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Influences on self-worth: Students’ and teachers’ perspectives

Jackie Cowan and Ian Culpan

This article reports on aspects of an interpretative qualitative single case study that investigated teachers’ and students’ understanding of how self-worth is influenced in the teaching and learning environment. Findings indicate that important determinants in the development of self-worth include personal teacher qualities such as humour, justice (fairness) and trust; teaching strategies associated with meeting individual needs; establishing safe environments and providing leadership opportunities for students; and positive teacher/student relationships. The article concludes by highlighting how the influences on the development of self-worth can be enhanced through the coalescing of reciprocal relationships and critical reflection.

Influences on self-worth: Students’ and teachers’ perspectives

Jackie Cowan and Ian Culpan


This article reports on aspects of an interpretative qualitative single case study that investigated teachers’ and students’ understanding of how self-worth is influenced in the teaching and learning environment. Findings indicate that important determinants in the development of self-worth include personal teacher qualities such as humour, justice (fairness) and trust; teaching strategies associated with meeting individual needs; establishing safe environments and providing leadership opportunities for students; and positive teacher/student relationships. The article concludes by highlighting how the influences on the development of self-worth can be enhanced through the coalescing of reciprocal relationships and critical reflection.


This article draws on selected findings from a larger research study, Teachers’ and students’ understandings of how self worth is influenced in the learning environment: A New Zealand context (Cowan, 2010). The article highlights and discusses findings of how self-worth and student/teacher relationships are influenced through teachers’ personal and professional qualities and the teaching strategies they use. For the purposes of this article we define self-worth as “a judgement one makes about one’s sense of worth and dignity as a person” (Seifert, 2004, p. 140).

The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) (NZC) recommends a broad and balanced approach to learning that seeks to develop autonomous, creative, confident, connected, actively involved and lifelong learners (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 8). In support of this humanistic approach, the Ministry of Education suggests that attitudes and behaviours towards learning can be significantly influenced by cultural competencies of Tátaiako,1 such as whanaungatanga (building positive relationships), manaakitanga (developing values based on cultural respect, trust, integrity and sincerity), ako (classroom practices including reciprocal practices between the teacher, student and family (whanau), tangata whenuatanga (sense of place linked to sociocultural awareness and knowledge) and wánanga (communication and problem solving) (Ministry of Education, 2011). Furthermore, Hipkin’s (2005) argues that it is the development of these competencies that are important in improving learning outcomes. In support of the ministry’s recommendations of a broad and balanced curriculum approach, Adelman and Taylor (2000) argue if schools focus purely on academic instruction in their efforts to help students attain academic success they may fall short of their intentions to fulfil the vision of NZC. Given that the above cultural competencies align with the notions of one’s perception of self-worth and dignity, the emergent issue highlights “not whether schools should be aiming to improve students’ self-worth but how they should be doing so?” (Beane, 1991, p. 25).

It is somewhat contrary, however, that the rhetoric in the curriculum promoting this broad and balanced approach, including the promotion of cultural competencies that lead to the development of self-worth, is marginalised by the political ideology of neo-liberalism and associated privileging of the market economy in education, which promotes workforce preparation as a primary education purpose (Culpan, 2005; Pope, 2014). By neo-liberalism we refer to the multifarious and often conflicting set of systems, dissertations, and agendas that function around market-based economic and social relations involving privatisation of government goods and services, competition, accumulation of capital, self-regulation through individual responsibility and the emergence of “private power” (Macdonald, 2014). Indeed a neo-liberal approach to education challenges the need for a broad and balanced curriculum and is predicated on the idea that market forces take care of agendas that move beyond economic rationality (Kontopodis, 2014). Protagonists of neo-liberalism argue that more emphasis should be on the standards-based schooling to maximise achievement, a focus on core subjects deemed to be more useful for the market economy, the adoption of low risk ways for teachers to achieve learning goals (efficiency), and a corporate management system focused on overall school improvement (accountability) (Kontopodis, 2014). In this type of market economy, social constructs, such as self-worth, need only be addressed if value is added to neo-liberal outcomes (Kontopodis, 2014; Pope, 2014; Rodriguez, 2008). This creates a tension between political ideology, humanistic education policies, and classroom practice (Culpan, 2005; Macdonald, 2014; Pope, 2014), and problematises the question raised by Beane (1991) as to whether schools should be attempting to develop self-worth in learners and how might they go about this task?

