April 14, 2016

The Impact of Culture on Student-Teacher Relationships

by Maureen Muthoni, PharmD, PGY1, Sibley Memorial Hospital-Johns Hopkins Medicine

I remember my first day of school in the United States — January 7th 2002. As I walked to the front of the class, I immediately noticed that I was one of only four students in the entire class wearing what the school’s dress code policy stated should be worn. Mrs. Walker greeted me and then introduced me to the class. I took my seat. I found it odd that students were talking to each other while the teacher was speaking. Moreover, the teacher was very welcoming during class and she even encouraged discussion and participation. I did not voluntarily participate that day, or week, or month.  But I was not the only one who did not feel comfortable engaging in conversations with the teacher.

Students spend many hours in school and most of that time with a teacher present. The relationships between students and teachers are crucial to the learning and development processes.1 Positive student-teacher relationships improve academic performance, enhance self-esteem, inspire success, promote self-awareness, and create warm classroom environments.1,2,3 But it is important to recognize that student-teacher relationships vary based on culture.  What might be considered a “good” student-teacher relationship is different.

Until the 6th grade, I went to school in Kenya. My relationships with my teachers could be best characterized as me listening and them doing the talking. I only spoke after raising my hand in class and never really spoke to my teachers outside classroom times. If a teacher wanted to meet with a student after class, it was nearly always for disciplinary reasons.

In the Japanese culture, most teachers direct what students should do without student input. Classes tend to be very quiet and students address the teachers in a very formal way.4  Traditionally, in China, student teacher relationships are viewed as being similar to a parent and child. The teacher teaches the student about important virtues and morals, and bestows his/her wisdom.5 Students are expected to be very obedient and respectful to the teacher. And to value the teacher’s knowledge and principles.5 Although the formality of the relationship between teacher and student has decreased a little in recent years, Chinese students still hold full obedience towards their teachers and are very disciplined.5

A study done comparing student teacher relationships between Turkey and the United States showed that Turkish teachers reported more closeness with their students. In Turkey, students keep the same teachers throughout preschool and primary school, allowing for a close bond to form.2 All over the world, one might find that student-teacher relationships are different.  But there are some similarities.

Many people refer to the United States as a melting pot. It is a place where many cultures mix.2 It is important for students and educators to be aware that different cultures have different understandings of what appropriate student-teacher relationships are and different expectations may exist in one classroom.1 For example, some students might feel very comfortable with speaking up in class and asking the teacher questions. Other students prefer to do their own research and will only ask a question as a last resort. Some students might make eye contact with the teacher while others will avoid eye contact at all times.3 Some students might eat and drink in class while others do not. In high school or college, it is common for teachers to give their telephone numbers to students and encourage them to contact when not in school. While some students might appreciate this, other students might perceive this as overstepping boundaries. When a teacher gave her mobile phone number to the class, I thought it was odd. So did my friends.

The great thing about this country is how rich it is in diversity. While this may be challenging for teachers and students coming from different cultures for the first time to get accustomed to, it is a great opportunity to learn from and teach others about your culture.1,3  A great way for teachers, professors, and preceptors to help overcome difficulties faced due to cultural boundaries might include activities where students share information about their cultural backgrounds. This might help the students see different perspectives, create a friendlier classroom environment, help the teacher recognize ways he/she can connect with the students, and help the students realize they are not alone when it comes to cultural differences. In my sixth grade class, we had a class project where we presented on where we thought the Olympics should be held next and why that country/state was a great choice. Students could showcase their country of origin if they wanted or choose to speak about another country. This activity taught my classmates and teacher many wonderful things about different cultures all over the world.

As I look back now to my first day of school, I am grateful. Although it felt odd at first to be so close to a teacher, it is the relationship that I built with her that truly helped me through middle school. She helped me through a lot and made me feel truly welcomed. I cannot say that there is a culture that has the best student-teacher relationship, but I do believe that a healthy student-teacher relationship positively impacts learning outcomes.

A student summarizes the importance of a great student-teacher relationship this way:

The key to being a good teacher is to know the kids. You have to know every single one and have a relationship with every single one. I think that one thing that really allows me to work hard is knowing that my teacher knows where I am in life at that moment. If they don’t know me, I will tend not to work as hard for them.”3

  1. Rimm-Kaufman S, Sandilos L. Improving students' relationships with teachers to provide essential supports for learning [Internet]. American Psychological Association. 2011 [cited 2016 Mar 30]
  2. Beyazkurk D, Kesner J. Teacher-child relationships in Turkish and United States schools: A cross-cultural study. International Education Journal 2005;6(5):547-554.
  3. Knoell C. The role of the student-teacher relationship in the lives of fifth graders: A mixed methods analysis. Doctoral thesis, University of Nebraska, 2012. [cited 2016 Mar 30]
  4. Takeya K. Culture Shock: Schools in the U.S. and Japan. KALEIDOSCOPE [Internet] 2000 [cited 2016 Mar 30]
  5. Zhang X. Parent-Child and Teacher-Child Relationships in Chinese Preschoolers: The Moderating Role of Preschool Experiences and the Mediating Role of Social Competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2011; 26(2):192-204.

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