Teacher Relationships are a Crucial Component for Success in Urban Settings

by Jennifer Cartier

A successful teacher is one who can create a classroom community, motivate students to engage in that community, and build students’ confidence in their capacity for learning. To achieve these goals, a teacher must develop and nurture positive relationships with students, family members, and colleagues. Relationships are particularly crucial to success in urban schools, where many students—and often generations of family members before them—have been consistently labeled as “failures” and feel that schools don’t value the things they know and can do.

Despite the importance of these relationships, educators often assume that preservice teachers will simply pick up necessary knowledge and skills related to relationship building during their field experiences. Believing that the stakes are far too high to leave such crucial skill development to chance, a group of educators from the School of Education’s Department of Instruction and Learning, Pittsburgh Brashear High School, and Propel Braddock Hills High School developed and launched the Urban Scholars Program in 2012. The goal of the program is to prepare preservice teachers to be successful in urban schools by pairing them with skilled mentors who model and support strategies to build positive relationships with students.

Thirty-one secondary (grades 7–12) preservice teachers across all core subject areas (English, foreign languages, mathematics, science, and social studies) participated in the first year of the program in 2012. In addition to Brashear and Propel Braddock Hills high schools, students were matched with mentors at Allderdice, Carrick, King PreK–8, Langley K–8, and Propel Andrew Street high schools. While fulfilling the demands of their Pitt teacher education programs, urban scholars also spent a minimum of five additional hours each week at their school sites.

The urban scholars’ work included publishing weekly class newsletters for distribution to parents, in-school and after-school tutoring, coaching, and organizing activities like weekly pizza lunches to recognize and celebrate students’ achievements. Social studies scholar Richard House devoted his time to serving as a mentor to and role model for ninth-grade male students, providing academic and social/emotional support for these youths throughout the year. Katelin Seidler, an English education scholar, collaborated with her mentor teacher to enable 120 ninth-grade students to plant flowers, paint, and pick up garbage in Schenley Park. (This program was funded through a Love Your Block grant obtained by Seidler’s mentor teacher.) English scholar Chrissy Homa cultivated her students’ awareness about options for college, transforming her weekly advisory period into a college readiness course in which students “discussed their thoughts, fears, and goals regarding higher education pursuits.” Homa’s students participated in a trip to visit Pitt’s campus as part of her program.

The Urban Scholars Program has provided School of Education teacher education faculty members with opportunities to collaborate with mentor teachers in school contexts and to reflect across content area groups on practices that show promise for preparing successful urban teachers. Pitt faculty members also have experienced the program as an opportunity to see core program commitments in action.

During the 2013–14 school year, Pitt placed 25 new urban scholars with mentors in partner schools and continued to emphasize the importance of relationship-sessions aimed at building teachers’ emotional resilience and ability to manage stress. They are benefiting from training opportunities and guidance from Rich Milner, who is director of the Pitt Center for Urban Education, as well as Erika Gold Kesternberg, who is associate director of community partnerships and practice in the center.

You can learn more about the Urban Scholars Program and follow some of the scholars through their 10-month internship.

Jennifer Cartier is completing a term as director of teacher education for the School of Education.