Teaching strategies identified as supporting learning are outlined in a section entitled “Effective Pedagogy” in NZC (p. 34). While it is stated in NZC that “there is no particular formula that guarantees learning for every student in every context” (p. 34), the teaching strategies that are identified as effective have been selected on evidence that suggests they have a positive effect on student learning (Alton-Lee, 2003). NZC (p. 34) lists these as:

the creation of a supportive learning environment

encouraging reflective thought and action

enhancing the relevance of new learning

facilitating shared learning

making connections to prior learning and experience

providing sufficient opportunities to learn

inquiring into the teaching and learning relationship.

This is the first time a section dedicated to effective pedagogy has been explicitly included in an official New Zealand national curriculum statement. The inclusion encourages teachers to place importance on teaching strategies that meet the physical, social, mental and emotional, and spiritual needs of their students. The effective pedagogies highlight the importance of: supportive learning environments, shared learning, development of positive teacher–student relationships and the practice of reflection. This importance highlights the need for researching how self-worth is influenced in the teaching and learning environment and what teaching strategies might be employed to maximise the guidance provided by the effective pedagogies in NZC.


A humanistic interpretive framework (Willis, 2007) underpinned this qualitative case study. The main research question discussed in this article is:

From teachers’ and students’ perspectives, how is self-worth influenced in the learning environment?

The case was defined by the age of the students (12 to 13 years) where growing awareness of interpersonal relations and ability to articulate understandings and perceptions of self-worth were more likely to be evident (Manning, 2007). The study consisted of 27 participants: four teachers and four focus groups of five to six students. Participants were selected from two medium-to-large suburban full primary schools (ages 5 to 12 years), and one each from a high and a low-to-middle decile school. Teachers were selected by their principals based on the teachers’ experience in the classroom, which ranged from 4 to 20 years. This purposive sample enabled the researchers to be confident that a depth and richness of data was obtained (Abowitz & Toole, 2010; Mutch, 2013). One male and three female teachers participated and all held leadership responsibilities as either syndicate or learning area leaders. Students were randomly selected from each of the teachers’ classes and focus groups were all mixed gender and included a range of ethnic backgrounds. A total of 23 students took part in this study.

Data were gathered by recording discussion between researcher and teacher in individual 45- to 60-minute semistructured interviews. Data were also generated through researcher/student and student/student discussion during focus-group interviews of 45 to 60 minutes. Interviews were guided by a schedule of open-ended questions to ensure each manifested similar and comparable themes for discussion. Use of such semistructured interviews ensures data reliability and flexibility of response (Silverman, 2006). For the student interviews, alterations were made to the language of the questions to ensure that they were appropriate for the age group. The teacher and student interviews were guided by a series of similar questions with examples listed below:

Describe the characteristics of good/poor self-worth.

How is self-worth influenced in the learning environment?

Do you think self-worth can vary? How?

Where do you think self-worth is influenced most? School or home?

What strategies do you use to enhance self-worth in the classroom (strategies used)?

Is self-worth something you explicitly plan to teach about? How?

How high would you rate the importance of good self-worth to learning?

How do you think good/poor self-worth impacts on the students ability to learn?

When people feel good about themselves how do you think it changes the way they learn at school?

