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The intimate educational environment: Redefining the teacher-pupil relationship within an 'emotion' paradigm

Vicky Houghton
Edith Cowan University
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It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive. Somerset Maugham 1919
School-based conflict, alienation from curricula-driven processes (Dynan, 1989), academic failure (Ennis, 1996) and teacher stress (Tuettemann, 1988, 1991) remain issues of great concern for Australian educators (Houghton, 2001). In 1997 the Western Australian Government called for continued research into these matters, stating with over 55% of the 1996 student sample demonstrating social, emotional and behavioural problems, that "considerably more work needs to be done" (EDWA, 1997, p.105). The call was to find ways to "modify...or eliminate underlying causes [and to] improve students' self images and attitudes to schooling" (p.105).

The aim of this paper is to report the results of a modified Grounded Theory exploratory study that was completed in 2000 as a response to this Government call. This study focused upon pupil and teacher alienation from the academic process and collected qualitative data (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994) from 123 male pupils and six of their teachers over a three-year period.

The conceptual framework of this study draws upon my thirty years of experience as a secondary school teacher and strongly reflects my concern for those pupils and teachers that we often refer to as 'at-risk' (Carroll et al., 1997).

As a result of my research, my data suggest that the teacher-pupil relationship should be re-defined in ways that more strongly reflect the personal nature of the self-other negotiation (Biesanz & West, 2000) that is a daily part of teaching and learning. I will argue that solutions to school-based conflict, alienation, academic failure and teacher stress will only be available when we stop focusing upon human differences and ask rather 'what is it that teachers and pupils bring to the relationship? What is it that teachers and pupils have in common?

The intimate educational environment

Traditionally, for the purposes of educational research, the term 'environment' has been defined using language of an educational nature, and within educational contexts we have tended to isolate only pupil behaviour (Curwin & Mendler, 1984). I will argue that as educators we need to focus our attention upon the emotionally determined behaviour choices of both parties, within a much smaller and more important environment. A space that I have called 'the intimate educational environment'.

The following diagram is my attempt at depicting interpersonal relationships within the classroom. I have shown only four intimate educational environments. In reality, most classrooms contain twenty or more.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A conditional matrix: External influences impacting upon teaching and learning
(source Houghton, 2001, p.70)

For those who have spent time in the teaching profession, I hardly need mention that the teacher-pupil relationship lies at the hub of a conditional matrix. This matrix locates teachers and pupils within a nested set of external influences; social and political constraints (Slee, 1992) that impact upon each key player in different ways, as each attempts to manage his or her personal commitment to education processes.

While it is important for researchers to consider the teacher-self and the pupil-self as autonomous individuals (Allen, 1995; Deci & Ryan, 1987), I suggest that there is an emotional commonality, which reflects:

In order to understand this smaller environment and to redefine the teacher-pupil relationship, I searched for evidence of alienation, and its associated emotions. I would like to share a very small amount of that evidence and invite you now to listen for hints of alienation and its associated emotions. This first quote is from a very experienced teacher, who shared a powerful moment with me, she said:
"I've had quite a lot of contact with kids who I've taught, but one in particular who I wrote to after a play of his came on at the Festival. ... and he said "you were the only teacher at school who gave me the impression that you were interested in what I had to say"
I must admit, it was this type of quote, which prompted me to ask, What holds some teachers back from being able to personally connect with students in this way? And I found myself wondering whether it could be: the fear of losing control; a fear of revealing one's true 'self' - perhaps a fear that one's true 'self' might be flawed and that one's pupils might see this and take advantage. This second quote comes from a year 10 pupil, who was remembering his year two learning experiences. He said:
"and I used the wrong paper and she got me up in front of the class and yelled at me"
I found myself asking, What is the underlying cause of the anger [or is it fear?], which prompts this type of behaviour? How does this make the student feel? How does the teacher feel?

In order to address these questions: I asked a number of teachers how year 8s might describe what school meant for them. One replied:

I think you'd probably get a couple of responses - I think the year 8s would be more likely to say that its probably quite an awesome experience, depending on some of their backgrounds.
To find out if this was a valid comment, I asked the Year 8 Students, one of them said:
"I hate school. I think it is the dumbest thing. I mean it wastes 12 years of life not including Uni and pre-primary. If you add all of them up you [have] about 19 [years], a pure waste of time".
These two quotes are quite reflective of the wide diversity of perspectives that I had collected from teachers and pupils.

