Instructor's Corner #1: Caring Teacher Communication Makes College Transition Easier
Effective teachers work to develop meaningful relationships with their students. These relationships often begin as pedagogical associations. Over time, as teachers engage in empathic caring communication with their students, these associations can develop into something more: interpersonal relationships. Supportive relationships are especially important as students make the transition from high school to college. This transition can be particularly challenging for the 30 percent of entering freshmen who will be the first in their family to complete college. While the transition to college can be challenging for first-generation (FG) students, teachers can engage in supportive communication that increases the likelihood that FG students will stay in school and persist to graduation.
The transition from high school to college is characterized by events that change how FG students see themselves and the world around them. As FG students adapt to these changes and integrate them into their lives, they are able to successfully move in, move through, and move out of college with the help of supportive teachers. To further explore how students develop and change during the transition from high school to college, I focused on turning points, events, or occurrences that are associated with change in a relationship.
To learn more about these turning points, I interviewed 30 FG students and asked them to plot and describe any turning points that had occurred in their interaction with teachers between their first day of college and the day of the interview. Students then identified their likelihood to stay in school and persist to graduation at each turning point. Talking to FG students helped me understand their perspective on what these turning points meant to them. Four pedagogical turning point categories and three interpersonal turning point categories emerged from these interviews.
Pedagogical turning point categories included positive instances where teachers helped students with course-related problems and engaged students. The first category, helped students with course-related problems, included instances where teachers took an interest in helping students work through course-related problems they experienced (e.g., discussing missed test items with an FG student). The second category, engaged students, included instances where teachers employed a teaching style that maintained students’ attention in the classroom (e.g., telling memorable personal stories in class that were so riveting that they seemed as if they could have been part of a movie).
Pedagogical turning point categories also included negative instances where teachers failed to help students with course-related problems and misbehaved. The third category, failed to help students with course-related problems, included instances where teachers failed to take an interest in helping students work through course-related problems they experienced (e.g., telling an FG student that there was no way he or she could regain academic scholarship eligibility). The fourth category, misbehaved, included instances where teachers engaged in incompetent, offensive, and indolent classroom behaviors that interfered with teaching and learning. Incompetent teachers lacked very basic teaching skills (e.g., presenting confusing and incoherent lectures that FG students failed to understand). Offensive teachers were mean, cruel, and nasty to their students (e.g., telling an FG student that there was no point in making an effort with a paper because she was going to get an F no matter what she wrote). Indolent teachers exemplified the absent-minded college professor (e.g., forgetting to show up to an appointment and failing to respond to student messages).
Interpersonal turning point categories included instances where teachers empowered students, minimized power distance (power difference between teacher and students) with students, and helped students withpersonal problems. The first category, empowered students, included instances where teachers instilled confidence in students and helped them to take ownership and control of their learning (e.g., assuring an FG student that she was at the right place in her life and that she was strong enough to overcome all of the obstacles she was facing in her life). The second category, minimized power distance with students, included instances where teachers reduced the power distance between themselves and their students and related to students person to person rather than teacher to student (e.g., asking FG students to call a teacher by his first name). The third category, helped students with personal problems, included instances where teachers took an interest in helping students work through personal problems they experienced while enrolled in their classes (e.g., inquiring about an FG student’s family situation).
The pedagogical and interpersonal turning point categories reflected pivotal communication events that shaped how FG students perceived their teachers, their relationships with their teachers, and their likelihood to persist in college. While pedagogical turning points reflected both positive and negative turning points, interpersonal turning points reflected only positive turning points. Perhaps FG students were not willing to move from a pedagogical relationship to an interpersonal relationship if they experienced negative turning points.
As colleges work to help FG students make the transition from high school to college, teachers can use the results of this study as they develop relationships with their students. First, teachers should recognize that FG students come from families who lack experience with a similar transition. This means that FG students may look to teachers as a primary source of help with solving both course-related and personal problems. To be an effective source of help, teachers should provide specific advice on how to succeed in their class and connect FG students with appropriate campus resources. Second, teachers who share demographic characteristics with FG students should minimize power distance and share relevant stories about their own experiences that help FG students see they have the potential to persist. These commonalities can encourage FG students to move the relationship from a pedagogical relationship to an interpersonal relationship.
This study’s findings suggest that empathic caring communication and supportive pedagogical and interpersonal relationships help reduce the gap between FG students and students who come from families with a tradition of college completion. A better understanding of the turning points that occur in pedagogical and interpersonal relationships equips teachers to communicate in ways that help FG students make a successful transition from high school to college.