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You Can Talk to the Teachers: Student-Teacher Relations in an Alternative High School

by Stephen Wilson - 1976

The form and content of teacher student relationships, the norms underlying them, and their effects on individuals and the organization are explored. (Source: ERIC)

Stephen Wilson is research coordinator for the Center for New Schools, Chicago. This article is one in a series of reports from the research and educational assistance program at the Center for New Schools. While the article represents the combined work of many members of the center, special acknowledgement is due to Richard Johnson, Thomas Wilson, Emile Schepers, Donald Moore, and Phyllis Wilson. The research was supported by grants from the Urban Education Research Fund of the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, the National Institute of Education, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Carnegie Corporation.

Alternative schools have become widespread in American education. In spite of their impact on recent educational thinking, we know very few details about daily life in these settings and about their problems. For example, many of the innovators who have established these schools make the somewhat enigmatic proclamation that they intend to alter radically the nature of student-teacher relationships. They hope in achieving this objective to have a positive psychological and educational impact on students and to maximize the satisfaction of all involved. The Center for New Schools undertook an intensive study of these student-teacher interactions at one alternative high school. We explored the actual form and content of these relationships, the norms underlying them, and their effects on individuals and the organization.

The data gathered in this study will provide practical assistance for those working to improve alternative schools. The analysis also adds important information on perrenial research questions about teacher-student behavior and on the structure of schools as organizations.


Adopting the case study method, we focused our research on a "high school without walls" established by a large city public school system. This alternative school (called City High in this paper) is fairly representative of a growing number of similar schools across the country. These schools share all or some of these common characteristics: The student population was purposely diverse, students being drawn from all sections of the city; the city was used as a resource-students had many of their classes in the cultural and business institutions of the city; students were urged to participate in class and institutional planning. Most importantly from the perspective of this study, teachers and students were encouraged to interact in a wider variety of ways than is customary in secondary schools. The school started with 150 students and ten staff teachers its first year. In its second year it expanded to 350 students and twenty staff teachers. We studied City High during its first two years.

Our choice of methodology was guided by several theoretical and practical considerations. We accepted the perspective of ecological psychology, that human behavior is significantly influenced by the context in which it occurs.1 We therefore chose techniques such as naturalistic observation2 and unobtrusive measurement3 which interrupted the flow of events as little as possible.

Furthermore, we chose to work within the framework of qualitative research. Theorists proposing these methods warn that traditional quantitative research methods often overly prestructure data collection and impose irrelevant categories on analysis.4 They urge the use of techniques which are sensitive to the culture of the setting being studied and can lead the researcher to relevant categories of observation and analysis.

Several researchers have pointed out that this approach is especially important when studying schools.5 We therefore chose to put a major emphasis on the use of qualitative methods. Although somewhat rare in educational research, these methods have long been developed and used in anthropology and community studies. The City High research included questionnaire, test, and interview research as well as participant observation.6 Practically, participant observation methodology seemed most appropriate for the City High study. We needed to observe teacher-student relations outside of class as well as inside. Also, since we wanted to study the norms governing these interactions and the educational impact, we needed to be accepted as participants in all areas of the setting-when teachers talked with teachers and when students talked with students. Participant observation offered us both the physical and analytical flexibility we required.

One full-time and one part-time participant/observer joined the school during its first two years. Through a careful and methodical process, they came to be accepted members of most of the teacher and student groups. They gained access to the various behavior settings of the school. They came daily, observed events, listened to conversations, asked questions, and recorded copious field notes. They relied upon the techniques of the anthropologist to achieve adequate sensitivity to the culture of the school and to exclude nonrelevant bias. For instance, they continually sought negative evidence,7 used a constant comparative method to check emerging hypothesis,8 and applied other rigorous standards of internal validity to their data.9 They paid special attention to the verbal and nonverbal content of teacher-student intraction, to behaviors and expressions indicating the norms governing those relationships, and to the impact of these new norms.10

Participant observation data comes in many forms. The researchers discovered the meanings and sentiments of the people in the setting as they were expressed in verbal interaction between the participants, verbal interaction with the observers, nonverbal behavior, habitual patterns of action and nonaction, documents, and other forms. The presentation of this qualitative data poses unique problems because a full display of evidence is impossible within a journal length format.

We have attempted to provide enough information in the text so that the reader can make independent judgements about our conclusions. We have described the nature of the variance in the community's attitudes on significant issues. Throughout the article we have set off two kinds of data in an indented fashion: General descriptions of habitual occurrences and specific quotes or descriptions of particular events that exemplify the kind of information used to arrive at certain conclusions.


One of the most important characteristics of schools as organizations is the nature of the relationships between teachers and students. Waller noted a tendency for teachers and students to form into warring subcultures with variant goals.11 Bidwell describes these tendencies.

. . . relations of students and staff center on conflict and mutual hostility. This forms the teaching staff in the school into a tightly knit "fighting group" struggling to maintain order and motivation through the use of official and adult authority, mixed with efforts to penetrate the students' groups with personal warmth of responsiveness. The students are also formed into a "fighting group" that attempts to preserve its own way of life and to deflect or assimilate the demands of teachers.12

Bidwell notes that the hostilities and low level of involvement in formal school activities which are associated with division into subcultures do not show the whole picture. Schools also have the pressure of close, daily interaction pushing to decrease this distance between teachers and students. Thus two contradictory pressures work simultaneously to shape teacher-student interactions: One pushes toward acceptance of the organizationally defined barriers between members of these two groups; the other pushes toward breaking down the barriers and encouraging closeness. This situation is unstable.

Most schools struggle on with this uneasy mixture of distance and nearness. City High and schools like it, however, made the decision to radically alter the traditional assumptions in teacher-student relations and to resolve the tension inherent in the conflicting pressures. They attempted to build organizations that would have norms that encouraged breaking down the barriers between teachers and students.

In order to understand the attempt at reducing the distance between teachers and students, it is important to understand the nature of that distance. Sociologists such as Bidwell and Dreeban point out that distance is a fundamental characteristic of modern complex organizations and that it is often functional.13 They make reference to the concepts of universalism and specificity in explaining the origins of this distance.

