Happy New Year! I hope to include more thoughts and insights from my first semester of pre-service teaching and learning here on my blog in the coming months. In the meantime, I wanted to share a few excerpts from an essay entitled “Likeable Teachers” I wrote for my Pragmatics of Teaching course during my first semester. Feel free to scan through, and let me know what makes a teacher “likeable” to you!
By Spencer Miller
Our education system rests on on the backs of teachers. For all the ministers, departments, meetings, research, superintendents, parents, curriculum expectations, textbooks, and resources, what education really looks like is a small room with a number of students, and one teacher. As one teacher put it “every class comes down to this: my students and I, face to face, engaged in an ancient and exacting exchange called education” (Palmer, 1997). The way individual teachers act, speak, and interact with their students will determine much of the success or failure of “education” in our province. In her Ted Talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion (2013), Rita Pierson submits “we rarely discuss [the] value and importance of human connection, relationships… you know, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like”. Based off my experience in field, and what I have learned throughout the semester, this essay will seek to expound on and answer the question “What kind of teachers do students like?”.
In his essay “The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching”, Palmer (1997) argues “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher”. He states “my evidence for this claim comes, in part, from years of asking students to tell me about their good teachers. As I listen to those stories, it becomes impossible to claim that all good teachers use similar techniques” (Palmer, 1997). He concluded “good teachers share one trait: a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work” (Palmer, 1997). My observations were similar. During my time in field I asked as many students as I could a similar question “Who is your favourite teacher, and what do you like about them?”. Some student responses lined up very well with Palmer’s conclusion that a teacher’s personal identity and connection to their work is a connecting trait among “good teachers” (Palmer, 1997). They told me “Mr. A is my favourite teacher because he really cares about his teaching” or “Mrs. B is awesome because she is so passionate about science. It’s like her whole life. It gets me excited about the subject”. Likeable teachers see their subject as more than just a set of facts and processes to memorizes. Instead, they are able to connect what they are teaching to the very fabric of human life. “Teachers themselves need a vision for what it means to flourish as human beings” (Boer, 2014), a vision that has to include the subject they teach. Understanding science, for example, becomes part of what it means to be human. Students understand that learning science will open doors, and new ways of seeing the world. It will help them become the best versions of themselves.
It is my belief, even if buried deep, every student has the ability and desire to learn. Students like teachers who deliver meaningful classroom learning, and inspire a lifelong passion for learning. The teachers we learn the most from become our favourite teachers. They inspire our passions. We loath the teachers who teach us nothing. One Grade 9 student I spoke to told me “I dislike my teacher because he constantly goes on tangents about his dog. It’s a waste of my time”. This 14 year old valued his time, and his education. Contrast this statement with that of another student who commented “This is my favourite class because I learn something every day”. In the simplest of terms, likeable teachers are those who can teach. Not in that they have mastered every pedagogical technique, but that they are willing to go to where the students are and make every individual student’s experience in their classroom special.
Unlikeable teachers do not like students. Likeable teachers love their students. Their students know the difference. “When students feel liked and respected by their teachers, they find more success in school, academically and behaviorally” (Truby). In a D2L classroom discussion post, I wrote about the following experience.
One moment that stuck out today came in a Biology class when students were given extra time to prepare for their upcoming unit test. The teacher said “You have the whole class to study, or just mess around as I’m sure some of you will”. The students laughed at the light hearted comment, and yes it was a joke, but it made me think about the way the teacher presented her classroom. Was she treating it as a serious place of learning? Was her joke subtly permissive to students who didn’t want to do their work. This in contrast to another teacher today who said “this is quiet working time, I expect you to be working silently” and then, almost miraculously, the class worked silently for the entire block.
Humour has its place in the classroom, but sarcasm, and jokes that belittle a student, or their school experiences are unacceptable. Teachers need to value the education of their students. Likeable teachers use language that prompts their students to treat themselves and others as serious learners.
Referring back to Rita Pierson’s talk, she stated “every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be” (Pierson, 2013). Young learners need someone to look them in the eyes and tell them that they will succeed, in school and in life. During my field experience I spoke to a Grade 12 student about her senior year experience. She talked about having a goal of 90% average, perfect attendance, being involved with leadership, sports teams and playing in the school band. I was immediately impressed. I had to ask her about her plans for after graduation. She told me about some deep worries and anxieties about her future. I shared with her “Don’t stress. You seem very bright and capable. I think you will do great wherever you end up. Any school would be lucky to have you. I think you’ll be a star!”, and she responded “Thats the nicest thing any teacher has ever told me! Thank you. I really needed to hear that. I’ve been so worried”. As good as this made me feel on a personal level, I felt deeply upset on a professional level. Does no one tell her these things? Do her teachers not tell her she is doing great? This can’t be the first time she has been told she has a bright future. She deserves to hear this often.
