Teacher-Student Relationships Across Cultures: Teachers' Perceptions of Formation, Purpose, and COVID-Induced Change

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0003-3108-6807
Saavedra, David, Education - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Hoffman, Diane, ED-EDLF Department, University of Virginia
Alridge, Derrick, ED-EDLF Department, University of Virginia
Deutsch, Nancy, ED-EDLF Department, University of Virginia
Salerno, April, ED-CISE Department, University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates cross-cultural teacher-student relationships by examining the perspectives of secondary teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Undertaken during the COVID-19 pandemic, this multiple-case ethnography analyzes a series of online interviews with eight secondary ESOL teachers across the state of Virginia and seeks to answer the following question: How do secondary ESOL teachers who self-identify as relationally successful experience and understand cross-cultural relationships with their students? The interviews probed teachers’ understandings of the relationships they form with students from differing cultural backgrounds both before and during the pandemic. They are analyzed through an ethnographic lens that considers the intersection of schooling, relation, and culture, as well the fields of care ethics and relational pedagogy. Findings relate to cross-cultural relationship formation and function, as well as their disruption by COVID-19.

Four factors are found to influence the formation of secondary cross-cultural teacher-student relationships. Three of these factors are time, cross-cultural dispositions held by ESOL teachers, and a variety of caring teacher actions that validate students’ cultural origins and identities. The fourth is what I have termed “parallel status positioning.” Students marginalized due to culture, language, and/or ties to immigration are positioned low in the social hierarchy, and ESOL teachers are positioned low within the school instructional hierarchy. A mutual recognition of low status on the part of teachers encourages solidarity, which leads to relationship building. Teachers are also found to care for their students in a way that is mindful of difference.

Cross-cultural teacher-student relationships function in a number of ways outside the realm of academics. ESOL teachers perceive their relationships with students as supporting integration into U.S. society (as opposed to assimilation) and as protecting students from unjust and prejudiced treatment. The ways in which they enact these functions, however, serve to maintain broader cultural patterns of White saviorism and assimilation, meaning that these teachers are unintentionally reproducing dominant societal values via their relationships with students. Care is also found to be a function of these relationships, which, at times, can be completely divorced from academic goals and stand alone as a unique function in its own right.

Finally, in the era of COVID-19, the ways in which teachers and students were able to relate to one another were severely curtailed. ESOL teachers reported spending significantly less time with students and that many types of caring teacher actions were no longer possible to enact. With opportunities for relational connection greatly reduced, these teachers began to fear for their students in terms of how the pandemic might affect students’ physical, emotional, and educational well-being. They experienced both moral distress and a crisis of identity as their ability to relate to their students was disrupted.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
teacher-student relationships, cross-cultural relationships, relational pedagogy, care ethics, integration, assimilation, COVID-19, moral distress
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