Universalism is a norm which requires people to interact with each other in terms of their organizational roles and of objective assessments of their behavior rather than in terms of personal characteristics or personal relationships. The form of interaction is circumscribed by the rules and traditions of the organization. Specificity is a norm which requires people within the organizational context to limit their interest in each other only to organizationally relevant characteristics. Together these norms contribute to making organizational interaction different from interaction between friends. Sociologists point out that these norms help to guarantee the instrumental orientation of organizations by emphasizing objective bases of behavior, excluding irrelevant personal characteristics, and promoting fairness in interactions. It is these norms, of course, which also create the feeling of distance, formality, and impersonalness which are often attributed to organizational interactions.

Alternative schools such as City High decided that these norms created undesirable barriers between teachers and students. They tried to deemphasize the importance of universalism and specificity. They encouraged informality, and relationships not limited by the traditional forms appropriate for teacher-student interactions. The teachers at the alternative schools tried to create for themselves new roles which integrated the roles of friend, adult, and teacher. There was much confusion in establishing this new kind of relationship. There are costs involved in abandoning the old roles. The next section describes how the norms were changed and what behaviors resulted. The section after that discusses some of the effects of the changes, including the confusion. A forthcoming paper will discuss the structural and programmatic qualities of City High as an organization which supported the creation of the new norms.

In challenging the norm of universalism, teachers did not try to treat every student the same. Assignments, standards of performance, teaching interactions, etc. were all varied in accordance with what the teacher and student knew (or thought they knew) of each other as individuals. For instance, they took into consideration interests, personalities, backgrounds, and the nature of the relationship between them. The organizational symbols of these differential categories of teacher and student-forms of address, content of speech, patterns of dress-were all deemphasized. Organizational status as teacher or student was still important in determining how organizational members of similar or complementary statuses would treat each other, but not so overwhelmingly as in traditional schools. Personal characteristics vied in importance with organizational characteristics.

Specificity, also called compartmentalization, was another aspect of the traditional formality of teacher-student relations which was changed. Typically, teachers and students in regular schools interact primarily about organizationally relevant matters. Nonclassroom concerns such as social life and family problems occasionally are discussed but there is a constant pressure to get back to "business." Dreeban describes this specificity.

On leaving the elementary school and proceeding through the departmentalized secondary levels, pupils form associations with teachers who have a progressively narrowing and specialized interest in them ... the resources of the school far exceed those of the family in providing the social basis for the establishment of relationships in which only narrow segments of personality are invested.14

At City High teachers and students were not limited to "school" matters. Rather, almost anything that was important to a person was considered relevant.15 The "segment of personality" became very wide. Taboos on what teachers and students could say to each other were lifted. The relative absence of these limitations on content of interaction and the lack of a strict differential in forms of interaction discussed previously made it difficult for outside visitors to distinguish teachers from students by any signs except age.

The kinds of personal interactions observed at City High are rare but not unknown in regular schools. Occasionally in conventional schools friendships are established between teachers and students in which they react to each other's personal characteristics and in which they share nonschool-related concerns. In fact, depending on specific students and teachers, the relationship can fall almost anywhere along the continuum of formality ranging from strict formality to friendly formality to older friend to intimate friend. The norms of an institution, however, tend to pressure individuals to form relationships within a certain limited interval of the continuum and to negatively sanction those who deviate too far. For instance in regular schools colleagues will rarely apply negative sanctions to the fellow teacher who adopts a strictly formal stance whereas they may indeed reproach the teacher who they feel is trying to get too intimate with students. Similarly students are likely to pressure the student who tries to become too close with teachers.

City High relationships differed in two respects: First, although just as in the regular schools there were variations in how close and informal various teachers and students wanted to be, the norms governing these relationships were shifted toward approving more intimacy. For example, no City High teacher would feel negatively sanctioned for establishing close relationships with students although a teacher might be pressured if he adopted a strict, formal stance. And secondly, the situations appropriate for closeness and informality were expanded at City High. In regular schools closeness was most likely expressed in after-school or activity situations. At City High these qualities of relationships were present throughout the day, in and out of class.

These dimensions of formality and closeness are not the only characteristics of teacher-student relationships that might be looked at. In fact, most past studies have investigated other qualities such as leadership style, forms of teacher talk, etc. The results of this body of classroom observation research have been disappointing, however, in their failure to demonstrate reliable relationships between varieties of teacher behavior styles and outcomes.16 The results have been ambiguous, possibly because there has been relatively little variation among the classrooms they studied in terms of the fundamental role expectations of how organizational members should interact. In spite of all the other variations, the behaviors of teachers and students in all of these classrooms is guided by the same limitations restricting intimacy and the allowed forms of interaction.

Even in a school where the norms have shifted to encourage intimacy, there are still important differences among teachers. Within the context of informal and personal relationships, some teachers will teach or influence students more than others. Future research will look at these differences. Similarly, a shift in these norms does not necessarily affect other qualities of the relationships. Even within the new relationships, many students maintained a dependency stance toward teachers. This paper concentrates, however, on the prominent differences in relationships between this kind of school and regular schools, differences which result from the shift in norms we have described. As later sections show, these changes themselves had profound effects on life in the school in spite of individual differences among teachers.



Field observation and field interviews as well as quantitatively analyzed interviews given after the first semester revealed that City High succeeded in promoting the new teacher-student relations it sought and in changing the norms governing these interactions. Students saw their relationships with teachers at City High as being radically different from their relationships with teachers in the traditional schools. They saw teachers at City High as being much more friendly and approachable than teachers at the old school. They had the feeling of "dialogue" with teachers.17 This difference was especially important to adolescents, who place so much importance on the realm of interpersonal functioning.18 This article contends that the perceived difference might not necessarily derive from greater warmth of the teachers or their desire to be friendly but rather from a difference in the norms about what was the appropriate content and form of teacher-student relationships.

In an attempt to understand the distribution of these attitudes, the research team conducted a mini-interview of City High students at the end of the first semester. In this technique which was more structured than the usual field interviews, all students who showed up at the school headquarters during a two week period (106 out of a possible 134) were asked a series of six questions.19

One mini-interview question was "For you, what's the most important difference between City High and your old school?"


