Cover page

Table of Contents

Title page

Copyright page

Editorial Board

Issue Authors’ Notes

What is a personalized school environment? What are teacher-student relationships?

A move to personalized school environments

The challenge of personalization and teacher-student relationships

Executive Summary

Chapter One: Teacher-student relationships: A growing field of study

Chapter Two: Relationships, learning, and development: A student perspective

Chapter Three: Learning together: Teaching, relationships, and teachers’ work

Chapter Four: Youth development practitioners and their relationships in schools and after-school programs

Chapter Five: Establishing and maintaining boundaries in teacher-student relationships

Chapter Six: The role of a student support system and the clinical consultant

Chapter Seven: Working with teachers to develop healthy relationships with students

Chapter Eight: A dialogue between an educator and psychologist

Chapter 1: Teacher-student relationships: A growing field of study

Adolescent emotional challenges

School structures challenge meaningful teacher-student interaction

Relationships and school dropout

Academic outcomes

Environments that enable positive teacher-student relationships

Relationships and the struggle over boundaries


Chapter 2: Relationships, learning, and development: A student perspective

Teacher-student relationships and the personalized classroom

Teacher-student relationships and students’ socioemotional development


Chapter 3: Learning together: Teaching, relationships, and teachers’ work

Relationships as instrumental to teaching and learning

Relationships as professional responsibility

Relationships as intrinsically rewarding

Challenges and dilemmas of these relationships: Becoming overly involved


Chapter 4: Youth development practitioners and their relationships in schools and after-school programs

Quantity and quality of relationships

Teachers and nonteacher educators

The youth development practioner: Educator, mentor, connector

Youth development workers, boundaries, and training

Chapter 5: Establishing and maintaining boundaries in teacher-student relationships

The challenge of teacher-student relationships

Students’ perspective on boundaries in relationships

Draw clear boundaries in close relationships

Draw boundaries in social media environments


Chapter 6: The role of a student support system and the clinical consultant

The public health pyramid

The role of the student support team


Chapter 7: Working with teachers to develop healthy relationships with students

Conducting professional development around relationships

Part 1: A short reflection and follow-up discussion

Part 2: Examining boundary dilemmas


Appendix: Boundary scenarios

Chapter 8: A dialogue between an educator and psychologist


Title page

Gil G. Noam, Editor-in-Chief

Harvard University and McLean Hospital

Editorial Board

K. Anthony Appiah
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.

Dale A. Blyth
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minn.

Dante Cicchetti
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minn.

William Damon
Stanford University
Palo Alto, Calif.

Goéry Delacôte
At-Bristol Science Museum
Bristol, England

Felton Earls
Harvard Medical School
Boston, Mass.

Jacquelynne S. Eccles
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Wolfgang Edelstein
Max Planck Institute for Human Development
Berlin, Germany

Kurt Fischer
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Cambridge, Mass.

Carol Gilligan
New York University Law School
New York, N.Y.

Robert Granger
W. T. Grant Foundation
New York, N.Y.

Ira Harkavy
University of Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Penn.

Reed Larson
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Urbana-Champaign, Ill.

Richard Lerner
Tufts University
Medford, Mass.

Milbrey W. McLaughlin
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Pedro Noguera
New York University
New York, N.Y.

Fritz Oser
University of Fribourg
Fribourg, Switzerland

Karen Pittman
The Forum for Youth Investment
Washington, D.C.

Jane Quinn
The Children’s Aid Society
New York, N.Y.

Jean Rhodes
University of Massachusetts, Boston
Boston, Mass.

Rainer Silbereisen
University of Jena
Jena, Germany

Elizabeth Stage
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, Calif.

Hans Steiner
Stanford Medical School
Stanford, Calif.

Carola Suárez-Orozco
New York University
New York, N.Y.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco
New York University
New York, N.Y.