Educators who champion children are interested in more than high tests scores. They ask themselves “what is ignored when children can do well on tests but be deficient in “almost everything else”?” (Alberta’s Teachers Assciation, 2014). They “wonder what kind of people [their students will] become” (ATA, 2014). They understand and teach students their power and potential for positive societal change. A likeable teacher becomes an advocate for student voices in all spaces. “A good teacher must stand where personal and public meet” (Palmer, 1997). They help their students to be heard by their parents and the administration. They can encourage students to speak up and be included in discourse and the municipal, provincial and even federal levels. They can teach their students the power of activism.
Education is inherently ideological. Schools, classrooms, staff meetings, learning commons, text books, these are all places where ideologies are being shared. There is no separating learning, from ideology, or ideology from politics. This semester I attended a town hall meeting, where in response to the upcoming provincial election, a riled up local candidate declared “we need to get the government out of our schools!”, and I shook my head, because there is no getting the government out of schools. Public education is in the business of shaping and forming student’s minds. As long as the government dictates curriculum, the curriculum will reflect the standards and values of the currently seated government, if not directly, indirectly. I’ve learned that a teacher plays an important role in this process, preferably acting as an ideological filter and not a funnel. Teachers are to question curriculum, they are to question expected outcomes and they are to question “the way we’ve always done things”. In doing so, they can make sure that what is being taught is always in the best interest of their students. Challenge curriculum, and let curriculum challenge us. Teachers also beed to be willing to questions their personal ideological perspectives. It’s only in being aware of our biases that we can keep them in check. We need to teach aware of our positionality, lest we let too much of what “we think” seep in to the day’s lesson. Students lose trust when they see their teachers biases go unaddressed. A common complaint I heard during my time in field is “I don’t like teachers who force you to think the way they do”, or “I’m just writing what they want to hear on my essay, it’s the only way to get a good grade”. In order to empower and champion every student in the classroom, teachers need to be able to foster learning environments that encourage multiple perspectives.
In the conclusion of the report “What did you do in school today” we read “effective teaching practices also recognize how important strong relationships are in educating students, building social cohesion, and producing minds that thirst for knowledge for a lifetime. [Effective teachers] make school a socially, academically, and intellectually exciting and worthwhile place to be.” (Friesen, 2009). I believe that this is within the grasp of every teacher. “Ultimately, the essential element to creating a sense of community in your classroom is YOU… It is your loving, compassionate attitude towards the children in your classroom family that creates a joyful community” (Booth Church). Every teacher is capable of being a likeable teacher, every teacher can be someone’s favourite. It won’t come by accident, but by careful and consistent effort into developing supporting and loving relationships with students.
Alberta Teachers’ Association. (2014). Competencies or capabilities? ATA Magazine, 94(3). Edmonton, AB: Author. Available at http://www.teachers.ab.ca/Publications/ATA %20Magazine/Volume-94/Number-3/Pages/Competencies- or-capabilities.aspx
Booth Church, E. (n.d.). Building community in the classroom. Early Childhood Today. Available at http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/building-community-classroom
Den Boer, K. (2014). The full package. The Alberta Teachers’ Association Magazine, 95. Available at http://www.teachers.ab.ca/Publications/ATA%20Magazine/Volume %2095%202014-15/Number- 3/Pages/TheFullPackage.aspx
Emdin, C. (2013). Teach teachers how to create magic. TedTalk available at https:// http://www.ted.com/talks/christopher_emdin_teach_teachers_how_to_create_magic
Friesen, S. (2009). What did you do in school today? Teaching Effectiveness: A Framework and Rubric. Toronto: Canadian Education Association. Available at http://www.galileo.org/ cea-2009-wdydist-teaching.pdf
Palmer, P.J. (1997). The heart of a teacher identity and integrity in teaching. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 29(6), 14-21. DOI: 10.1080/00091389709602343. Available from http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/10.1080/00091389709602343
Pierson, R. (2013). Every kid needs a champion. Ted Talk available at
Truby, D. (n.d.). 8 ways to build positive school culture now. We Are Teachers. Available at http://www.weareteachers.com/blogs/post/2014/08/07/8-ways-to-build-positive-school- culture-now