Significantly, the most frequent response was freedom to talk to teachers. Students felt that in their old schools there were barriers—they were not free to relate to their teachers in all the ways they wanted. The "independent thought" and the "friendly atmosphere" responses also deal with student-teacher relations. Students felt the teachers at City High were more willing to hear their opinions and that the general atmosphere was more friendly. The "freedom to do what you want" also indirectly reflected on teacher-student relations. Students felt that teachers at City High did not interfere with nonclassroom activities in the same way that teachers did at the old school. Even the "City as a learning device" responses often concentrated on the freedom to come and go informally as the most desirable aspect of that difference. This difference was based on the students' perceptions of teachers as more friends than monitors.

City High's innovation was multifaceted. Many types of experimental classes were introduced. The staff sought to create educational experiences that students would think relevant to their personal interests. The institutions of the city were used as educational resources. Students were invited to join in running the institution. Out of all these changes, however, students indicated in free response that the changes in student-teacher relations (and the norms governing these relations) were most important.

Below is a sample of the responses to the mini-interview question summarized in the previous table. These reactions have been selected because they give some idea of the limits on traditional ways students and teachers interact. Many of the students had indicated in field interviews during the year that they liked the teachers at the old schools but there were always barriers.

You can talk to teachers; you couldn't at the old school.

The students are closer to the teachers.

The teachers are more on your level-they're able to relate better.

The teachers aren't considered animals.

At the old school everyone was afraid to talk to the teachers-here they're like [sic] persons.

They're not up on a pedestal-they're people.

I trust them because I don't think of them as teachers.

If I had to say, ‘yes sir,' 'no sir,'' and not Joke, I wouldn't.

There is a danger of misinterpreting these changes. There were still differences between the teacher and student roles. For instance, students generally refused to assume class planning and discipline functions.20 Also not every student felt comfortable with every teacher. Some students even held back on their relationships with teachers with the same restraint that was typical in the regular schools.21 Most students, however, had at least one teacher with whom they were close. Furthermore, since the organizational categorization of people was played down, students could have confidence that their friendship links would insure that their special teachers would intervene for them with other teachers and not betray confidences. In regular schools the organizationally defined categories are usually so strong that teachers and students must express primary loyalty to their own groups.


Up to this point the shift in norms has been discussed only in general terms. This section presents a more detailed description so that the reader can understand what the new norms actually meant to the participants. Not "being up on a pedestal" in part meant that City High teachers did not limit the content of interactions with students. Students and teachers would and did get involved together on such topics as teaching technique, school-administration problems, teacher personal life, student personal life, student relations with other adults, and nonclass-related current events and academic matters.

Students were allowed and often encouraged to voice their reactions to teachers' methods. The norms prohibiting this content in old schools were often so strong that students said they had feared punitive action if they brought these issues up. Even though City High encouraged this expression, it took a long time for students to unlearn the old norms.22 The discussion about methods sometimes took the form of emotional expressions and sometimes the form of abstract, reasoned conversation about the teaching-learning process.

(Student to teacher) "When are your classes going to quit being so boring!"

A teacher in a counseling group was encouraging students to talk about their neighborhoods. One skeptical student asked the teacher if he was trying to analyze them by the way they responded. The teacher then explained his rationale for the discussion.23

In a related area, the logistic and administrative details of running a school are usually considered inappropriate material for staff to share with students. In traditional schools students are shielded from disagreements among faculty about educational policy and from concern about administrative problems. Typically students find out about these matters from the informal grapevine but rarely are they legitimate topics for teacher-student discussions. At City High the staff felt free to share the school concerns with students.

Two students saw a teacher working on requisitions of scientific apparatus for the next year. The stopped to kibbitz and asked the teacher what he was doing. He explained the requisition process-who had to approve the forms, how much money there was to work with, and what kind of educational policy influenced the decisions. He asked if they wanted to help and they joined him in looking through the catalogs.

In staff meetings the faculty had been debating the merits of counseling group as a procedure. A teacher discussed the varying faculty positions with a group of students.

Under the new norms, teacher and student personal lives became valid topics of discussion. They felt free to discuss with each other issues which were customarily defined as extraneous to their official relations in schools-for instance, family, friends, sex, economic matters, personal habits, hobbies, aspirations. Students said they enjoyed learning about teachers as people.

A teacher joked with a group of students about a paycheck and what he and his family were going to do with it. Students asked to see the check and he passed it around.

A teacher was talking to students about her boyfriend in California-what he was like, when she was going to see him.

Several students were discussing troubles they had with their parents about how they kept their rooms. The teacher told of his father's upset reaction to his first apartment.

Teachers found that students also felt more comfortable discussing their personal concerns. The following samples illustrate the wide ranging nature of these topics.

A teacher told the observer that a female student had told her that she was pregnant and had sought advice.

Students had many conversations with teachers about future jobs and professions they were considering.

A student told a teacher about a hitchhiking trip he was planning to Arizona. They then discussed how to stay out of trouble with the police and what to see in Arizona.

A special area of these personal concerns was student relations with other adults. Students often wanted the trusted adults at City High to intervene for them with other adults.

Many teachers helped students get summer jobs.

Teachers sometimes contacted parents if students were having family problems.

Students occasionally asked teachers to aid them with their dealings with the police and the courts.

The freedom to talk to each other about what was on their minds extended to non-personal matters, also. Students and teachers conversed about topics in and out of the teacher's specialty (e.g., current events, movies-in a way that teachers only talk to each other in traditional schools).

A teacher and three students discussed witches and voodoo as it was practiced in their neighborhood.

A student came up to the teachers desk and saw The Source lying on her desk. They then discussed questions about the book.

Teachers and students were constantly discussing politics, sports, the weather, etc.


In addition to the limitations on what content was appropriate between organizational members, there are often expectations about how persons from various categories will behave in relationships with each other. These restraints on behaviors serve as symbolic recognitions of the role differences and emphasize the limited nature of their relationship. These standardized ways of relating to others are characterized as formality. At City High the necessity and wisdom of these norms were questioned.