Erin Cooney, Editorial Manager

Program in Education, Afterschool and Resiliency (PEAR)

Issue Authors’ Notes

She was my English teacher in ninth grade and we had to talk about ourselves and write about it. And she didn’t just read our stories that were about us and just grade them and give them back to us. She would talk to us about ’em. If there was something that she thought needed to be talked about individually she would talk to you. Or if you wanted to talk about it, you could talk to her. And she would go out of her time to do it and she wouldn’t just hand the paper back and say, “It wasn’t written right.” Even if the writing wasn’t good, she would still discuss it.

Alex, grade 10

IN THIS DISPLAY of encouragement, caring, and challenge from his teacher, Alex experiences the excitement of learning from a teacher who nurtures both his ability to write and learn and his self-expression as a developing adolescent. Curriculum is a medium through which intellectual curiosity and personal development can be shared; the relationship between student and teacher provides a foundation on which deeply satisfying learning and socioemotional development can be built. In this learning relationship, student and teacher work together to create shared understandings in an atmosphere of learning and growth.

Over the past decade, we have argued in different contexts that against the backdrop of large, impersonal schools, overcrowded classrooms, overwhelmed teachers, and alienated students, supportive, personal teacher-student relationships, though relatively rare, are vital to school success and should not be sidelined in discussions of educational policy or planning. We argued to different audiences that these relationships are pivotal in the learning equation; they represent a humanizing and necessary element of education—a creative and even courageous act amid a sea of negative relationships and school structures precluding and even denouncing such care. We, as well as others conducting research, have revealed that for those who manage to have strong relationships, teaching and learning are enhanced, allegiance to school is cemented, and dropout is reduced. Nonetheless, many continue to describe teachers who dislike many of their students, put no effort or energy into their teaching, are bored, and have no interest in getting to know students as people. We want to help change this state of affairs and dedicate this issue of New Directions for Youth Development to the advancement of positive teacher-student relationships.

Beth Bernstein-Yamashiro embarked on a dissertation and Gil G. Noam served as her thesis advisor, together with Linda Wing, Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, and Gretchen Rossman. The intention of the study was to investigate the hypothesis that personal relationships between teachers and students constitute vital emotional supports for students and provide personal meaning in the otherwise isolating work of teachers. The initial research took place in a large, urban high school in northern California. One hundred nineteen students and 31 teachers were interviewed in focus groups and individually. Much of that data is highlighted throughout the articles in this volume. In addition, a follow-up study was conducted with eight students and five teachers at a small, urban charter school in southern California several years later.

She found that not only are these relationships emotionally supportive and meaningful, but they also symbolize the integration of the emotional and intellectual aspects of learning and teaching. Relationships and participants’ feelings about relationships were integrally and inextricably tied to the dialectical exchange of intellectual understanding. The idea that somehow people learn independent of their emotional experiences appeared to be a somewhat useless construct in participants’ descriptions of the learning process.1 Students did not see their intellectual selves as distinct or separate from their emotional selves and saw teachers’ care and patience as integral aspects of their pedagogies. The relationships were essential motivations in students’ learning processes. Gil G. Noam has used his school-based intervention research, his training systems and technical assistance work to generate the concepts and interview material of the non-teacher educator chapters in the issue.

What is a personalized school environment? What are teacher-student relationships?

In a personalized school environment, the school and the adults within it intentionally work to know students as individuals. Teachers (and other school personnel) get to know students personally. Discussion and personal opinion are valued and explored; teachers attempt to elicit student participation and personal reactions to curricula. Teachers in a personalized classroom or school might be more informal in class or more forthcoming about their own experiences. In these circumstances, students and teachers see themselves as partners in exploring academic materials rather than as workers and supervisors. Students feel known by their teachers; teachers may pick up on subtle emotional cues that they may discuss outside class with students. Even just a whispered, “Everything going okay?” to a student signals a degree of care and support that is found in such classrooms.

In fact, many teachers who have more personal classrooms do not always do much more than support students in the learning process. They may not necessarily have individual or close relationships with students, but may have a classroom that is informal or promotes whole-class discussion. They may ask students how their football game went or remember birthdays or greet students by name in the hallway. Such teachers might attend sporting events or performances to support their students. They sometimes tell students about their reactions to something they have heard or read or to controversial issues at the school. They meet students at the classroom door and take a mental pulse of students’ demeanors. But most do not go out of their way to befriend kids or get involved in students’ personal lives. They are friendly, warm individuals who truly care about validating their students as individuals and see their job as teaching students—not merely teaching curriculum.

