Relational Cultures, Inequality, and Belonging: Race, Class, and Teacher-Student Relationships atTwo U.S. High Schools

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Dinsmore, Brooke, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Pugh, Allison, University of Virginia

Relationships matter for educational outcomes: students’ connections with teachers play a pivotal role in whether they learn and achieve, graduate high school, and attend college but also in whether students are suspended, expelled, or drop out. However, relationships matter differently for different groups of students: teacher-student relationships are boosting the achievement and success of White and class-privileged students while acting as a weight dragging down the achievement of Black and Latinx and working-class students. Current research on race and class differences in relationships focuses on the interplay between students’ strategies and teachers’ expectations. While important, this research often treats schools as blank slates. As a consequence, we do not yet understand how school environments shape relationships differently for White students and students of color and for middle- and working-class students. Thus, this dissertation addresses the following research questions: (1) how does the development of teacher-student relationships vary in schools serving communities with different race and class compositions? (2) How do the dynamics of White, Black and Latinx students’ relationships with teachers differ within and across these contexts? (3) Moreover, what role do class and gender play given that disparities also exist along these lines?

Between 2019-2021, I conducted ethnographic observations at "Sprawlville", a predominantly white high school and "Rustville", a majority Black and Latinx high school both located outside a major city in the American Southeast (n≈750 hours). At both schools, I spent two years observing in-person and online spaces where teachers and students interact. I also conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with teachers (n=43) and students (n=73; stratified by race and gender). Additionally, a randomly selected sample of 134 students completed my six- week online survey about their in-person and online interactions with teachers.

By taking a comparative ethnographic approach, what this dissertation shows is that schools have a relational culture that consists of both how teachers and administrators define the ideal teacher-student relationship and the related practices teachers use to shape interactions with students in their classrooms. Central to relational cultures are how teachers and administrators define the purpose of schooling, something they do in response to their imagining of the needs and demands of the present and past publics they serve. Consequently, relational cultures are embedded with racialized and classed meaning and can exasperate (or challenge) race and class differences in student-teacher relationships.
At Rustville High School, teachers attempted to enact an ideal of “caring control” through creating warm classrooms for both their lower and upper level tracks. These warm environments were more likely than the cold environment at Sprawlville to cultivate feeling-in connections. But the expansion of control polices threatened the careful balance teachers achieved, particularly in lower level classes and disproportionately targeted working-class, Black and Latinx students. The enforcement of control was a barrier to students feeling teachers’ care and as a consequence, relationships became highly precarious for the most marginal students at Rustville High School. This contradiction between care as an ideal but a reliance on control to solve problems was shaped by the way teachers and administrators saw the Rustville community. Their predominantly Black and Latinx students were seen as both “at risk” and need of care due to their experiences with poverty and trauma but also potentially “risky” actors who the school’s reform project needed to be protected from.

At Sprawlville High School, teachers upheld an ideal of “cold traditionalism,” seeing their role as delivering content. While they abstractly valued relationships, they didn’t see it as their job as proactively build connection and instead relied on students reaching out. In this cold environment, teachers’ practices diverged much more by track, with lower level classes characterized by teachers’ direction of time and space and reliance on punitive authority while upper level classes were more collegial spaces where students had more input into the flow of class and teachers responded to problems with negotiation. Both the cold environment and the divergence in practices across tracks amplified the consequences of the classed strategies students used to manage interactions with teachers, which resulted in middle-class students obtaining accommodation while working-class students faced their problems on their own. This high degree of divergence between tracks aligned with how teachers at Sprawlville saw their students in upper and lower level classes as coming from two very different populations in the community, the first being a growing group of (white) middle-class commuters and the second being (Black and Latinx) families that were living a financially precarious existence.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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