In most schools students are expected to modify the way they act when in classes or when face to face with school staff. They are usually expected not to act as they do in the informal subcultures. At City High student behavior was largely the same with or without teachers present.

The previous section has described how students in regular schools were expected to censor what topics they brought up and how City High changed those norms so that almost no topic was off limits. Also students have been traditionally expected to address teachers and other staff by their last name with Mister or Miss in front. Staff, on the other hand, have more latitude in what they can call students. At City High these symbolic differentials were abandoned and everyone was called by his/her first name. Students in regular schools have also been expected to change the language they used, urged to avoid the use of curse words, slang, and dialect and generally to strive toward the middle class language of the school. Recently there has been much debate about the educational advisability of denying the students the right to speak in their native dialects and styles-for instance, black English.24 At City High there were few explicit expectations about language behavior. Student language in class and in front of staff did not differ much from the language used in the subculture.

The use of time also is formalized in organizations. Schedules regulate the actions of organizational members-especially contacts between persons in different role positions. In school settings, students and teachers are expected to present themselves regularly for formal activities at specified times and stay for specified periods. At City High time was much more flexible. Although there were still specific time periods designated for organizational activities, the rigidity of these times demands was modified.

School activities were not rigid in their starting and ending times. Within time periods people were also somewhat free to structure their time as they wished-for example, taking breaks and varying their concentration on various task. Although cutting classes was frowned on, students were free to work out independent timing arrangements for teacher contacts.

(Student to a visitor) Our teachers aren't up-tight. There aren't any bells or anything. We run on human time. I guess it's like college.

Students in French class worked individually and in small groups among which the teachers circulated. During the period all students got up at various times to leave the room without asking the teacher. They stayed away for five to ten minutes talking to friends, going into the lounge, getting drinks, etc.

Informal time also meant that the City High day was not segmented like it was in traditional schools where students and teachers see each other primarily at specified times in limited situations. At City High, because of the norms supporting access and the existence of free time and open spatial arrangements,25 teachers and students had contact all day in many contexts in as well as outside of school.

Informal gatherings of students and teachers during free time and breaks were a frequent daily occurrence at City High.

Teachers and students often met after school and on weekends at teachers' homes or at meeting places at the community.

The ritualistic relationships of staff and students in regular schools demands a certain kind of demeanor. There are expectations about how people will conduct themselves based on their organizational roles-how they move about the school, how they sit and stand, what use they make of materials and fixtures, and the tone of their actions generally. Students are expected to be somewhat businesslike, to restrain emotional and physical expression, and to adopt somewhat formal postures when with teachers. At City High the tone of people's actions with people in complementary roles was little different than the tone with people in the same role.

(Descriptions of postures in a social studies course-typical of other situations) The teacher and three students sit on the floor with backs to the wall. Two students are sitting on the floor and two lie on the floor. Four sit on chairs. One sits backwards on the chair, two stand, and one sits on the window seat.

Teachers and students ate anywhere and anytime they wanted.

Students were free to use most materials and equipment as they wanted. They used telephones and typewriters and looked at books and equipment lying around on teachers' desks.

Not only students' actions are shaped by the traditional expectations. In the old schools staff, too, were not entirely free to act as they might or as they would with friends. They also would sometimes like to act zany, to sit and move in a variety of ways, and to share with students personal and intellectual matters not related to the courses. At City High there was a symmetry in the modification of norms. All the new norms of informality and nonspecificity previously discussed affected staff behavior as well as students.

In fact, the atmosphere extended to nonteaching staff also. Secretaries, paraprofessionals, and even the policeman, all of whom in regular schools are part of the distant, official, adult world had personal, informal relationships with students.

During free time teachers and students often played games with each other-for example, Scrabble, three dimensional checkers.

Teachers and students often asked each other to give messages to friends.

A girl student was practical joking by shooting a water gun at people. She shot the assistant principal. He later got the gun and shot her.

We are not stating that student behaviors with persons of the same role was identical with their behavior with persons of the complementary roles. Part of the differences in behavior came from the gaps in age and interests. Many times individuals sought out their peers for intimacy-teachers were not likely to get excited about adolescent social exploration nor did students fully comprehend the problems of running a family. Individuals did not enter fully into the subcultures of the other group-for instance, teachers remained outside of student status hierarchies.

Other differences arose as a result of organizational positions. Teachers had more obligations than students to be responsible for the use of time and materials, to give direction to activities, to be available as resources, and generally to make the organization go. There were still role differences but a clear attempt was made to circumscribe the effects of these differences. People were not limited to interacting with each other only in terms of their role positions nor only in organizationally relevant issues.

This section has delineated what the partial abandonment of the norms of universalism and specificity meant for the ways teachers and students could interact. The repertoire of appropriate content and forms of interaction was expanded to include forms and content previously restricted to friendship relations.

The next section discusses some of the ramifications of these change! The new kinds of relationships had beneficial effects on both teachers and students and seemed to be serving educational purposes. Some saw these new relationships as one of the most significant accomplishments of the alternative schools. At the same time, however, problems developed. The definition of the alternative school teacher role in negative' terms, as someone who was more open with students than traditional teachers, was not sufficient. The teachers at City High were struggling to integrate their roles of friend, adult, counselor, and teacher within this context. Many conflicts arose as they tried to be true to all these felt obligations, and the changes were not uniformly positive. Pressures that were frequent at the regular schools were indeed relieved, but new pressures were created.



One of the most comprehensive effects of the new relationships was an increase in the flow of information. Students in regular schools do not share many kinds of thoughts with most of their teachers. In part this reluctance stems from the instrumental emphasis in the formal organization. Teachers and students sense many topics to be inappropriate to the "business" of the classroom and the school.

This exchange of formerly taboo topics increased the possibility for the school to address several important developmental concerns of adolescents—sexual, vocational, and ideological identity.26 Before teachers could help students with these concerns, the school had to allow them to become legitimate topics of conversation. The freedom of communication at City High meant that conversations between teachers and students entered these realms of values and aspirations more often. They knew more about each others' lives outside of the school and about their gut reaction to issues than their counterparts in the regular schools.

