostly affluent white students, likely because PTR lacked explicit structures in coursework and fieldwork to support racially diverse students.
PTR’s dialogical approach to relationships emphasized students’ inherent value as human beings and their agency over their educational (and life) experiences; such relationships prepared students to engage with authority figures, to someday hold positions of authority themselves, and in fact many of Xanadu’s graduates have gone on to become renowned leaders.
Although both programs sought to advance some version of social justice, both may have instead contributed to social reproduction through teacher–student relationships, as NETR was limited by its vision of relationships, and PTR by its overwhelming whiteness.
While this study reaffirms that fieldwork is critical for the development of relational expertise (McDonald et al., 2013), residents’ varied experiences in fieldwork suggest that school structures play a role in teacher–student relationship development.
Thus, school leaders should consider the messages their policies send in regard to relationships, too.
By supporting humanizing “I–Thou” relationships with students, programs and schools can foster community now and in the future.

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Updated: Aug. 25, 2021