What was clearly coming through the data was that every individual interprets his/her environmental cues differently; according to a unique and internal system of meaning, based on past experiences. In fact, Bernard reminds us that "there are in reality two relationships within each r elationship, and that they don't always coincide" (cited in Tuettemann, 1988, p.14).

However, it was tempting to suggest that it might be this 'perspective diversity' that could be an underlying cause of school-based conflict and alienation. Perhaps we could argue that it is because of the way teachers rationally regard their academic role versus what children emotionally expect from their school experience that is causal. However, somehow I felt that this 'point of view' diversity was in fact a symptom of something deeper, rather than a cause.

Returning back to re-code my data I eventually found significant evidence that the emotions underpinning the potential for alienation and disengagement, might in fact be the same for both pupils and teachers. It was merely how these emotions were acted out that was different.

The data also contained evidence that during times of emotional challenge, it is the pupil-teacher relationship which will exacerbate alienation, especially if it is located within an historic and traditional 'top-to-bottom' chain of command impacting upon these key players.

I acknowledged that 'alienation' is a notion of action and that 'emotion' underpins feelings, and that I was investigating a social process that belongs upon a continuum; that action leads to feeling; feelings lead to action and so on.

Figure 2

Figure 2: A social process continuum

I attempted to visualise the relationship between the action of alienation and some of its causal and resultant emotions. The following diagram is a hasty visualising of this social process and was an early attempt at clarifying the dynamic nature of the relationship, and at showing the common elements of the behaviour manifestations found within the relationship.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Basic social problem in the teacher-pupil relationship

Although I had initially isolated them, bringing all my participants back together as a 'group' theoretically re-created that environment we call the classroom. Therefore, it was only when I drew this final version of the Intimate Educational Environment diagram as a dynamic group that the properties became clear enough to document.

Figure 4

Figure 4: The teacher-pupil relationship: Group dynamics

As we know, diagrammatic visualising of a concept is a proven method of extracting detail from conceptual theory. I would like to share with you a very important theoretical memo that I jotted down during this time, which reflects how deep my awareness of this 'intimate relationship' was becoming. I noted:

It has been interesting drawing the Intimate Educational Environment between pupil and teacher. I have became aware of the symbolism; of the parallels between trying to construct these ovals and trying to construct and maintain the actual relationships with my pupils, as a teacher. As teachers we don't always know at first how to begin to link ourselves to the pupils.

When I tried to draw these ovals, I made them too small; I made them the wrong shape and when I first dropped the oval above the two people the 'environment' obscured them both. So I had to make the ovals transparent before I could see both 'people' within the environment.

The ovals needed to be different shapes and sizes for each pupil.

Even more interesting was the pupil who 'sat at the back of the class'. I had the most difficulty trying to fit my 'environment', around him. I remembered how true it often was in my own classrooms. How often there were pupils who tried to hide in the social dynamics of the classroom, unless I extended my Intimate Educational Environment, and 'worked hard' to make it fit.

I became aware of how each intimate environment certainly overlaps those of other pupils; and in fact some are almost totally overshadowed by others.

I guess the most enlightening feeling I had once I had finished, was how 'swamped' and 'hidden' the teacher had become with all of these ovals on top of him. I had only worked with a few 'student' circles - often classes are between 25 and 35 students. Amazingly I became quite emotional and felt a huge rush of empathy for myself as a teacher and for my teaching colleagues.

As a result of this insight, I found it necessary to modify some of my guiding research questions. A breakthrough actually came to me when I found the following three questions from Roger Slee (1995). He was asking: However, emerging from my data was evidence that two further questions needed to be asked: Is the student connected to the teacher? Is the teacher connected to the student? I realised I was viewing this space as a positioning of 'self'. This is a personal space - an intimate space within which mixtures of emotions belong (Goleman, 1996; Goodyer, 1993).

This quotation appears to reflect 'at-risk' educational circumstances, yet it is couched in very personal terms. It is from a teacher, talking about some behaviour she had received from one student:

"The worse [behaviour] was from one boy whose game it was 'to get the teacher', so he did everything in his power to be as obstructive as possible in my relationship with him. There was lots of calling out in class - he took every opportunity he could to needle me, either personally or over things we were working on. There was lots of sexual innuendo"
Clearly this situation shows one person devaluing or undervaluing an-other, and the way teachers and students deal with the emotions arising from being undervalued continues to be a focus of my work.

My data suggest that there is a correlation between 'levels of alienation', negative emotions, 'levels of conflict' and educational outcomes. My data also suggest that alienation might generally be caused by negative emotions arising from a connection made with another person.

