Do Relationships with Helpful and Not-Helpful Teachers Make a Difference? Perspectives from Nine At-Risk Adolescents

Emanuel Pariser


Every year in the United States close to 25% of students fail to graduate with the classmates with whom they began high school. The economic, social and personal impact of not completing high school is staggering on the individual and society. The literature fails to adequately document relational factors in the classroom that can alter the academic trajectory of at-risk students. This dissertation explores how nine at-risk adolescents view the impact of relationships with helpful and not-helpful teachers on their academic success. My three research questions were: (a) what qualities do at-risk students attribute to helpful and not-helpful teachers; (b) how do they describe their relationships with these teachers; and (c) what impact do they perceive that these relationships have on their engagement, academic growth, and persistence in school. Students selected for the study were attending a public alternative school in one of two Maine school districts. I interviewed the nine students individually and observed them interacting with teachers they had designated as especially-helpful, helpful, or not-helpful. I interviewed the teachers about the students with whom they were paired and asked them to provide evidence of student growth and engagement. Students clearly appreciated teachers who could facilitate their academic learning while establishing a helpful relationship with them. They noted that helpful teachers had nine capacities including: being able to create active learning experiences, reading students’ cues well, caring for them while holding them accountable, responding to them non-judgmentally, and listening attentively to their interests, concerns, and disclosures. They described relationships with helpful teachers as feeling open, close, collaborative and caring. They felt that their academic growth, engagement and persistence were distinctly compromised in the classes they had with not-helpful as compared with helpful teachers. The outcomes of this research indicate that to be successful in helping at-risk adolescents complete high school we need to provide teachers with training and professional development to enhance their relational skills while increasing their ability to personalize instruction. Central to this effort will be our ability as teachers to elicit and learn from student perceptions.