Despite the fact that the student-teacher relationship can be critical for academic success, teachers report weaker relationships with students of color and children of immigrants than with white students, a new study found.
The study, authored by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, an assistant professor of international education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, looked at the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, a nationally representative sample of high school sophomores and their math and English teachers.
Cherng looked at three measures: how familiar a teacher reported being with a student, whether the teacher perceived a student to be passive or withdrawn, and whether the teacher conversed with the student outside of the classroom.
English teachers reported weaker relationships with Asian American students (particularly first-generation students), and math teachers had worse relationships with first- and second-generation Latino students, than with non-immigrant white students. Cherng said in an interview that this is consistent with racial stereotypes: Latino students, particularly those who are immigrants or children of immigrants, are stereotyped as being apathetic toward the subject area, not engaged, and perhaps not even capable of doing high-level math. And Asian American students are considered high-achieving but meek and withdrawn.
“Maybe the worst thing is to be invisible,” Cherng said.
Cherng theorized that English teachers might have more of a relationship with Latino students, particularly immigrants and those from immigrant families, because of language acquisition work, and math teachers have more of a relationship with Asian American students because of the “model minority” myth that assumes Asians are naturally talented at math.
Teachers from both subject areas reported strong relationships with black students—and English teachers have stronger relationships with non-immigrant black students than with their white counterparts, Cherng said, which might be due to a concerted effort to close the achievement gap. But it’s important to note that a strong relationship does not necessarily mean a positive relationship, he added. Teachers may racially stereotype black students as being too loud or “hyper-visible,” and their relationship might be more punitive.
Cherng also found that strong teacher-relationships early in high school are tied to more academic optimism later on.
“For groups that can benefit the most from teacher relationships, they receive it the least,” said Cherng, whose own parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan. He remembers needing more help from his teachers than his non-immigrant peers did during the college application process.
The race of the teacher did not show an effect in the study, Cherng said, although there are not enough Latino or Asian teachers included in the nationally representative dataset for the results to be statistically significant.
Cherng said he hopes these findings will spur teacher-preparation programs to rethink how they train teachers to teach diverse backgrounds, and districts to include cultural competency in their professional development.
He’s been doing some research with white teachers who are new to the profession. “They say very strongly, we’re not trained adequately to teach a classroom with all different kinds of kids,” he said. “If we don’t train them to, they’re not going to work to right these biases.”
One simple solution to developing a relationship early on, Cherng said, is for teachers to ask students how to pronounce their names before class starts. Often, he said, when people see his first name, Hua-Yu, they avoid talking to him in fear of mispronouncing it.
Now, he teaches many Chinese international students at the college level. He said they joke that Cherng’s class is the one class they can’t coast in, because Cherng, who is fluent in Mandarin, knows how to say their names—they’re not invisible.
When people from marginalized backgrounds are on a path of upward mobility, Cherng said, they typically point to a teacher who believed in them and inspired their success. Cherng himself credits his chemistry teacher in 10th and 11th grades who told him that he should go into teaching or social work.
“Teacher relationships are amazing,” he said. “It’s the most meaningful thing teachers can form with youths. [But this] is not a heartwarming finding. ... Those who need it the most, get it the least.”
Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.