Transcript: The Impact of Student–Staff Relationships on School Climate
Hello, I’m Sarah Nava, a recent high school graduate and a young adult school climate adviser for the California Center for School Climate, or CCSC for short. In this short video, we will focus on how the relationships between students and staff can affect school climate. For us, the staff includes school and district leaders, teachers, paraprofessionals, school counselors and social workers, classified staff, and any other adults that interact with students on campus. Research shows that the quality of relationships at a school is among the strongest known predictors of both student academic achievement and teacher career satisfaction. Overall, positive relationships between school staff and students help students feel safe and connected to school, leading to a long list of desirable outcomes. While many schools and districts collect students’ perspectives through annual school climate surveys, which is valuable, the individual students and stories behind the numbers are equally important. So, today we are going right to the source and learning from three members of CCSC’s Youth Advisory Team that I recently interviewed: Alexa, Julian, and Aisha.
All three of the students I interviewed described the culture and climate at their large public high schools in California. Alexa’s school, in San Diego County, prioritizes student activities and diversity. Aisha’s Orange County School has a student body that is very diverse racially and economically. And Julian’s school, in Santa Clara County, is a high-achieving and high-pressure environment. As California high school students, I asked them about their unique relationships with their school staff and how it affects them in school. We hope they inspire you to consider the ways you can support student well-being and foster academic success by building strong relationships. To start off, all these students interviewed had insightful experiences on the school relationships that impacted them most.
I think so. When teachers have a really welcoming environment, not even to talk about academics, but just anything in general, I think students feel a lot closer to them because obviously when you have your family or your friends, most of the time you aren’t really talking about academics; you’re talking about your personal life and personal matters. So, when teachers kind of allow themselves to almost go on a friend-to-friend basis while still keeping it professional, I think students feel a lot more comfortable with that, and that’s why I personally feel a lot closer to a lot of the teachers.
Last year I had different things going on, and so my coach would really see that in my performance, and so it led to a lot of good conversations and conversations and lessons that I learned from him that really got me through that year as well.
When teachers are able to be able to see me as something more than my grades and really validate for me that as an individual there is somebody to be proud of, and I think that’s really validating to feel like there’s somebody who cares about your well-being as a person. And especially when teachers or staff are willing to help you and it’s very clear that they want you to succeed and that they’re not trying to be judgmental of who you are, that lets me know that there’s somebody there on a personal level.
These positive relationships clearly have an impact on Aisha, Alexa, and Julian, and I wanted to know more. So I asked them to describe some of the things the staff at their school have done to achieve these outcomes.
So sometimes my teachers will take that opportunity and whether it be class discussion or, for example, we do binders and she’ll put up a prompt for us to kind of answer, and so we’ll answer those. And then when we turn in our binders, she’s able to read through all of our responses. And so it allows the teacher to get a sense of where their students are and how they’re doing on a mental level as well as how they’re doing within the class. And it’s also something that’s more personal between the student and the teacher and not necessarily something that has to be shared with all the other students.
The adults on my campus are very welcoming when it comes to helping students out. Obviously, some teachers or some administrators are more comfortable talking about personal matters than others, but I think all of them are comfortable with listening. And so I personally know that if I had a very difficult time, whether my personal life at my home or with my friends or maybe just at school, I feel like I could pretty much go to any single classroom, even if they aren’t my teacher, and I could just ask that teacher to talk for a few minutes. And whether or not the teacher would give feedback or tell me what they thought, I think the important part is that I know the teacher will actually listen.
Other teachers who just had children or they’re taking care of children are still constantly taking the time to talk to those students and help them academically and also in their lives even though they are tired or they’re struggling with their own personal lives.
Some of my teachers are really good about having open discussions with students or at the end of semester, at the end of the year, they ask for feedback on their class or different ways that students learn. And so I think like this, the learning becomes a building process and a collaborative process between both students and teachers, and it’s not just the teacher making all the decisions.
It really is possible to show up for your students. I find that at my school, it’s very selfless in the way that teachers approach being there for their students and supporting them. And to me, that really shows that genuine intention. And so that’s what I mean with genuine intention for students’ well-being.
Aisha, Alexa, and Julian’s experiences overall were very positive. However, they weren’t afraid to discuss what staff could improve on. Their feedback can guide us to a better understanding of what exactly is effective.
I really don’t think it’s helpful holding a 17-year-old or an 18-year-old’s hand constantly. I think it is important to guide students, and I think it’s important to give them ways to reach out for help, but I do think it’s important to let students fail at times and to then help them get back up. Because again, once we graduate high school and we’re going to the college or a job or the real world, there isn’t going to be a teacher or a mentor constantly telling us what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why to do it.
So, I think there’s a lot of students to take care of, and there’s a lot of material to cover throughout the year, and as a result, justifiably, a lot of teachers will feel very stressed. And when this happens, sometimes it feels like teachers are more concerned about making sure all the material is taught at one point than really making sure that every student is understanding the material that’s being given. And so when a teacher starts to get really stressed and kind of starts to worry less about how the students are feeling in their classroom, it becomes harder for students to approach them with questions or harder for students to really talk to them about the things that they’re going through.
And so I think in that way, it can really bring down the environment of a classroom when the teacher is struggling themselves and it pushes on to students. And so I think a lot of this is just more discussion about what teachers are prioritizing, in a sense, when it comes to teaching and really combining what needs to be taught with the best way students learn and so that the teachers feel less stressed about the things that they’re having to do and that students don’t necessarily feel like their teachers are kind of shutting them out from the learning process. The teachers who really open themselves up to those feedback also tend to have students who trust them the most because those students by the end of the year really feel like they can talk about the things that they have suggestions for and overall better the learning experience for the next year of students.
Alexa and Julian recognize that barriers between staff and students are without reason in many cases. They understand how difficult it may be to sustain effective classroom relationships but also acknowledge that both staff and students can improve on this. Their thoughtful responses lead us to discuss our last topic.
By now, you may be wondering to yourself, “What can I do to improve relationships between students and staff at my school?” While there is no one-step solution, there are many things you are probably already doing and some new ones you can try out. Listening is a simple yet effective strategy for a more positive school climate. Not only being there for students when needed but stressing that fact can help tremendously. As Aisha, Alexa, and Julian shared, putting in the effort to create opportunities for one-to-one conversations, check-in binders, or an open-door policy demonstrates respect and builds empathy.
Having flexibility as a school staff member can reach farther than just letting a homework assignment be turned in late. Being flexible in multiple areas of work allows students and staff to feel heard and valued and encourages a sense of trust and mutual respect. This can lead to a more open dialogue and the sharing of ideas, which can help to build stronger relationships. Lastly, encouraging a more collaborative environment can help students feel more involved in their education. It promotes students to self-manage, communicate with faculty, learn responsibility, and develop higher level thinking skills. This can be achieved in many ways, such as including students’ interests in a curriculum or making goals and expectations clear.
Understanding the significance of your role at your school can play a large part in ensuring positive relationships. Whether it be in the classroom or in the hallways, staff possess the power to shape the school climate through their actions, attitudes, and teaching strategies. With the first step taken, students can begin to feel more invested and intrigued with what they do in school. This is why acknowledging the importance of positive staff and student relationships can be crucial or even necessary. For related strategies and activities, check out Cultivating Caring Relationships at School, a toolkit cocreated by the California Center for School Climate and youth leaders across the state.
Thank you to our Youth Advisory Team members for sharing their experiences on school climate. We hope you enjoyed this short video focused on staff and student relationships in school, a resource from the California Center for School Climate. This center is a California Department of Education initiative operated by WestEd. For more episodes, resources, and support, please visit the show notes.