Student perception of teacher connection has declined over time to a new low in the current school year, after a brief increase in spring 2020, according to a new survey from YouthTruth, a nonprofit that surveys K-12 students and families for school districts.
Less than a quarter (22 percent) of middle and high school students said that “many” or “all” of their teachers make an effort to understand what their life is like outside of school, according to the survey of more than 88,000 secondary school students between October and December 2022.
The report’s findings, published May 9, come as teenagers across the United States are experiencing an increase in mental health challenges and struggle to find help at school. They also come as students’ achievement in reading, math, and history reach historic lows. And research shows that students learn best when they feel cared for and connected to their teachers and classmates.
The report’s authors speculate that the decrease in student perception of teacher connection could be influenced by staffing shortages, behavioral disruptions in class, teachers’ mental health, or other factors.
Student-teacher connection increased in spring 2020
In the decade before the COVID-19 pandemic, just a little more than a quarter (26 percent) of middle and high school students reported that “many” or “all” of their teachers made an effort to understand what their lives were like outside of school, according to YouthTruth’s survey data from fall 2010 to fall 2019.
“This has never been an area that students have felt particularly positively about, except as you see in the data, a relative high point in spring 2020,” said Jen Wilka, the executive director of YouthTruth.
After widespread school closures in spring 2020 due to the pandemic, the percentage of students that said teachers were making an effort to understand their lives outside of school increased to 43 percent, according to the report. It then dropped to 30 percent in fall 2020, 28 percent in spring 2021, and 22 percent in fall 2022.
The increase in spring 2020 could be attributed to the fact that during emergency remote learning, “students and teachers were afforded windows into each others’ homes and lives,” according to the report.
The increase in student-teacher connection in spring 2020 could also be attributed to the fact that the focus during that time early in the pandemic was on relationships and not as much on academics, said Doug Keller, who helps lead workshops with students as one of YouthTruth’s partnerships lead.
“Students found that their teachers were more available to chat with them, send emails, even respond to texts,” Keller said. “Something felt very different during that time. And now we’re back to the pressure of getting students back on track academically.”
What schools can do to strengthen student-teacher connections
One of the top solutions that comes out of every student workshop, Keller said, is for educators to make time in the day to get to know and understand students’ needs and for students to be able to share what’s on their minds.
Karen Van Ausdal, the vice president of practice for the nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, agrees. For students—and for adults—prioritizing relationships is particularly important because “learning happens in the context of relationships,” she said.
If educators want students to succeed academically, then they’ve got to attend to students’ well-being and relationships with adults and with one another, Van Ausdal said. For example, schools can create smaller groups of students that are connected to an adult for multiple years, where the focus is building social-emotional skills that help strengthen students’ relationships with each other and with teachers.
“Educators are wanting that connection with students—that’s why most of them entered the classroom. And that’s what makes their teaching that much more meaningful,” Van Ausdal said.