"He was trying to figure out whether I was black or white, and he looked at me, and he said, 'You know what; you're a smart kid; I'm going to check white,' " said Sidner, whose mother is a white British woman and whose father is African-American.
"It definitely had an impact on me," she said. "It made me want to fight back and say, 'I can be black and smart. Those are not separate entities. Those are not different things.' "
The study also showed how establishing trust in their teachers can have life-long consequences for middle school students, even making a significant difference in their likelihood of attending college, said Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the study.
"There's this kind of hidden construct of trust that teachers and schools are influencing all the time and maybe not knowing it, and they have these far-off, far-flung consequences, like college enrollment," Cohen said.
"A lot of the things that happen to us during our teenage years end up sticking with us. A disproportionate number of our memories, for instance, come from our teenage years. If you suffer a depressive episode in your teen years, you're more likely to suffer one later on in adulthood," he said. "This developmental stage is important."
Trust linked to success in school
The study involved 277 middle school students in Connecticut who were surveyed twice yearly about their perceptions of school from sixth to eighth grade, and then were tracked to indicate whether they enrolled in a four-year college after high school. About half of the students were white, and about half were black. Their teachers were white.
The researchers assessed each student's trust in school by including statements in the survey such as "I am treated fairly by teachers and other adults at my school" or "students in my racial group are treated fairly by teachers and other adults." The students could select whether they agreed or disagreed with each statement.
The survey results showed that while the trust students had in their teachers declined from sixth to eighth grade overall, that trust plunged faster for black students and had a more significant association with their likelihood of attending college.
Among black students, when their trust in school declined, their rate of college enrollment was about 43%, but when their trust increased, it was about 64%, said David Yeager, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study. So, there was a difference of 21 percentage points.
Among white students, when their trust declined, their rate of college enrollment was about 54%. When trust increased, college enrollment was about 62%. So, there was a difference of only 8 percentage points, Yeager said.
The researchers also surveyed 206 middle school students in Colorado over a one-year period. About half of the students were white, and about half were Latino. Their teachers were white.
The surveys showed that a loss of trust was more significant among the Latino students and emerged more prominently in the seventh grade.
But the study has some limitations.
"I would love to see researchers try to replicate that sort of 'trust gap' in other schools and see if they get it. We only looked at two schools," Cohen said.
"How general it is, is a question. I think it's general for two reasons. One is, it does match with other research," he said. "The second reason is that these two schools, they're pretty different. They're from different regions in the United States. One is the Mountain West; one's in Connecticut."
Is there a flaw in the education system?
Middle school, a time when adolescents are carving out their identities, may be when a student needs encouragement from a trustworthy authority figure the most.
Yet, in most middle schools, such encouragement is lacking -- and that might be because standardized exams are higher-stakes starting around then,
said Chris Emdin, associate professor at Columbia University's Teachers College and author of the book "For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood ... and the Rest of Y'all Too
"It's part of elementary school practice for young people to feel like the teachers love them and to feel as though, 'you're valuable. You're smart.' It's almost like part of the discourse in elementary education," said Emdin, who was not involved in the new study.
"But when you get to middle and high school, the focus becomes less on the social and emotional development of the learner and more of an emphasis on the content area," he said. "What's flawed about the system is that, at the point where youth are most vulnerable in carving out their identities is the point where teachers are least prepared to help in developing trust and confidence. So it's at that age that we need to sort of really infuse practices that let kids know how much they are loved and how brilliant they are."
Once a teacher affirms a child's abilities, that child is more likely not only to believe in his or her own abilities but to trust that teacher, Emdin said.
He added that students, especially those of color, thrive when they feel as if a teacher cares about them, is consistent in what and how they are teaching, and is someone students can trust.
"For young people, care, consistency and trust are the anchor of being engaged academically. If any of those three things are missing, then you can't engage them," Emdin said.
"So teachers have to be able to exhibit care, and they have to be consistent in the things that they tell young people," he said. "If that happens, then young people feel like they can be trusted, and then that opens up a whole new world of possibilities."
'We can have more influence than we think'
For the new study, researchers also tested whether an intervention could improve trust in the teacher-student relationship.
At the same school in Connecticut where the researchers assessed a trust gap, 88 white and black seventh-graders were given a handwritten letter from their teacher, along with feedback comments on an assignment they completed.
Half of the students received a letter stating, "I'm giving you these comments so that you'll have feedback on your paper."
The other half received a letter stating, "I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them."
The students and the teacher were unaware of who received which type of letter.
The researchers found that after receiving the more encouraging letter about "high expectations," fewer black students had discipline issues the following year than those who received the other letter, and they were more likely to attend a four-year college. There were no significant associations found between the letter and behavior or college enrollment among the white students.
However, Cohen said the results of this small experiment should not be misconstrued to suggest that giving a nice note to a student will increase their chances of going to college.
"That's not the message. The message should be that we can have more influence than we think, through timely acts that recognize and validate kids' potential," Cohen said.
"The note that we gave kids was one example of this, and it worked, in this place, in this time, in this school," he said. "Whether it would work in another school, I don't know. I think it would depend. It's not a magic bullet. The school where we used this note was one where the kids had the resources they needed to learn and to grow."
Tips to help teachers build trust
Teacher and student relationships are improved when teachers make an effort to better understand a student's life both in and outside of school, said Richard Milner, a professor of education and endowed chair of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the new study. He is author of the book "Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting poverty and race in schools and classrooms
Based on research he has conducted in middle and high schools, Milner offered the following advice on how to build, cultivate and maintain trusting relationships with students:
- Develop assignments that allow students to share aspects of their lives inside and outside of school.
- Build powerful discussion opportunities for students to share their point of view across all subject areas.
- Attend some extracurricular activities of students, such as a school or community play, sporting event or band concert.
- Visit local community sites of students, such as churches, synagogues, mosques, beauty salons or community centers.
- Interview or talk directly to students themselves, rather than talking about them.