This flow of information was not all positive, however. In regular schools, because these concerns are rarely shared, students have few hopes that teachers can or will help them. At City High, on the other hand, students began to have unreal expectations that teachers would be able to help them with the thorny problems of adolescence. Some increased their dependency on teachers. These personal problems, of course, are more difficult to solve than the restricted academic questions of regular schools.

(Student to teacher) . . . you've got to help me. I'm having parent problems again. I just can't go on living there . . .

Teachers confronted a related danger. In regular schools teachers who wanted class relations with students could always complain that the organizational norms did not let people approach each other. At City High because these norms were changed, teachers had almost as much access to most students as they wanted and they hoped that they would be able to help students in significant ways. They had much success. Nonetheless, they were unable to solve some of the complex problems brought up or to influence some students. The City High teachers were thus subject to much frustration that did not exist for regular school teachers who could have little hope of becoming involved with students about these difficult issues.

(Teacher to observer) I don't know what we can do for S—. He's got so many problems-at home and with the court. We just can't give up on him.

City High was never as successful in this area of helping students as it hoped to be. Like many alternative schools, it had planned to involve both parents and communities directly in school activities. Because of the amount of work involved in just getting the school going, the staff was never able to develop programs to accomplish these goals.27

Although individual teachers would intervene for individual students with various agencies, the school never found a way to systematically work with community agencies. Similarly, although individual teachers would intervene with individual parents, there was not a systematic method developed for working with parents. Furthermore, the staff never dealt with the problem of working out a consistent orientation toward parents and their values.

These expanded teacher-student relationships created another problem. Teachers realized that their traditional teacher training had not equipped them with needed counseling skills. City High attempted to help teachers learn these skills by bringing in consultants, but the counsultants did not solve the problems. Part of the staffs real difficulty in addressing student problems may have stemmed not so much from lack of counseling skills as from their lack of experience with the diverse backgrounds of students. Some of the staff felt insecure when trying to help students with problems that were alien to their own experiences. It was clear that the failure of teacher training institutions to include both counseling skills and exposure to various backgrounds in their programs would be a persistent problem facing alternative schools.28

Some staff members had reservations about the intensity of staff involvement in counseling. They were afraid that these commitments, which sometimes included teacher activity outside of school, were overambitious. They were also wary that the concentration on severe problems would shortchange the great majority of relatively normal students. They doubted that the staff could provide the kind of help that some more troubled students needed.

(Staff member to observer) I'm not sure R- (white, female teacher) is helping T- (black student). One thing black males don't need is some woman trying to take care of them.


The formal and functionally specific relationships of specialized organizations, such as typical secondary schools, offer certain kinds of protection for organizational members. There are limits on the timing, spacing, and nature of interactions. There are controls on the intensity. Although the expansion of these limits at City High was a source of professional and personal fulfillment for many individuals, it was also a source of fatigue and an emotional drain on teachers.

Rather than having the highly predictable schedules characteristic" of regular schools, City High teachers had to be ready for any kind of interaction at any time. The predictable aspects of the program-classes and counseling groups-were only a small part of their contacts with students.

In addition to being not limited in time, contacts were not limited in space. Another paper describes the actions taken by City High staff to create an "open" climate (spatially and socially) where all organizational members had access to each other and there were few "off limits" areas.29 Norms promoting open access required both students and teachers to sacrifice some privacy. Teachers found that some organizational activities required specialized space and that they sometimes wanted to withdraw from the informal friend-counselor role so that they could pursue other functions.

(Teacher at staff meeting) We've got to find someplace for the teachers to work. I like talking to students, but yesterday afternoon I was trying to make some things for the City Planning courses and kids kept on coming up wanting to rap.

On weekends some teachers' homes became populated with students.

At the end of the observation period, teachers and students were developing sensitivities to each other's desires to be alone or to work. Similarly, many areas around the school were becoming informally differentiated for certain kinds of activities-for instance, noisy socializing became infrequent in the work area.

Another cause of teacher fatigue was the expansion of the nature of interactions. Just as openness allowed these interactions to be positive, it also allowed them to be negative. In the formal situation of regular schools, negative affect can be expressed towards a teacher. But at City High students were comfortable with expressing this negative effect in far more personal ways. They reacted as friend to friend, rather than as student to teacher—for example, making fun of a teacher's physical traits or reacting in an extreme way to some personal advice. This tendency was especially wearying for the teachers because of the highly ambivalent feelings of adolescents towards adults-quickly fluctuating between love and hate.30

This increased exposure for teachers had dramatic consequences. Although the faculties of these alternative schools have been usually positive about their teaching experiences, there has been a high level of turnover. Almost the entire original staff of City High had left in three years. Teachers feel that they were "burned out" by the intensity of personal and organizational demands.

The traditions of teaching have not developed any of the safeguards of the other professions that enter into the intense world of personality (e.g., social work and mental health). Teachers are not routinely trained for the kinds of interaction that developed in the City High atmosphere. Indeed, it may be that the traditional organizational patterns of high school which exclude these relationships have evolved to protect their staffs from the fatigue that has been described.31

Many alternative schools place a high value on these personal teacher-student relations. It will be important to watch how they cope with the potential for exhaustion-by evolving new norms to regulate the new interactions or by giving up some of the new scope of relationships. The "burning out" phenomenon is complex and cannot be fully treated there. The new intensity of interactions with students does not totally explain it. The nature of the teachers' commitment to the school as well as their unique personal qualities may also be important.32


Other kinds of problems accompanied the introduction of these new norms of friendly informality. Not all students were eager to accept the changes. The traditional role structures had been well learned by some students. In fact, they had incorporated these expectations into their definitions of school.33 They were reluctant to give up the clear knowledge of limitations inherent in the traditional roles for the unpredictability of the new roles.

