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Academic Views

July 2009

Teachers really do make a difference

Teachers make a significant difference to the lives of young people, even in the difficult adolescent years, according to a recent study by Associate Professor Andrew Martin and a team of researchers from the University of Sydney.

New research conducted by University of Sydney's Associate Professor Andrew Martin (pictured) shows teachers and parents have a greater influence on young people than they might think.

New research conducted by University of Sydney's Associate Professor Andrew Martin (pictured) shows teachers and parents have a greater influence on young people than they might think.

There is no doubting the importance of positive interpersonal relationships for healthy human functioning. Relationships are a major source of happiness, provide a buffer against stress, are important for help on tasks and dealing with challenges and are a basis for emotional support in daily life.

Given all this, we might ask, what is the effect of interpersonal relationships in young people's academic and non-academic lives?

Most research investigating young people's relationships focuses on the effects of only one or two of their major relationships, such as their relationship with their parents or peers. Also the research often only focuses on a relatively small set of outcomes that are either academic or non-academic in nature.

We do not have a comprehensive understanding of the different effects of all major relationships in young people's lives. Nor do we know enough about the impact of these relationships on a large number of academic outcomes, such as academic motivation, and non-academic outcomes, such as self-esteem.

To address this gap in knowledge, we investigated the impact of the four key interpersonal relationships in young people's lives across a diverse set of outcome measures. Specifically, it examined the role of teacher-student, parent-child, same-sex peer, and opposite-sex peer relationships in students' academic and non-academic lives.

The study looked at 3450 Australian high school students and the results showed that quality teacher-student relationships had the most significant impact on students' academic outcomes, followed by parent-child relationships. Some of the key academic outcomes assessed were motivation, engagement, homework completion, enjoyment of school, attendance, and educational aspirations.

However, when the study looked at non-academic outcomes, such as physical self-concept, honesty and emotional stability, peers had the biggest influence, followed by parents.

An important part of the study was to uncover the different ways parents, teachers and peers influence different parts of adolescents' lives. The findings attest to the need for young people to have a range of positive interpersonal relationships in their academic, home/family, and social lives. When all key relationships are travelling well, the young person is in the best position to flourish in their academic and non-academic lives.

Importantly however, the research also indicates that academic motivation suffers when a child does not get on well with teachers or parents.

However, teachers and parents who fear their good work instilling academic discipline, motivation and engagement is undone by an adolescent's peer group can take heart as the research shows they have more influence on young people than they might think.

The study, Young People's Interpersonal Relationships and Academic and Non-academic Outcomes: Scoping the Relative Salience of Teachers, Parents, Same-Sex Peers, and Opposite-Sex Peers, was recently published by US-based Teachers College Record.

Andrew Martin is Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and International Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney.