Early this week a Year 11 student thanked me for being an awesome teacher. She came top of the class and was grateful for the support I’ve provided throughout the year. The next day another student from the same class told me I deserve a teaching award. She came near the bottom and was grateful for the support I provided in going through her exam with her after school, analysing whether she’s in the right course, and phoning her parents to discuss it with them.
So the evidence of the past two days indicates that I’m doing a good job, right? Of course, you can’t be that simplistic about it. Just as the best students are forever working out what they need to do in order to improve, to be a good teacher (or any kind of professional) you need to be constantly building your strengths and addressing your weaknesses. Plenty of students have given me grief instead of thanks or praise.
But high school teachers cop a lot of intentional and unintentional teenage crap, and student praise is a necessary corrective and a valuable encouragement. In short, and partly in jest, I’ll take whatever props I can.
Advice to beginning teachers can be quite contradictory in a lot of ways, reflecting the variety of educational contexts at play, and the fact that vastly different styles can be equally effective. One such apparent contradiction is the following two pieces of advice:
- It’s not a popularity contest; it’s not important whether they like you.
- It’s important to develop a good rapport with the class.
How can you develop a good rapport with them if they don’t like you? And yet these are not contradictory. Trying to be liked is problematic: it’s inappropriate and doesn’t engender respect. But if you succeed in developing a good rapport, and teach them well, then a side-effect of that will probably be that they respect you, and maybe even like you. That’s fine and healthy, and indeed precious. The affirmation in this case is earned, not sought.
Student affirmation is precious — not that I’d stoop so low as to seek it! 😉 — because it builds reputation. Teaching is, or can be, a damned difficult job, and a good reputation can make it a lot easier. A beginning teacher, or even an experienced teacher at a new school, is a blank slate. Students can be critical and the mistakes of a beginner or outsider can harm one’s reputation. First impressions last. The reputation becomes the prism through which further acts are judged. If you have a good reputation, it’s easier to get a new class on-side, build rapport, and get stuck into the business of education. Students in the class with bad attitudes will be less likely to strike out because they will sense that the majority of the class in not on their side. But if your reputation is neutral or negative, most interactions with students can be a chore.
I made such a hash of my first year it’s a wonder I’m still at the same school (soon to complete six years). My reputation nosedived and my dealings even with students unfamiliar to me could be strained. Now, after a ton of hard work over the years, I have a good reputation and the situation is entirely different. Not perfect — far from it — but much better.
On the vexed issue of how friendly to be with students, my thinking has developed over the years and is settling into an opinion. A few years ago our former principal told staff at the beginning of the year that he’d met a well-known child psychologist over the holidays. That person spoke about the properties of a good teacher, in terms of relating well to and motivating teenagers. It boiled down to “four Fs”: funny, friendly, firm and fair. It was surprising to hear funny and friendly elevated to being the properties of a good teacher. “Firm but fair” is as old as the hills, and a hard balance to strike, but funny and friendly? The principal explained: you don’t need to be funny, but approaching class time with a sense of humour and allowing students to be light-hearted is important. Same with friendliness: the teacher-student relationship is not one of friendship, but it can be friendly. Courteous, positive, interested, helpful, familiar, jocular; all that and more.
The principal’s words left a strong impression on me and gave me a framework for evaluating my rapport with students thereafter. It would be incredibly wrong to suggest that teachers must follow that framework, but it made sense to me. I think it made me feel more confident in my approach to students, and that in itself made me a more effective teacher.
So the opinion now is this: it is good to be liked as a teacher. In particular, I want students to like the experience of being in my class, because I want them to enjoy Mathematics and to carry that enjoyment beyond their school years. Not all students are naturally geared towards enjoying Mathematics themselves, but if they have a positive experience of learning it, then I hope and expect they will pass on a positive attitude to their children. I’ve seen the difference between kids whose parents like maths and kids whose parents dislike maths. In addition to working for the current generation’s education, I’m conscious of the attitudes that will influence the next generation.
I want students to look back and think “I liked Mr X”, not for my own gratification — though I’m only human — but as an indication that they received a good education.