Teachers and students form relationships in myriad ways, but generally teacher-student relationships are the connections that emerge when a student (or groups of students) initiates conversations with a teacher, during or after class, revolving around curriculum or their outside lives. Teachers describe such relationships as having some personal dimension, closeness, or familiarity with a student or group of students or where there is a potential for a personal or ongoing interaction. These relationships are by no means static across time. What might be described as “just a teacher-student relationship” by a sophomore might evolve into a “close friendship” by senior year. The relationships can encompass a spectrum of shapes, from a student feeling close to a teacher who patiently explains math concepts, to a teacher who considers herself a particular student’s “on-site mom” and counsels him about outside challenges.

Many circumstances bring teachers and students together; often the relationships start in the classroom, sometimes in extracurricular activities or sports. In small schools, teachers are often assigned to students as advisors and have daily contact with particular students, sometimes over the course of the entire high school career. But often the relationship emerges serendipitously as a result of a teacher’s receptivity or classroom warmth.

These spontaneous bonds emerge as unscripted, complicated, rich, and often challenging acts of individual and interpersonal creativity. These relationships are highly personal and vital to teachers and students’ respective professional and academic identities, constituting one of the few activities that synthesize both the academic-intellectual and the personal-emotional aspects of individuals’ lives at school. They provide a foundation for many teachers’ pedagogies, and they enable students to feel comfortable in their learning environments and motivated to perform well. Such relationships go beyond simply providing added support for students or a more human interaction for teachers. Rather, they reflect the complex and integral connection between learning, mutual understanding, and individual growth.

A move to personalized school environments

The past ten years have witnessed an explosion in charter schools, small schools, and personalized learning environments. Since early legislation began to pass in states allowing charter schools to be established by groups of teachers, parents, and individuals, schools around the country began to open with a determined belief in the importance of being small. From the first widely publicized successful small school, Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, influential educators such as Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier declared that “schools should be small places.” Meier went so far as to say that a high school should have a maximum of 525 students. “Good schools are thoughtful places. The people in them are known. The units are small enough to be coherent communities of friends.”2 Since then, schools around the country have followed this model, attempting to create small classrooms of 20 to 25 through outside fundraising, to positive results. In these small schools and classrooms, students can get to know each other well and create these more personal relationships. The evidence that these smaller classrooms are academically more successful is less convincing, as many teachers are very strong and lead large classrooms and small classrooms do not necessarily have competent teachers assigned to them.

Some larger high schools of 3,000 or more students began to use the “small learning community” model and tried to break the schools down into smaller component parts (for example, using a “house system”) in order to create closer ties between teachers and students. Still, most American public high school students sit in classrooms of 30 to 40 students and experience a high degree of alienation at school. Teachers who work to personalize their classrooms must do so while juggling student loads of 180 to 200 students, often against a tide of student transience and district tumult.

More recently, a major effort to support personalization has been supported by the Nellie Mae Foundation in its efforts to create a “personalization movement” that will move personalization from the random classroom or teachers who choose to engage in positive relationships with students to the level of school and district-wide policy. They argue that while individual teacher-student relationships are important and pivotal to many students’ success, “the impact will remain limited until improving personalization moves beyond the level of the individual teacher (or school) and becomes the sustained goal of a widespread organizational effort.”3

The work of personalizing the educational experience is not only about human relationships. It is about creating pathways between school and community, and sometimes, students choosing their learning environments and using computer programs to reach academic and other learning goals according to their interest, motivation, and aspirations. It also represents a growing consensus that individual learning styles of each learner matter and should be factored into the classroom or other settings. In this volume, we focus only on the interpersonal relationship aspects of personalized learning. We believe that a great deal of thinking must go into this relational dimension of changing the classroom, afterschool, school, and community environments. While we strongly support this effort, as we applaud similar successes in personalized medicine, much more thought has to go into the complexities in order to prevent casualties. Supporting personalization without sufficient structure will not only motivate students to learn, but could also let many vulnerable students fall between the cracks. More choice must accompany more support to counterbalance the desire of many unsupervised youth to stay at home. Relationships are an important part of this support structure, but a student support system has to be part of the structure in place to bring the new agenda for students and educators to fruition.