Additional probing questions were used when required. Interviews took place in the classroom where teachers were able to refer to resources and wall displays which, according to Fraekel and Wallen (2009), helps to authenticate and provide credibility to responses. When teachers and students were asked how self-worth is influenced in the learning environment, the themes that emerged were achievement, teacher qualities, teacher strategies, and significant others. This article focuses on two of these themes: personal teacher qualities and teacher strategies. However the importance of achievement and significant others in influencing self-worth is acknowledged and this has appeared in a previous publication (Cowan, 2010).

Data were transcribed and examined for emerging themes using thematic analysis (Silverman, 2006). A constant, comparative approach, such as described by Mutch, (2013), was used in an attempt to neutralise personal interpretation while refining the emerging themes. Consistent with Silverman (2006), the thematic analysis of data was undertaken with support from colleagues to ensure credibility and integrity of the process.

A limitation of small-scale, exploratory case study research is that findings cannot be generalised as an all-encompassing view of teachers and students in general (Yin, 2009). They can, though, provide in-depth understanding of a particular context. Readers can make comparisons with their own contexts and case study findings may help them make sense of their own experiences.

Findings and discussion

Findings have been divided into two sections and discussed in relation to the study themes of personal teacher qualities and teacher strategies.

Personal teacher qualities

When teachers and students were asked how self-worth is influenced in the learning environment, teacher qualities of humour; justice (fairness) and trust were consistently identified as important. Indeed Macfarlane (2007) points out that from a cultural perspective, teachers consistently demonstrating friendliness, a sense of humour, respect, compassion, and fairness created a safe and effective learning environment. MacFarlane argued that the demonstration of such “caring factors” was critical in the development of positive and vibrant student learners. Our findings concur with Macfarlane’s views and suggest that teachers have the potential to be strong socialising agents in influencing positive classroom environments.

In our study, teachers acknowledged that institutional learning environments can become overly formal, and humour was necessary to establish a balanced atmosphere. They indicated that being able to see the funny side of a situation or joke with students contributed to the way students interacted with and responded to them. Students also valued a teacher’s ability to recognise the need to laugh.

Our teacher tried keeping a straight face when we were dancing … Are you trying not to laugh Mr P … oh come on just laugh and he was like, he he he.

Students indicated they felt more comfortable with teachers who displayed a sense of humour and felt more connected when teachers took the time to joke with them. It was evident that humour needed to be perceived by students as genuine.

Recognised as important by both teachers and students was the need to demonstrate a sense of justice (fairness) in teacher/student interactions. One teacher said;

Fairness is hugely, hugely important at this age group. If you explain what’s going on, what’s happening, why you’re doing what you are doing, why this punishment is being given out, they will just agree with you, we don’t have problems.

Another teacher suggested that students have a “strong sense of justice” and indicated that being accurate and getting it right in difficult situations was very important. Notions of fairness, equity and trust, according to students, could unwittingly, unintentionally and in a contradictory manner be manifested to them through hidden messages associated with teacher behaviour and practice. The students were particular about unfair situations and the effect this had on their relations with teachers. One student group highlighted how easily they can be blamed for something that they did not do, especially if a teacher does not try to obtain the whole story. One student described how “treating someone unfairly can break down their confidence”. One such example of potentially destructive behaviour that damages social relations focuses on perceptions of trust. There is a fine line between trusting and not trusting and perceptions between students and the views of teachers differed. One student group reported:

they just tell all the other teachers what we say kind of thing ….when teachers keep gossiping you can’t trust to tell them something.

When teachers were asked about this, they considered it professionally important to share “confidential” knowledge with colleagues as part of their duty of care, as per the New Zealand Code of Ethics for Registered Teachers (New Zealand Teachers Council, 2004). Conversely students considered this sharing to be gossip and a breach of trust. As Cushman and Cowan (2010) report, the professional practice of teachers as specified in the Code of Ethics presents a potential dilemma for teachers. On the one hand, the code directs teachers to protect the confidentiality of information about learners. On the other hand, the code states that teachers must promote the physical, emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing of learners (p. 87).

