What If Your Students Don’t Like You?

Fawn Johnson, at National Journal/Education Experts blog, asked guest bloggers to respond to an intriguing post that ended with these questions:

What are the best ways to foster honest student-teacher relationships? How do teachers mask dislike for students? How should they deal with their own problems while teaching? How important is the passion in teaching? Are there practices that can help compensate for a not-passionate teacher? How can schools encourage professional camaraderie among teachers? Do students really need to like their teachers in order to learn?

Here’s what I shared:

When students say they don’t like a teacher, it most often means they don’t like how the teacher is treating them as persons. Those who do not work with young people may be surprised to learn students also do not like teachers who don’t respect them enough to actually teach them. As I often counsel newer teachers, we should not confuse students “liking” us with their respecting us. Part of my teaching philosophy from the start of my career has been: “I am my students’ friend, not their peer.” It tickles me to overhear my students talking about me to each other. Hey, I’m an English teacher; many of my students tolerate or even despise me in the short-run. Oh, but how many have come or written back later, grateful that I neither gave up on them nor gave in to them. Too many teachers have wrecked young lives and their careers by stepping over the line of appropriate teacher-student relationships.

I appreciate what NYC teacher-blogger Ariel Sacks wrote about teachers seeking approval from their students:

The lesson here, though, is that I should be making meaning of student responses so that I can determine next steps for their learning. Not to tell me whether I’m a good teacher or not. That’s an egocentric response on my part.

We need to have compassion for ourselves as teachers, so we can, in turn, give this to our students as they make their way through learning. Their response to us is often determined by whether they think we like them and believe in them. It’s egocentric of them, but they are the children! They are allowed this!

I would argue that the teacher-student relationship is a powerful aspect of formal language arts instruction. For over ten years, I conducted classroom level research on the issues surrounding teaching and learning Standard English with my African American high school students here in the Mississippi Delta. That research yielded much information that is still being used by me and by teacher educators around the country. One critical finding came from interviews with many groups of parents and students who repeatedly insisted that the most important quality in a teacher was whether s/he “cared about the students.” Not what last year’s test scores were, not her alma mater, or his college grade point average, but does this teacher see my child as a unique and worthy human being? That was the question on my mind, and often on my lips when I met with my own children’s teachers at the start of each school year: “Will you do for my child what you want done for your own?”

That wasn’t just a rhetorical question for me either. The first two years I taught, I had one of my own children as a student. Both earned a failing grade for the first grading period (one did it on purpose; the other actually thought she was exempt from classroom requirements because Mama was her teacher). Both had to sit through a parent-teacher conference with me and their father. Those experiences taught us all some valuable lessons, not to mention establishing my reputation at the high school.

Most people who enter education do so because they have a love of children and/or a love for a particular subject that they want to share. The best teacher preparation programs and mentors wisely emphasize that passion alone is not enough. As the Bible warns, zeal without knowledge can be dangerous. A well-intentioned person can be passionate about wanting students to succeed, but inept at dealing with their social immaturity or disrespectful of their families and cultures. Likewise, another candidate could be passionate about building up children’s self-esteem or helping them with social issues, yet be totally incompetent at teaching subject matter.

It is no coincidence that great teachers tend to be passionate about their responsibility to their students, about learning, and about the profession. That’s one reason National Board Certification for teachers was created—to set standards for highly accomplished teaching that recognize the critical dual qualities of passion and excellence to which every career teacher should aspire. Passionate, highly accomplished teachers should be advocates for the educational needs of their students, particularly for those who might be especially vulnerable.

As my Teacher Leader Network colleagues and I have pointed out many times, whether working with students via digital tools or in face-to-face settings, human relationships are still at the core of the learning experience. If we believe, as I do, that “public education is fundamental to a democratic, civil, prosperous society” (Forum for Education and Democracy), then all the relationships within public education are part of creating and advancing that society. Students learn much from their relationships with their teachers. What few have acknowledged is how much students learn from watching how their teachers interact with others. Children learn what they live at school, too.

We also now have much research and field experience to confirm that students learn more when their teachers collaborate. More and more examples prove that the most effective way to “turnaround” a struggling or failing school (or better yet, to prevent a school from becoming one) is for the adults in the building to model being a true learning community. Building successful learning communities is not easy (hint: it takes more than teachers liking one another), but it is possible and essential. Much of the impetus and some of the best resources for how to build productive, collaborative professional relationships among teachers within schools and across boundaries are coming from grassroots work among teachers ourselves. Many of these efforts have been helped by teachers’ increasing use of social media for their own networking and professional development. Here’s a growing list of such networks, courtesy of Steve Hardagon. Effective school leaders are encouraging and participating in these learning communities as well.

I’m really curious what others of you thing about Fawn’s questions. What is your take on the role of relationships in teaching and learning?