The challenge of personalization and teacher-student relationships

The trend toward personalization is certainly helping students to feel more supported in classrooms and positive toward school overall; Greendot’s Locke High School in Los Angeles, for example, improved its dropout rate in less than one year. Still, these new expectations create new challenges for teachers who are mainly trained to plan curriculum, assess students, prepare for state tests, and remediate students who fall academically behind. Along with the smaller class sizes and highly personal interactions comes a new set of demands and dilemmas for teachers who truly desire more personal relationships.

Many of the small charter schools employ brand-new teachers, themselves in their mid-twenties, who are inexperienced with teenagers and must, on their own, learn to navigate the emotional boundaries that accompany these relationships. How should they respond to students who want to know them better? What kinds of information should be off-limits? How do they explicitly delineate clear boundaries and explain the function of such boundaries? How do they allow personal relationships to develop and at the same time manage the relationships so they are healthy and appropriate? How can they be firm instructors with high standards while maintaining such relationships?

For principals of such schools, these questions raise important dilemmas and require thoughtful policy responses. Principals must understand their own roles in supporting relationships and at the same time requiring appropriateness. How can principals help teachers map out the limits of their emotional boundaries?

This volume explores these questions and discusses how relationships function for students and teachers in their learning and socioemotional development, bear on teaching and learning, can be supported institutionally, and can be opportunities for exploring larger social problems (for example, the breakdown of community), and finally, how schools can help teachers navigate the everyday dilemmas of personal relationships with students.

The first article reviews the existing literature and evidence for positive relationships and their impact on academic success of students. In the second article, we define the relationships from the student point of view and in the third article, from the teacher perspective. The fourth article describes this issue from the perspective of non-teacher educators, whom we call youth development practitioners. We then turn in the fifth article to the issues of healthy teacher-student boundaries and describe in the sixth article the needs for a student support team and consultant to help teachers with the many issues that emerge when educators engage in close relationships with young people. In the seventh article, we introduce a training module with relationship dilemmas for schools and after-school and summer programs to implement if they want to become more relationally focused. We end with our personal dialogue from the perspective of education and psychology.

We hope that this volume of New Directions for Youth Development will inspire discussion in educational settings and will be used by schools that have embarked or will embark on a journey of personalization for their students and teachers in order to support students’ learning and success. The voices of teachers and other educators and students in this volume show how much young people want to be known and to engage with teachers and how much teachers who have taken a step in that direction feel invigorated. The research also reveals how complex this engagement is, how many dilemmas it creates, and how much support is needed for this process to work. However, we are convinced that we need to collectively take this step to make students partners in learning, individualize their experience, and bring curiosity and perseverance to the difficult task of academic, social, and emotional growth and success. If we focus only on curriculum, expertise, and evaluation, we will miss an enormous opportunity to introduce a whole new generation of teachers to a noble profession that does not need to lead to burnout and dropout, but to a lifelong engagement with young people and their aspirations.

Beth Bernstein-Yamashiro
Gil G. Noam
Issue Authors


1. McLeod, S. (1997). Notes on the heart: Affective issues in the writing classroom. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

2. Sizer, T. (1992). Horace’s school: Redesigning the American high school. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin. P. 28.

3. Yonezawa, S., McClure, L., & Jones, M. (2012). Personalization in schools. The students at the center series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

BETH BERNSTEIN-YAMASHIRO directs a program to introduce urban Los Angeles high school students to local and national parks.

GIL G. NOAM is the founding director of the RALLY Program and associate professor of psychology at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Executive Summary

Chapter One: Teacher-student relationships: A growing field of study