Various subgroups of students differed on how well they accepted the new role of friend-counselor for teachers. Students from minority and lower economic backgrounds who had a history of being alienated from school were wary of the new friendly relations. They were disconcerted by the possible inappropriateness of their usual reactions of withdrawal and rebelliousness. During the early periods of the school they were constantly testing teachers. When the teachers did not respond in a way they expected, they doubted the teachers' sincerity.

Gradually, some of these students began to accept friendly personal relations with a few teachers. Nevertheless they also clung to the old role definitions because they served important functions for them.

A school-alienated student was talking to the observer about a teacher he was friendly with. When the conversation turned to class cutting, the observer asked the student why he didn't talk it over with his friend-teacher. (Student): No matter how friendly, a teacher's still a teacher.

The school oriented students who came from upwardly mobile, lower middle class families had slightly different problems with the new roles. These students were used to relating to teachers with respect and restraint. They seemed to desire the distance-for instance, ritualistic forms of address that separate teachers and students in the traditional schools. They saw this distance as a symbol of the teacher's status as gatekeeper to mobility. They were at first upset with the informal, personal relationships that characterized many City High classes.

Most of these students gradually grew comfortable with the new student teacher relationships and accepted the new roles. In fact some of these students became the closest friends to teachers after they learned that their mobility was not going to be threatened by the informal relationships. A few, however, never accepted the new norms.

A majority of the students who transferred out of City High after the first semester were from the school oriented group. These students indicated in informal interviews that they left because the school was not structured enough and they feared they could not realize their occupational goals. Parents often had important roles in these decisions.

The school-alienated and the school-oriented students clung to a corollary aspect of the traditional teacher role. Accompanying the idea that teachers should be formal and somewhat distant in class was the expectation that they should be more friendly and informal in activities. The City High staff was not keen on continuing the activities and wanted to eradicate this distinction. In part they feared anything that resembled the old schools. They hoped that student-teacher relations throughout the day would be characterized by warmth that was often restricted to activities in the traditional schools. Some students seemed confused when relations with teachers in City High classes resembled their relations with teachers in regular school activities. They pushed for the continuation of traditional activity structures at City High partially in hopes of reestablishing these distinctions which they had learned so well.34


Teachers also had trouble working out these new roles. In the traditional school situation where there is an attempt to maintain a formal distance between students and teachers, there are clear expectations about what kinds of obligations individuals have to members of their own groups-for instance, certain kinds of information are not to be shared with members of the other group.

City High deemphasized the formal distance inherent in student and teacher roles. The role of friend began to compete in importance with the organizational role of teacher/student. The obligations which were once clear became ambiguous. For instance students shared information with City High teachers they would not have shared with teachers in the regular schools. Teachers who learned of these issues in the regular schools would have had a strong obligation to inform other teachers or officials. At City High, on the other hand, the obligation to their student-friend vied in importance with their obligation to other teachers and to their official roles.

One student out of a group who were joking with a teacher-friend mentioned that she was going to copy out of the encyclopedia to fulfill another teacher's assignment. The observer noted a momentary expression of distress in this teacher's face. The teacher made a joking comment about the other teachers having to read an awful lot of encyclopedia-text. The obligation to these students in this context precluded any more probing on this point.

Situations such as this one illustrate how the obligations of friend, adult, and teacher often conflicted. Some members of the staff felt that other teachers leaned too far in the direction of friend. They thought that their colleagues showed too little of the adult and teacher and that they did not introduce enough mature guidance and authority when it was needed. The City High staff had constant difficulty in finding a viable integration of all these roles in a way that did not sacrifice too much of either friend or teacher.


Teachers at City High discovered that the open relationships with the students interfered with some traditional teaching techniques. Within the context of formal relationships teachers at traditional schools can count on either compliance with or rebellion to their directives. At City High there was a third alternative. Students felt comfortable enough with teachers to question every request and to try to negotiate desired changes. Positively, these developments showed that students were learning to deal functionally with adults. Negatively, this lack of complacency introduced difficulties for teachers.

Teachers were hampered in inquiry-teaching strategies. Teachers sometimes ask students to do things that the students do not like or do not understand with the intention of leading them to insight. In regular schools the teachers can generally count on the students to go along with them. At City High students demanded to know the reasons and debated the proposed actions. Teachers, of course, could not expose the reasons without ruining the impact of the technique. Generally they got students to trust them and to go along with the procedures but they had to spend much more energy than their counterparts in the regular schools who get compliance because of their organizational positions.

City High teachers found themselves caught between their roles of teacher and friend. Teachers can demand. Friends usually do not tell each other what to do except in the spirit of suggestion. City High teachers did not want to make formal commands and yet they did sometimes want to direct student action more than a friend would. The resolution was an uneasy arrangement with teachers proposing and students negotiating.

This confusion and compromise between official and friend caused even more widespread upheaval in traditional teaching techniques. The expectations associated with the usual teacher role make it quite appropriate for teachers to try to control such things as quality of work and attendance. These familiar teacher actions are perhaps the most illustrative of the universalistic norms which underlie traditional teacher-student relations. City High teachers found that their friendships with students and their interest in the particularistic details of each student's life made it difficult for them to demand work or attendance in an absolute manner with universal standards. For instance, a friend does not easily withold credit from a friend, complain about the quality of work, or throw him out of class because of nonattendance. Students expected the norms of informality and friendship to. prevail in and out of class. They wanted to control the definition of teacher student relations.

(Student to observer) C—(Teacher) is really an O.K. guy when you are talking to him at his desk. When he gets in class, he goes way out. He tries to act like a regular teacher. He'd be an alright teacher somewhere else, but not at City High.

An important aspect of this teacher's "way outness" was his attempt to enforce strict standards of work and attendance. One of the major struggles of alternative schools is to find ways for teachers to prod students to live up to standards of work and attendance without giving up the informality and friendship. The new student teacher relationships precluded the old, formal ways of enforcing these standards.

A strange turnabout at City High further illustrates the abandonment of the norms of universalism in teacher-student relations. In traditional high schools the most formal relationships occur in academic classes. Relationships with activity sponsors and coaches, on the other hand, tend to be more global and particularistic. At City High the situation was reversed. Almost every classroom teacher-student relationship had the friendly, personal aura usually reserved for activities. Teachers acting in the role of activity sponsors, however, sometimes found the informality frustrating.