Students consider the disclosure of information a breach of trust creating a potential breakdown in relations. Handling dilemmas such as this requires astute professionalism on the teacher’s part and it is suggested here that open and sensitive communication (wánanga) becomes important. The students reinforcing the teacher’s interest in ensuring student well-being and providing “care” (whanaungatanga and manaakitanga) as primary objectives may well alleviate potentially difficult situations. Notwithstanding the need for open and sensitive communication, care of students becomes a primary concern and, as a consequence, more thorough teacher guidelines in clarifying obligations and responsibilities particularly around matters of trust might need to be addressed.

Students’ views on social justice were consistent with McGee and Fraser’s (2012) work. In our study, students argued that when issues of unfairness arose sometimes they were because of misunderstandings between students and teachers and that the most effective way to address this sort of issue was to ensure that they had input into managing the situation. They argued for a “student-orientated” approach. Here the suggestion of Brookfield (2008) becomes useful. He argued for the development of a culture of “democratic discourse” within the classroom to minimise issues of unfairness and to achieve consistency in matters around equity. This democratic discourse, we suggest, starts with the teacher needing to routinely reflect, examine, and monitor their behaviours, practices and obligations to identify the perceived contradictions of what they do and how this might affect what they are aiming to achieve. This strategy is consistent with the effective pedagogies outlined in NZC (p. 34). Brookfield (2008) also suggested that linking the “student voice” with the teacher’s reflective practice lays the foundation for the implementation of effective teaching strategies. Indeed personal teacher qualities that influence the construction of these types of relationships seem likely to influence learner self-worth and a sense of dignity and value in the classroom.

Teaching strategies

Teaching strategies were identified by both teachers and students as important in the development of self-worth (see Table 1 for an overview).

The following will discuss the three major strategies: recognising individual student needs, establishing safe environments, and providing leadership opportunities.

Table 1. Teaching strategies

Assess students’ individual needs feelings and showing personal interest in order to set goals, standards, expectations and giving praise and rewards.

Establishing a safe environment for learning including fun and enjoyment

Provide opportunities for leadership, giving students responsibilities and freedoms to work in groups with a variety of activities and roles – the Sport Education Model does this well

Individual needs

Teachers and students reported that acknowledging and nurturing individual student need was an important aspect in the development of self-worth. Recognition of individuality was an important determinant in the development of closer teacher/student relations. One teacher said that it was about “finding the balance for each kid and what they needed” and another teacher described how important it was “to find the good in everyone and know the things that are important to them”. These, they argued, were a valuable part of building a caring environment where individuals are acknowledged for who they are and not who they appear to be. One teacher, for instance, reported that she would go along to a student’s sporting event to show an interest and gain an understanding about what was important to that student. Both teachers and students reported on what the Ministry of Education (2011) identified in Tátaiako as an important cultural competency: whanaungatanga. Students really appreciated the teacher signalling that they had some knowledge of the student beyond school; for example recognising personal interests and family and cultural connections. One group of students discussed the importance of how teachers “signalling knowledge” and dealing individually with them “could make all the difference, it could be the ‘one on one’ that makes a difference”.

While teachers considered meeting the needs of individuals was an important teaching strategy, it was evident that finding time to do this was curtailed by the rigorous demands of the classroom. One important strategy was synthesising personal student information to assist in collaborative goal setting and establishing specific learning expectations. Students also identified this as an important self-worth-enhancing strategy as it provided them with more ownership of learning and the personal right to question that learning. Teachers and students thought this to be emancipatory and empowering and it is consistent with what Nuthall (2007) and Ormond (2008) claim to be a highly motivating intrinsic strategy for student learning and the development of self-worth. The practice of collaborative goal setting and specifying expectations is in Macfarlane’s (2007) analysis a fundamental aspect of developing a nurturing (caring) atmosphere (whanaungatanga, manaakitanga, ako, tangata whenuatanga, and wánanga, Ministry of Education, 2011). Here the dignity of the teacher and the student is reflected in a vibrant and achievement orientated environment characterised by confident teachers and students.

In identifying the importance of individual needs in the development of self-worth, the teachers explained the significance of connecting to prior knowledge to maximise the individual goal and expectation setting process. Their view is consistent with Hipkins (2005) who reinforced the need to make strong connections between prior knowledge, contextual learning, and other aspects of a student life in support of a more holistic view of learning and the development of self-worth. Indeed, Brophy (2009) reminds us of the importance to attend to student social interactions, the protection of personal status, and the establishment of caring strategies (which resonates with the cultural competencies of whanaungatanga, manaakitanga and wánanga, Ministry of Education, 2011), if self-worth is going to be developed through addressing individual interests and needs.

Teachers and students identified feedback, praise, and reward systems as an important teaching strategy in enhancing self-worth. Students talked about the need for specific feedback that provided direction and how encouragement and genuine praise was needed particularly for students with limited confidence. One student said: “like we’ve got one kid in the class who just gets told off … he doesn’t get encouraged he just gets told off. If people don’t encourage him … he’ll fall behind”. Teachers discussed how explicit and implicit feedback affected students’ self-worth and how they saw themselves in the world. One teacher said:

I think the way they [students] are responded to, the way they are, you know, how their behaviours are reinforced and that would be from adults or peers, and how they’re received by others, it’s the feedback they get from the world I think that does an awful lot to contribute to how they see themselves in that world …. So I guess a lot of negative feedback a child would quickly feel that they are lacking self-worth.

Some students were nervous about public praise. “You’re a little embarrassed especially if they just single you out cause yeah they make you stand up … you feel good but a little embarrassed”. Teachers were generally aware and sensitive to this. They reported that they used a strategy of “a quiet word”, when appropriate, and this was particularly relevant to high achieving students who were reluctant to have attention drawn to their success. Both teachers and students found the “quiet word” a useful motivating technique. Teachers reported that in their analysis, older students were more comfortable with specific and corrective feedback; however, the younger ones were more accepting of generalised comments. McGee and Fraser (2012) have suggested that while praise is important, it needs to be accompanied with specifics so as to determine competence and capability. Our study found the need for specificity to be an important individual need in enhancing self-worth and developing an effective classroom culture.

While meeting individual needs is given primacy in the development of self-worth, this can be challenging. Given the complexity of a classroom of 30 learners, we agree with Aitken and Sinnema (2008) that students need to be “supported to take more responsibility for their own learning through the use of regular, structured, reflective activities” (p. 76). The provision of support is important. It also became very clear from our findings that a positive and safe environment is important in providing a classroom where children take more responsibility for learning.

Safe learning environment

Classrooms are, as McGee and Fraser (2012) state, “microcosms of society with all the power relations, hierarchies, cliques and subcultures evident in society” (p. 14). As a consequence the “society of a classroom” needs also to have safe practices. Teachers and students shared similar views about how feeling socially and emotionally safe in the classroom influenced the development of self-worth. They indicated that teacher and peer encouragement, establishment of personal connections, support for safe risk taking, and a place where both students and teachers enjoyed each other’s company were conducive to safe environments.

All four teachers acknowledged the importance of developing positive relationships with students through encouragement, establishing personal connections (getting to know more about who they are and what’s important to them), and by creating a place where both students and teachers can enjoy each other’s company. They talked about the value of dedicating time at the beginning of the year to develop positive and supportive relationships and a fun environment. One teacher said:

Try and build them up as much as possible and give them as much support, and give them time in the class if they need it … it might be the “one on one” that could make a difference.

Teachers’ and students’ views are consistent with findings outlined in two syntheses in the Best Evidence Synthesis series produced by the Ministry of Education (Alton-Lee, Aitken & Sinnema, 2008; Alton-Lee, 2003), which highlights the importance of caring and respectful relationships between teachers and students, and by McGee and Fraser (2012), who suggest that building relationships requires teachers “to have a genuine regard for their students” (p. 2). For the teachers, this included the modelling of learning behaviours within relationships, as this has a greater effect on cognitive outcomes for students. One teacher suggested that support was not only evident in what was said but also in the way teachers interacted with students. For example, “You don’t even have to say ‘fantastic work’ or whatever. It’s that suddenly you treat them differently and you do that subconsciously because suddenly your expectation of that child is slightly different”. It is suggested that the influence of this kind of relationship is crucial in creating a sense of personal safety and belonging (Cushman & Cowan, 2010; McGee & Fraser, 2012; Ministry of Education, 2007). Nuthall (2007) draws our attention to the social dynamics of the learning environment and the influence teachers and students may have on feelings of safety and self worth. He states “the concepts that students have of their own abilities and worth are constantly shaped by their classroom experiences, especially the interactions with other students” (p. 94). We concur with Nuthall’s (2007) analysis and the importance of student/student interaction and this is made evident in the discussion on leadership that follows. While the scope of this article does not discuss peer influences, the larger study found that peer relationships are substantial influences on both safety and self-worth (Cowan, 2010).


Teachers and students highlighted the importance of providing leadership opportunities for students to enhance their self-worth. They reported leadership opportunities arose when there was shared decision making, delegation of responsibilities and roles, opportunities for students to design their own learning programme, occasions to work in groups, and students were allowed to make personal learning choices. One teacher said:

Give them jobs to build on their strengths, for example the wee guy who did the recycling. It’s a leadership thing for him and it’s not a huge one but he’s just happy to go and do it automatically. He’s picked up on that, taking responsibility for something and it’s actually coming through in his work.

Students suggested that when provided with leadership opportunities and the sharing of decision making, they felt trusted as teachers saw them as responsible. This mattered to students as evidenced by a student who said “It makes you feel like leaders amongst leaders”. Another student said “You feel better about yourself if you are trusted and given leadership roles”. A student group described how the trust given builds confidence, and the freedom of choice that goes with this makes them responsible. Teachers and students perceived that by sharing power, the motivation to engage with learning materials was enhanced. This is consistent with the findings of Aiken and Sinnema (2008) and Lotan (2004). They emphasise that delegating authority is not abandoning it, and teachers and students need to be mindful of the trust and accountability measures that accompany such a strategy. We argue that such accountability can be facilitated by drawing on relational and reflective practices that foster Tátaiako competencies advocated by the Ministry of Education (2011).

In affording students leadership opportunities and learning choice, Aitken and Sinnema (2008) suggest that learning becomes more transparent resulting in less reliance on the teacher and the development of independence. When encouraged to provide a specific example of leadership opportunities and power sharing in practice, teachers and students identified the physical education learner-centred pedagogical approach advocated by Siedentop’s (1994) sport education model. Both teachers and students reported that this model provides opportunities for leadership, responsibility, freedom (choice of activity), ownership of learning and a greater sense of competence, confidence and trust, while at the same time building on student experiences, and progressing at a personalised pace. These characteristics concur with the generic learner-centred pedagogical traits identified by McGee and Fraser (2012), Metzler (2011), Mosston and Ashworth (2002), and Nuthall, (2007) and are consistent with aspects of the effective pedagogy section of NZC.

Teachers indicated that the environment created by the sport education model provided some students with what could be described as a “sense of comfortableness” in their own learning. Indeed, students concurred by expressing views that the sport education model created a supportive and shared learning environment where co-operative and multiple learning experiences designed by themselves fostered motivation and a willingness to participate in group activities. This is consistent with MacFarlane (2007) and McGee and Fraser (2012) who suggested that greater student input and responsibility allows students to gain deeper understanding of their beliefs, capabilities, and confidence to improve. We argue that co-operative approaches such as those evident in the sport education model allow students to explore topics that have relevance beyond the classroom. It was also evident that it was opportunities for leadership and the acceptance of specific responsibilities that interested students. Leadership within the sport education model meant students were able to take on the role of a coach or a team manager and in their own way develop a coaching/learning programme for their team. This teacher/student exchange of trust became public and importantly highlighted that the reciprocal nature of teacher/student interaction enhanced the development of self-worth.

As McGee and Fraser (2012) suggest, teacher/student relations are both intimate and objective and in attempting to nurture the emotional and psychological well-being of students, an inter-play of communication, trust and empathy is required. The findings of this study suggest that a range of teaching strategies, including those that provide leadership opportunities and the corresponding sharing of decision making, seem to both teachers and students to be an important determinant in the development of self-worth.

Implications for practice

The investigation of how self-worth is influenced in the learning environment of primary classrooms suggests that self-worth cannot be separated from the teaching and learning processes and needs to be a legitimate part of the curriculum, embedded into curriculum delivery and nurtured in the school culture. These findings and discussion highlight two key considerations: firstly, that the teacher has a central role in the development of the students’ self-worth; and secondly, that the teaching and learning strategies used have a profound effect on student/teacher relationships.

We, like Tinning (2010), are mindful of and acknowledge the influence of the home environment in shaping young people’s thinking and behaviour. However, in the education context, it is the teacher who shows the student the way of the world by teaching not only content knowledge, but also initiating and guiding students into social “moral and political life” (Tinning, 2010, p. 10). We suggest that teachers require a sound knowledge and understanding of the links between the development of a student’s self-worth, student motivation and ability to learn, and the teaching strategies that enhance these processes. Working to implement these processes needs to be characterised by care, which is more than a technical process. It is a complex arrangement requiring reciprocity between the teacher and student. By reciprocity we mean a balance between giving and taking and between the teacher and student as in the cultural competences of Tátaiako (Ministry of Education, 2011).

Several important reciprocal dimensions need to be considered in the practical implementation of the development of such meaningful social relations. These are the different conceptualisations of what is given and taken; acceptance and understanding of different world views; and the rights and responsibilities of the teacher and the student. The reciprocal relationship is symbolic insofar as it can construct and endorse diverse forms of social engagement by drawing teachers and students into a relationship of recognition, respect, fairness, trust, and reflection. In utilising reflective processes, we argue that it needs to be of a critical kind to provide a deep and investigative type of reflection. This involves questioning assumptions and practices that may undermine personal teacher/student attitudes and behaviours which can have an adverse effect on desirable learning outcomes, of which self-worth is one (Stothart & Culpan, 2016). The process involves the identification and taking action on inappropriate power relations, inequalities, social injustices, and breaches of trust that impede the learning process and development of positive social relations (Culpan & Bruce, 2007).

Critical reflection aims to culminate in positive change through social action, resulting in equality and justice for all. The coalescing of reciprocal processes with critical reflection creates a critical reciprocity, which may assist the teacher to better understand the context of student lives and their perspectives on how they socially engage. This concentration on the teacher/student relationship and the sense and meaningfulness it can bring in the development of self-worth provides the foundation for a safer learning environment. The process of critical reciprocity promotes regular and structured reflective activities, which will assist in the analysis and understanding of what it is like for young people to live in this world and the meaning they make from the schooling process. Tinning (2010) suggests that without this understanding and reflective practice, teachers run the risk of being guided by their own conditioning and become mere instructors of content.

