Date Approved


Date Posted


Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department or School

Teacher Education

Committee Member

Dr. Valerie Polakow, Chair

Committee Member

Dr. Sarah Ginsberg

Committee Member

Dr. Sylvia Jones

Committee Member

Dr. Christopher Robbins


This phenomenological study explored adolescent perceptions of affirming and disaffirming relational encounters within the school setting. The meanings students constructed about their interpersonal experiences with teachers, counselors, and support staff were examined in relation to Buber’s existential I-Thou relational encounter. In addition to the work of phenomenological philosopher Merleau-Ponty, existential educators Maxine Greene and Donald Vandenberg and the writings of relational- and care-oriented educators such as Nel Noddings also informed the conceptual framework of the study.

The voices of individual youth and how they perceive, attach meaning to, and integrate relational encounters into their understandings of the world around them are scant in the educational literature. Yet, as a social encounter, school is first and foremost a lived relational experience of consequence. The purpose of this dissertation, therefore, was to explore these lived experiences, to add student voices to the extant literature on relationality, and to illuminate how such experiences might mediate the lives and perceptions of students in schools.

An attempt to understand the lived experiences and meanings of students in connection with relational encounters was sought through the interview process. The four phenomenological dimensions—the temporal, spatial, relational, and corporeal—were utilized to further refine how these experiences were understood and felt by individual participants. Participants’ narratives of their school memories and recollection of lived experiences formed the core data of the study. Open-ended, semi-structured interviews were conducted with a diverse group of 18 male and female students in SE Michigan between February and May of 2013. A final group of ten diverse participants was selected to complete two total interviews lasting from 50-90 minutes. Interviews were transcribed, coded, and interpreted using a flexible blend of multilayered models for phenomenological analysis.

Significant themes emerged from participants’ narratives, each of which is suggestive of the degree to which encounters with relationality can transform student perceptions of alienation and marginalization within the school setting. Themes included a) the power of individual relationships, b) the perception of mattering and marginalization, c) the perception of active support, and d) the value of voice. Implications for both theory and practice are discussed.

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