(Teacher, who was also a coach, to observer) I've discovered something-you can't coach a team according to the City High philosophy.

Not coaching "according to the City High philosophy" meant that the teacher, as coach, could not accept the usual patterns of particularistic variation and negotiation for each student. Although the friendliness remained, those running activities often felt the need to be stricter than they were in classes in setting universalistic standards of attendance and performance.


In regular schools the closeness of student-teacher interactions was restricted, but the norms of universalism required interactions to be equally distant for all students. There were favorites and enemies, but aside from these few exceptions most students felt they had almost as much access to the teacher as any other student.

City High expanded the possible range of interaction. Because this expansion included personal and informal relationships, reactions and feelings that were almost invisible in regular schools were made manifest. Unlike the restricted situation in the regular schools, students and teachers could act on their feelings and seek more or less contact with each other.

Generally, teachers tried to maintain some kind of universalistic standards in regard to student interactions. That is, they tried to welcome all student approaches and to make any student feel comfortable in friendly interaction. Teachers were somewhat successful in this approach and had special friends among students from all subgroups. Inevitably, however, teachers enjoyed some students' company more than others and these subtle cues were picked up by the students.

Feeling no need to be universalistic in their interactions, students quite often zeroed in on those teachers they especially liked. Teachers almost became "territories." Certain students (often from the same subgroup and/or sex) tended to hang around with certain teachers. This tendency was encouraged by supply and demand problems. Attempts to diversify the faculty in terms of background were largely unsuccessful and some students thus had few staff with backgrounds similar to their own to choose from.

The opening up of teacher-student interactions to include personally relevant concerns may have made these patterns of differential choice inevitable. The personal qualities of adults with whom students were going to be close was important. They were more selective than they would have been in the traditional teacher-student interaction.

The informality also affected student interactions with each other. Since City High teachers could not attempt to control discussions in the same formal way as the regular school teachers, students' personal qualities had even more importance than in regular classes. Verbal students tended to dominate discussions. Reluctant students could easily withdraw from discussions. Informal methods of control were tried such as pressures on verbal students to refrain and urges to quiet students to participate. Because of the norms of informality, however, the possibility of officially structuring discussions was remote.

There are also limits on how much teachers could try to manipulate student encounters with each other. In the traditional classroom, teachers can try to force students to deal with each other-for example, scheduling, group assignments, structured recitation. At City High, however, the atmosphere of informality allowed students to select other students for interaction-in scheduling, in finding work partners, in initiating discussions, etc. The impersonal throwing together of people characteristic of formal situations was somewhat lacking. This was a particularly crucial lack at City High where one of the basic goals had been to really bring together students from diverse backgrounds.


We have described the transitional role that teachers evolved in the alternative school. It stood somewhere between friend/counselor and traditional teacher. It introduced some new possibilities and it took away some old ones. It opened some of the worlds of interaction based on informal friendliness and it closed out some of the interactions based on universalistic, official roles.

Teachers and students learned a lot more about previously hidden aspects of each others' lives. Teachers and students could get closer. Teachers could potentially have more influence on students-especially in those personal areas important to adolescents.

Students could have new kinds of friendships with adults outside the family. Teachers gained more immediate feedback about the impact of their teaching. The days at school became more enjoyable. The idea that there were two mutually hostile categories of people with different goals was gradually disappearing.

The new possibilities, however, raised teachers' and students' hopes about solving student personal problems and created a lot of potential frustration. The transformation of the old role structure fatigued teachers because it increased the intensity and scope of interaction with students. It threatened some students because it made obsolete some old, well-learned methods of coping with school. Teachers found they had to sort out the demands of the sometimes conflicting roles of friend and teacher. The repudiation of the universalistic norms magnified the importance of personal reactions and inhibited the use of some teaching techniques that depended on the distance of the teacher role.

It is important to note that City High teachers' lack of freedom to use these formal techniques may not have had as much impact as it seems. As events in the regular schools demonstrate, just because a teacher in that setting can formally demand attendance, set standards for work, and require cooperation among students in assignments does not mean that he gets attendance, work, or cooperation. Even if students do comply, there are no guarantees that these activities in themselves will lead to increased learning or better interpersonal relations.

The occurrences at City High raise some important questions about recent theoretical analyses of schools as organizations. One line of reasoning suggests that there is a change in the nature of student-teacher relationships as the functional qualities of schools change from the elementary to higher levels.35 Higher level institutions are seen as being more specialized than lower level ones and the norms of universalism and specificity become more prevalent. With these changes, the nature of student teacher interactions becomes more instrumental-that is, they are based on objective competencies and performance and the affective ties resemble "respect" more than "love" or "liking".

In complex societies the high level of structural differentiation, which involves specialized occupations and organizations for providing various kinds of service to persons makes societal ties approximating the primordial unlikely between teachers and students except in the specific situations of the nursery and primary education.36

These theories are appealing explanations of the modal differences between elementary and secondary schools. City High arrangements suggest, however, that the increased instrumental and formal emphasis of secondary schools is not inevitable. In fact, the positive reactions of students to the City High relationships indicate that the traditional emphasis might even be dysfunctional. The failure of regular schools to affect basic student orientations and values and their problems with student alienation may derive in part from clinging to the norms of impersonal, formal, instrumental teacher-student relationships.

Secondary students do not seem to want the diffuse "liking" or "love" relationships with teachers that characterize relationships with elementary teachers, but neither do they want the purely instrumental relationships based primarily on respect and competence that the theorists propose. These sociological analyses disregard some important developmental facts about adolescents. Many students in our society do not have the clear sense of goal and purpose that the concept of a specialized, instrumental secondary school presupposes. They are not as interested in acquiring some specific set of skills as they are in defining their identities.37 They do not want mere subject matter experts as teachers. Rather, they want teachers who can understand what concerns them, who can offer appropriate help, who can make the subjects relate to their interests, who can serve as personal models, and who demonstrate that they are genuinely concerned about the student as a whole person, not only as a student. These combined instrumental-expressive criteria demonstrate that neither expertise nor friendliness is sufficient in itself. These student desires suggest a model for the secondary schools different from the one the analysts propose. City High was a beginning of this kind of alternative.

