Changes in teacher–student relationships


Hunter Gehlbach, 328 Longfellow, 13 Appian Way, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA (e-mail:


Background. Although teacher–student relationships lie at the heart of students’ schooling experience, fundamental questions regarding these relationships remain unanswered.

Aims. This study investigates three related questions about these relationships: To what extent do they change from the beginning to the end of a school year? Are any emergent changes associated with shifts in students’ academic or motivational outcomes? Are certain ‘upstream’ factors associated with improvements or declines in teacher–student relationships?

Sample. We investigate these questions with a sample of middle school students (N = 119) and their teachers (N = 30).

Methods. Through a novel approach which accounts for both perspectives within teacher–student relationships, we assess these relationships at the beginning and end of the school year. Using multi-level models, we examine how changes in these relationships are associated with changes in students’ grades, homework completion rates, self-efficacy, and effort. In addition, we examine associations with two potential precursors to teacher–student relationships: students’ accuracy in taking their teachers’ perspective and their perceptions of similarity to their teachers.

Results. We find that substantial changes occur in these relationships from the beginning to the end of the year; these changes are associated with shifts in important student outcomes; and changes in students’ social perspective taking accuracy and perceived similarity to their teachers correspond with changes in teacher–student relationships.

Conclusions. Given the malleability of teacher–student relationships and their importance for key achievement and motivational outcomes, we advocate for researchers to conduct field experiments to inform how to improve these critical relationships.