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Social-class variations in the teacher-pupil relationship

Howard S. Becker

Reading this excerpt from an article published in the early 1950s might prompt in us some interesting thoughts for care workers today.   — Eds.

A basic problem in any occupation is that of performing one’s given task successfully, and where this involves working with human beings their qualities are a major variable affecting the ease with which the work can be done. The teacher considers that she has done her job adequately when she has brought about an observable change in the children’s skills and knowledge which she can attribute to her own efforts:

Well, I would say that a teacher is successful when she is putting the material across to the children, when she is getting some response from them. I’ll tell you something. Teaching is a very rewarding line of work, because you can see those children grow under your hands. You can see the difference in them after you’ve had them for five months. You can see where they’ve started and where they’ve got to. And it’s all yours. It really is rewarding in that way, you can see results and know that it’s your work that brought those results about.

She feels that she has a better chance of success in this area when her pupils are interested in attending and working hard in school, and are trained at home in such a way that they are bright and quick at school work. Her problems arise in teaching those groups who do not meet these specifications, for in these cases her teaching techniques, tailored to the ‘perfect’ student, are inadequate to cope with the reality, and she is left with a feeling of having failed in performing her basic task.

Davis has described the orientations towards education in general, and school work in particular, of the lower and middle classes:

Thus, our educational system, which next to the family is the most effective agency in teaching good work habits to middle class people, is largely ineffective and unrealistic with underprivileged groups. Education fails to motivate such workers because our schools and our society both lack real rewards to offer underprivileged groups. Neither lower class children or adults will work hard in school or on he job just to please the teacher or boss. They are not going to learn to be ambitious, to be conscientious, and to study hard, as if school and work were a fine character-building game, which one plays just for the sake of playing. They can see, indeed, that those who work hard at school usually have families that already have he occupations, homes, and social acceptance hat the school holds up as the rewards of education. The underprivileged workers can see also that the chances of their getting enough education to make their attainment of these rewards in the future at all probable is very slight. Since they can win the rewards of prestige and without much education, they do not take very seriously the motivation taught by the school. (Davis, 1947).

As these cultural differences produce variations from the image of the ‘ideal’ student, teachers tend to use class terms in describing the children with whom they work.

Children of the lowest group, from slum areas, are characterized as the most difficult group to teach successfully, lacking in interest in school, learning ability, and outside training:

They don’t have the right kind of study habits. They can’t seem to apply themselves as well. Of course, it’s not their fault; they aren’t brought up right. After all the parents in a neighborhood like that really aren’t interested.... But as I say, those children don’t learn very quickly. A great many of them don’t seem to be really interested in getting an education. I don’t think they are. It’s hard to get anything done with children like that. They simply don’t respond.

In definite contrast are the terms used to describe children of the upper groups:

In a neighborhood like this there’s something about the children, you just feel like you’re accomplishing so much more. You throw an idea out and you can see that it takes hold. The children know what you’re talking about and they think about it. Then they come in with projects and pictures and additional information, and it just makes you feel good to see it. They go places and see things, and they know what you’re talking about. For instance, you might be teaching social studies or geography.... You bring something up and a child says, ‘Oh my parents took me to see that in a museum.’ You can just do more with material like that.

Ambivalent feelings are aroused by children of the middle group. While motivated to work hard in school they lack the proper out-of-school training:

Well, they’re very nice here, very nice. They’re not hard to handle. You see, they’re taught respect in the home and they’re respectful to the teacher. They want to work and do well.... Of course, they’re not too brilliant. You know what I mean. But they are very nice children and very easy to work with.

In short, the differences between groups make it possible for the teacher to feel successful at her job only with the top group; with the other groups she feels, in greater or lesser measure, that she has failed.

These differences in ability to do school work, as perceived by teachers, have important consequences. They lead, in the first place, to differences in actual teaching techniques. A young high school teacher contrasted the techniques used in ‘slum’ schools with those used in 'better’ schools:

At S — , there were a lot of guys who were just waiting till they were sixteen so they could get out of school. L — , everybody — well, a very large percentage, I’ll say — was going on to secondary school, to college. That certainly made a difference in their classroom work. You had to teach differently at the different schools. For instance, at S — , if you had demonstrations in chemistry they had to be pretty flashy, lots of noise and smoke, before they’d get interested in it. That wasn’t necessary at L — . Or at S —  if you were having electricity or something like that you had to get the static electricity machine out and have them all stand around and hold hands so that they’d all get a little jolt.

Further, the teacher feels that where these difference., are recognized by her superiors there will be a corresponding variation in the amount of work she is expected to accomplish. She expects that the amount of work and effort required of her will vary inversely with the social status of her pupils. This teacher compared schools from the extremes of the class range:

So you have to be on your toes and keep up to where you’re supposed to be in the course of study. Now, in a school like the D —  [slum school] you’re just not expected to complete all that work. It’s almost impossible. For instance, in the second grade we’re supposed to cover nine spelling words a week. Well, I can do that up here at the K —  [‘better’ school], they can take nine new words a week. But the best class I ever had at the D —  was only able to achieve six words a week and they had to work pretty hard to get that. So I never finished the year’s work in spelling. I couldn’t. And I really wasn’t expected to.

One resultant of this situation — in which less is expected of those teachers whose students are more difficult to teach — is that the problem becomes more aggravated in each grade, as the gap between what the children should know and what they actually do know becomes wider and wider. A principal of such a school describes the degeneration there of the teaching problem into a struggle to get a few basic skills across, in a situation where this cumulative effect makes following the normal program of study impossible:

The children come into our upper grades with very poor reading ability. That means that all the way through our school everybody is concentrating on reading. It’s not like at a school like S —  [middle group] where they have science and history and so on. At a school like that they figure that from first to fourth you learn to read and from fifth to eighth you read to learn. You use your reading to learn other material. Well, these children don’t reach that second stage while they’re with us. We have to plug along getting them to learn to read. Our teachers are pretty well satisfied if the children can read and do simple number work when they leave here. You’ll find that they don’t think very much of subjects like science, and so on. They haven’t got any time for that. They’re just trying to get these basic things over. . . . That’s why our school is different from one like the S — .

Such consequences of teachers’ differential reaction to various class groups obviously operate to further perpetuate those class-cultural characteristics to which they object in the first place.

Davis, A. (1947). The motivation of the underprivileged worker. Industry and Society. Whyte, W.F. (Ed.) New York. McGraw-Hill. p. 99.

This feature: Becker, H.S.  Social-class variations in the teacher-pupil relationship. School and Society: A Sociological reader. London. Routledge & Kegan Paul in association with The Open University Press. pp. 120-121.