The student-teacher relationships established at City High challenge not only schools but organizational structure in general. There is an assumption that many relationships in organizations in highly specialized societies must be somewhat impersonal and formal. Moreover, some analysts such as Dreeban see the schools as serving an important function in socializing students for roles in these organizations. The usual teacher-student relations are important in this process.

The school is perhaps best designed for learning to participate in authority relationships based on inequalities in specific capacity rather than on diffuse obligation and on the occupancy of positions linked by contractual or other specific agreements.38

There is a growing realization, however, that this organizational future for which students are being prepared may not be the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps, we have gone too far in dehumanizing organizational relationships. Individuals may end up alienated from their tasks and from each other in such settings.39 Experiments in organic job organization are being tried, such as decentralized authority, primary group job rotation, and work time choice.40 We may find ways to have primary kinds of relationships become prevalent even in our highly specialized organizations. The data from City High demonstrate that this process of linking primary relationships and instrumental purposes is not easy. The data also show, however, that the attempt is worth it.


1 R. Barker. Ecological Psychology. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1968.

2 E. Willens and H. Raush, eds. Naturalistic Viewpoints in Psychological Research. New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

3 E. Webb et al. Unobtrusive Measurement. Chicago, Ill.: Rand McNally, 1966.

4 B. Glaser and A. Strauss. Discovery of Grounded Theory. Chicago, Ill.: Aldine, 1967; and S. Bruyn. Human Perspective in Sociology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

5 P. Jackson. Life in Classrooms. New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968: S. Saiason. The Culture of Schools and the Problem of Change. Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon, 1971; and L. Smith and R. Geoffrey. Complexities of an Urban Classroom. New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

6 Center for New Schools, "A Comparison of Methods Used to Study Alternative Schools," paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, 1974.

7 H. Becker et al. Boys in White. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

8 Glaser and Strauss, op. cit.

9 Bruyn, op. cit.

10 For more on methodology, see Center for New Schools, "Strengthening Alternative Schools " Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 43, No. 2, 1972; and G. McCall and J. Simmons, Issues in Participant Observation. New York, N.Y.: Addison-Wesley, 1968

11 Willard Waller. Sociology of Teaching. New York, N.Y.: John Wiley, 1939.

12 C Bidwell, "Social Psychology of Teaching," in R. Travers, ed. Handbook of Organizations Chicago, Ill.: Rand McNally, 1965.

13 Ibid; and R. Dreeban. On mat is Learned in Schools. New York, N.Y.: Addison-Wesley, 1968.

14 Dreeban, ibid., p. 79.

15 As with any friendship relationship, the actual topics of discussion were subject to negotiation. Age and background differences between teachers and students meant that not every student and every teacher could discuss their most important interests with each other.

16 B. Rosenshine and N. Furst, "Use of Direct Observation to Study Teaching," in R. Travers, ed. Second Handbook of Research on Teaching. Chicago, Ill.: Rand McNally, 1973.

17 D. Schienefeld, personal communication, 1974.

18 H.H. Remers and D.H. Radler. The American Teenager. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958.

19 S. Wilson, "A Participant Observation Study of an Attempt to Institute Student Decision-Making in an Alternative School," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1972.

20 Wilson, "Strengthening Alternative Schools," op. cit.

21 This restraint had several different origins. For some students it was born of a distrust for teachers or a reluctance to abandon familiar patterns. As the year progressed, these students generally got over their reluctance. For other students, however, this restraint was a consequence of strong values learned at home or in their communities that required respect for elders and reserve in interaction with them. These norms learned at home were in direct conflict with the norms City High was trying to establish and were a source of discomfort to both students and teachers.

22 Center for New Schools, "A Participant Observation of an Attempt to Institute Student Decision-Making in an Alternative School," op. cit.

23 As mentioned earlier the material set off in an indented fashion is meant only to be an example of the data supporting generalizations.

24 W. Labov. The Study of Non-Standard English. Champaign, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1970.

25 Center for New Schools. Organizational Supports for Innovative Teacher-Student Relations. Chicago, Ill.: Center for New Schools, 1974.

26 R. Havighurst. Developmental Tasks and Education. New York, N.Y.: Langnan's Green, 1952.

27 Wilson, "A Participant Observation Study of an Attempt to Institute Student Decision-Making in an Alternative School," op. cit.; and Center for New Schools, "Do Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth?" Chicago, Ill.: Center for New Schools, 1974, mimeo.

28 Some analysts would disagree that such training would help teachers to counsel students from backgrounds radically different from their own. They urge that the staffs of these schools be diversified so that teachers will have the resources from their own experiences to work with students from various backgrounds.

29 Center for New Schools, Organizational Supports for Innovative Teacher-Student Relations, op. cit.

30 E. Erickson, Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York, N.Y.: Norton, 1968.

31 It is important to realize that these personal teacher-student relations reduce certain kinds of emotional drain. Teachers at this kind of school did not experience the fatigue that comes from the constant need to formally control and discipline students. Teachers did not come home feeling like they had done battle all day.

32 For more discussion of the "burning out" phenomenon, see Center for New Schools, "Do Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth?" op. cit., and L. Smith and P. Keith. Anatomy of an Educational Innovation. New York, N.Y.: John Willey, 1971.

33 Wilson, "A Participant Observation Study of an Attempt to Institute Student Decision-Making in an Alternative School," op. cit.

34 Ibid.

35 Bidwell, "Schools as Organizations," op. cit., Bidwell, "Social Psychology of Teaching," op. cit.; and Dreeban, op. cit.

36 Bid well, "Social Psychology of Teaching," op. cit.

37 Erickson, op. cit.

38 Dreeban, op. cit., p. 144.

39 E. Fromm. Marx's Concept of Man. New York, N.Y.: Ungar, 1961.

40 W. Bennis and P. Slater. Temporary Society. New York, N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1968.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 78 Number 1, 1976, p. 77-100
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1234, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 10:34:14 PM

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