The practice of critical reciprocity requires that teachers have well-refined reflective praxis skills that support more transparent teacher/student communication. Improved communication, we argue, facilitates the use of self-worth-enhancing teaching strategies, limits teacher/student misunderstandings and confusions, facilitates humour, equity and trust, and creates less classroom formality, allowing the teacher to delegate and share decision making. This investigation has established that these are important factors in the enhancement of student self-worth and the supporting teacher qualities are consistent with the Tátaiako cultural competencies (Ministry of Education, 2011). In advocating for a pedagogy of critical reciprocity we are, though, cautious of suggesting that this is easy or simple to implement in current schooling contexts. Teachers reported that the range of expectations placed on them has restricted the time they have to think about and reflect on approaches to practice. This lack of reflective thinking time, which is not of teachers’ making, may have negative consequences for critical reciprocity. As a consequence we are fearful that a key process in the development of self-worth, student/teacher relations, and indeed learning, maybe compromised. This compromise may act against fostering student ownership of learning, appropriate shared decision making, and the delegation of responsibility to students. Furthermore, it may impede the teacher’s ability to understand what it is like for young people to live in this world and the meaning they take from it. Our circumspection leads us to highlight Tinnings’ (2010) warning of teachers becoming mere instructors of content and reinforces the importance that “pedagogy is the most profound relationship that an adult can have with a child” (van Manen, as cited in Tinning, 2010, p. 290).

Concluding remarks

This article reports on findings of a research study that investigated teachers’ and students’ understandings of how self-worth is influenced in the learning environment. A number of key findings emerged from this research study: firstly, that the personal and professional qualities of the teacher are important in establishing positive classroom relationships that foster student self-worth; and secondly, that the teaching strategies used are important determinants in the development of students’ self-worth. Furthermore, this article highlights evidence of how physical education, particularly Siedentop’s sport education model, is considered by both teachers and students as a useful curriculum context in which the development of self-worth can occur.

It has been suggested that critical reciprocity provides a useful mechanism by which teachers and students can more overtly develop rich and meaningful relationships to enhance self-worth. While this is not necessarily an overly complex arrangement, the potential complexity is accentuated by the fundamental tension between political ideology, curriculum policy, and classroom practice. Grappling with the complexity of inter-relatedness is a key challenge in the ongoing professional practice of teachers. The challenge also lies in foregrounding the importance and influence of curriculum policy and texts, formal curriculum structures, and the experienced curriculum. It is at this “mindful convergence” that this article concludes by supporting the need to firstly understand the place of self-worth in the intended curriculum and secondly make explicit this learning in the “experienced” curriculum through pedagogically informed decision making that gives cognisance to the practice of critical reciprocity.



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The authors

Jackie Cowan is a lecturer of physical education and sport coaching in the College of Education, Health and Human Development at the University of Canterbury. She is an experienced primary school teacher and for the last 19 years has been teaching in pre-service physical education teacher education (PETE). Jackie’s research interests are in curriculum and pedagogy in primary physical education, and sport education for children. She completed a Masters of Teaching and Learning (MTchLn) with a focus on self-worth and education and is currently working towards completing her PhD at the University of Queensland, Australia.


Ian Culpan is Professor and past head of the School of Sciences and Physical Education at the University of Canterbury. He has strong interests in physical education teacher education (PETE), curriculum development, pedagogy, the sociocultural aspects of sport and Olympic/Olympism education. He has a high national profile, led and directed many national initiatives in physical education and has published nationally and internationally. He was one of two principal writers of the national physical education curriculum and is the immediate past president of the New Zealand Olympic Academy: He is the president of Federation Internationale d’Education Physique. (FIEP Oceania) and also the New Zealand delegate. He is the director of the New Zealand Centre for Olympic Studies, a trustee of International Alpha Upsilon Chi and has been awarded the International Olympic Committee Trophy for Education and Sport (2000) and the Sir Alexander Gillies Medal for Physical Education. He is a National Fellow for Physical Education New Zealand.

1Tátaiako: Cultural Competencies for Teachers of Máori Learners has been designed for teachers in early childhood education (ECE) services and in primary and secondary schools to support teaching and learning for Máori learners. The five competencies (wánanga, whanaungatanga, manaakitanga, tangata whenuatanga, and ako) are about knowing, respecting, and working with Máori learners and their whánau and iwi. While the competencies are not formal standards or criteria, they are linked to the Graduating Teacher Standards and Registered Teacher Criteria developed by the New Zealand Teachers Council (Ministry of Education, 2011, p. 4).