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Rooted in Relationships: Episode 2.8 Jessica Calarco


Rooted in Relationships: Episode 2.8 Jessica Calarco

Resource Audience

Adults Youth Program Leaders Teachers School / Youth Program Staff School / Youth Organization Leaders District Leaders

Resource Type


Read Time

31-60 Minutes

Jessica Calarco - Bridging the Gap: Building trust by offering help

Asking for help can be challenging in the best of times, but is often insurmountable for young people from marginalized communities. In this episode of Rooted in Relationships, Dr. Jessica Calarco, a leading researcher at the University of Indiana discusses inequities, why they persist, the role they play in building trust, and how teachers and other adults can turn the tables by offering unsolicited support to young people.

Welcome to the Rooted in Relationships podcast, where we talk with renowned researchers and experts to explore how connections to resources, relationships and social networks provide the key conditions that all young people need to thrive. Kicking off season two of the podcast, Search Institute CEO Ben Houltberg introduces Kent Pekel, education leader and former CEO of Search Institute. Today, Kent is joined by Dr. Jessica Calarco, a leading researcher at the University of Indiana. They discuss inequities, why they persist, the role they play in trust and how teachers can turn the tables by offering unsolicited support to young people.

To begin, Jessica shares that she has long since been interested in the role institutions play in promoting and reinforcing inequality in society. As a child, her family moved from a working class neighborhood to a middle class neighborhood and observed the differences firsthand. She pursued undergraduate degrees in education and sociology before looking into those same questions in graduate school.

In her research, she has uncovered the different degrees which students feel comfortable enough to ask for help. It often comes back to the fact that students will only ask for help if they trust the people with the power to help them. Teachers and other potential helpers can bridge that trust gap by recognizing violent signs of struggle and by offering unsolicited support. As a teacher, it is easy to make assumptions about a student’s performance without knowing the whole side of the story or what might be going on in their personal lives at the time. When students are struggling, Jessica believes, a teacher’s default assumption should be that there is something else going on and that the student needs extra help and understanding.

It is no secret that the middle class secures unfair advantages for their children’s education. Schools are essentially privilege dependent institutions, and those in middle and upper class areas have more financial and social resources. In these scenarios, parents are able to get away with demanding things for their children even if they are not just. Families of children from marginalized systematic groups don’t have the same leverage within schools and are often discouraged from asking for similar accommodations. Jessica argues that we really need to address the power of privilege within schools, beginning with rethinking public education funding. It also needs to be ensured that teachers are given the resources they need regardless of the socio-economic standing of the student body.

In her research, Jessica uncovered that one of the strongest factors influencing where a child sat in the lunchroom was the neighborhood they live in. Thus, schools are often a mirror of the inequalities which exist outside of them. She also found that students who have close friends whose parents attended college are substantially more likely to attend college themselves, even if their own parents don’t have college degrees.

The conversation then shifts to discussing hidden curriculums, or the other things which matter for student success. These knowledge, skills and strategies are often not explicitly taught but are evaluated and affect success levels. The primary incentive for faculty at the graduate level is about getting their own work done. This gives little incentive for them to spend time being good teachers and mentors. Then, Jessica discusses her research which reveals that parents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to purchase food treats for their kids as an act of showing care. Higher SES parents engage in symbolic deprivation instead, where they deny small treats and focus on the big things. Kids often define their self worth by having what is valued in their peer groups. Finally, she identifies the most important thing we have learned during the pandemic.


0:34 - Ben Houltberg introduces himself, Kent Pekel and today’s episode.

2:05 - What led Jessica to the topic of inequalities which she is focused on today.

3:38 - The importance of trust in student teacher relationships.

6:30 - How can teachers build trust with students from marginalized backgrounds?

10:03 - Jessica discusses her marshmallow piece.

16:35 - How the middle class secures unfair advantages for their kids.

27:00 - Peer to peer relationships.

33:30 - Discussing the idea of the hidden curriculum.

37:40 - Jessica’s research for her piece entitled Let Them Eat Cake.

48:07 - What have we learned from the pandemic?

Follow Benjamin Houltberg.

Learn more about Search Institute.

Learn more about Jessica Calarco.