Finally, my data support those who suggest that within the behaviour of unhappy people is the potential for conflict, and that where there is emotional conflict neither good quality teaching nor learning can take place (Jensen, 1998; McCrone, 2000). This student is couching his educational experience in very personal terms. Talking about one of his teachers, he said:

... he was more focused on the people who he thought were able to learn and [were] intelligent, and he sort of put to one side the people who weren't.
I asked him:
Which group did you fit into?
He just looked at me and said simply:
The rejected side.
I had found in the data enough evidence to hypothesise that the teacher's role of mediator does overflow into the personal aspects of a student's life. Part of being a teacher is taking ownership of the necessary set of behaviours, which will assist students in working within both the objective and subjective limitations imposed by the other influences reflected by the conditional matrix mentioned previously. Part of being a teacher is accepting the mandate of significant other in the lives of one's pupils.

Although perhaps extreme, the following evidence is very powerful and reveals the desperation some students feel every day at school. This student wrote:

"School is like going to hell everyday and being tortured. I have hated school since the day I went and if it wasn't illegal not to go I wouldn't. It is like prison. I would rather lose an arm or a leg than go to school. I would give everything I own not to go to school. I truly hate it and this is the truth".

The Intimate Educational Environment

Given our time constraints here, and in preparing to clos e, I would like to share just the first of twelve properties that emerged after coding for the category 'The Intimate Educational Environment'. Although the name Intimate Educational Environment did not emerge for some time, I had found evidence that both teacher and pupil appear to have the same personal need for connectedness and belonging; for autonomy, competence and relatedness - the same personal needs within the process that we term 'education'. It is merely how these needs are 'acted out' that is different.

Here now is the first property of the category The Intimate Educational Environment:

The Intimate Educational Environment

Property 1: This phenomenon can be defined.
Definition: The Intimate Educational Environment is that space and set of personal conditions and behaviours directly connecting an individual pupil to the teacher and which is a sub-set of the greater sets of conditions impacting upon the class within the school, the school within the community and the community within the Australian Education System.


This paper has presented evidence that research into causes of alienation and research into solutions might be better served by a focus upon both pupil and teacher within an 'emotion domain'. My work continues to answer the WA Government call to find ways to modify or eliminate underlying causes of school-based conflict, alienation, academic failure and teacher stress, and to improve students' self images and attitudes to schooling. By redefining the teacher-pupil relationship in terms other than those of an educational nature, academic research might be better able to provide support for those attempting to answer this call.


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Biesanz, J. C., & West, S. G. (2000). Personality coherence: Moderating self-other profile agreement and profile consensus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(3), 425-437.

Carroll, A., Durkin, K., Hattie, J., & Houghton, S. (1997). Goal setting among adolescents: A comparison of delinquent, at-risk and not-at-risk youth. Journal of Educational Psychology, 39(3), 441-450.

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Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1987). The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1024-1037.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. (1994). Handbook of Qualitative Research. London: Sage.

Dynan, M. P. (1989). Alienation and Self-Esteem in High Schools. Unpublished PhD, University of Western Australia, Perth.

EDWA (1997). Annual Report. Perth: Education Department of Western Australia.

Ennis, C. D. (1996). When avoiding confrontation leads to avoiding content: Disruptive students' impact on curriculum. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 11(2), 145-162.

Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Goodyer, I. (1993). Depression among pupils at school. British Journal of Special Education, 20(2), 51-54.

Houghton, V. E. (2001). Teacher/Pupil emotional alienation in the classroom: Towards a Theory of Educational Significance. Unpublished Master of Education Thesis, The University of Western Australia, Perth.

Slee, R. (1992). Discipline in Australian Public Education: Changing Policy and Practice. Victoria: ACER.

Tuettemann, E. (1988). Stress and its Amelioration Among Secondary Teachers: Effects of Basic Needs Satisfaction. Unpublished thesis: University of Western Australia, Perth.

Tuettemann, E. (1991). Teaching: Stress and satisfaction. Issues In Educational Research, 1(1), 31-42. http://www.iier.org.au/iier1/tuettemann.html

Author: Vicky Houghton DipEd (ECU), MEd (UWA). Doctoral Student, Edith Cowan University. Email: houghton@iinet.net.au

Please cite as: Houghton, V. (2002). The intimate educational environment: Redefining the teacher-pupil relationship within an 'emotion' paradigm. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2002.

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