In an idle moment recently, a group of M3 students took the trouble to tell me that they really liked Teacher Tracey, who taught them last year, and not Nick, their teacher this year.
I asked why, which prompted a flurry of Thai argument and telltale facial expressions, and it became clear that I wasn’t easily going to get a worthwhile answer from them.
Why might the class have liked Tracey but not Nick? Do students have what it takes to make meaningful judgements about a teacher? Should Nick concern himself that the students compare him unfavorably to other teachers?
Yes, he should!
For many teachers (and schools), students’ opinions matter. Schools use student approbation as some sort of yardstick, so we may hear conversations like this:
Manager: How is the new teacher doing?
Veteran teacher: The students like him.
Just like that. Being liked gives you status, marks you as ‘good’ in some way. Your job is secure. I know of schools where a teacher could lose teaching hours, or maybe even their job, if the students’ feedback indicates disfavor.
The argument goes that happy students learn better, are more willing to buy into a lesson, and feel better about being in class. Being liked is important!
No, it’s not important!
The counterargument is that a teacher’s job is to teach, not be liked. In fact, when teachers make the classroom a popularity contest, learning might be compromised: it’s difficult to balance ‘niceness’ with the task of managing groups of people effectively, so students start taking liberties.
That’s why we hear teachers sagely advise newbies to not smile till after Christmas or something similar (‘start strict’, ‘establish control early’, ‘make them listen before they speak’). If you try to make the class ‘like’ you, you stand a good chance of losing their respect, and in so doing lose the possibility of maintaining control. It’ll be a disaster. You could lose your job.
Maybe it doesn’t matter
There’s another perspective: it doesn’t matter what students think. What do students know about classroom practice and pedagogy? Aren’t their evaluations of teachers based entirely on personal preferences and subjective interpretations of personality? Can we really see students’ evaluations as a valid basis for broader evaluations of a teacher’s ability to teach?
What the research says
There is some fascinating research on this question. Since 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s MET project has been investigating what ‘effective teaching’ looks like. This is an awesome project involving researchers from 16 universities (big fancy ones like Harvard and Cambridge), and the evaluation of nearly 3000 teachers. Now the research wasn’t about being ‘liked’, but stay with me for a moment.
To find out why some teachers are doing a better job with their teaching than others, the MET researchers measured changes in students scores for each teacher in different classes, they videotaped the teachers’ lessons, and tested the teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge. They also collected students’ opinions of these teachers.
Predictably, with so much data the research is filled with fun mathematical equations and super statistical analyses which makes for great reading. At risk of oversimplifying the complex findings and spoiling the ending, I’d like to highlight one finding: students’ evaluations of the teachers correlated with other measures of teaching effectiveness. So where the data indicated that a teacher was effective, students had indicated they liked the teacher. This was for the case at both primary and secondary school levels.
There’s more, the student evaluations of the teachers were divided into 7 parts: care, control, clarify (the teacher’s ability to explain), challenge, captivate (the teacher’s ability to engage interest), confer (the level of student-student interaction allowed), and consolidate (the teacher’s ability to give feedback). The findings showed that effective teaching was most closely correlated with students’ perceptions of the level of control and challenge. Students ‘liked’ teachers who could control, and those who created challenging lessons.
Let’s test this finding with our intuition. Think back to your school days. Can you remember making judgements about your teachers? In retrospect, do you think your childlike evaluations of your teachers were valid? You sat in many teachers’ classes for hours and hours every day. It was natural for you to compare them, make judgments about their personality and skills, and decide which you liked and don’t like. Even kindergarten children can happily roleplay a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ teacher!
When we think of teachers we liked at school, we may think of those who were ‘kind’, ‘approachable’, ‘caring’. But we could also think of those who were ‘knowledgeable’ and ‘interesting’? Maybe, then, there are two kinds of ‘like’.
For instance, when I was in high school we had a young, newly qualified, and really very pretty Afrikaans teacher. I remember liking her – she listened to us, learned our names, smiled. But she was a complete walkover as a teacher. There was a competition among us to see who could upset her first, and it was easy because she had a lot of ready triggers – the easiest being the ‘S word’. That word (usually thrust intrusively into a question) precipitated a (rather pretty) lecture about manners which often took the whole lesson, all in English because she needed to make her point. So though we liked her, I can’t say that we really learned much Afrikaans.
Troy (you all know Troy, right?) describes a completely different experience of a teacher he liked at school. This teacher spoke in a monotone and was rather dull as a person, but was incredibly knowledgeable and could bring science lessons to life. Every lesson was a voyage of discovery into something fascinating. The students in Troy’s class may not have liked the teacher, but they really liked the teacher.
If the MET findings are right, we may have to admit that the answer is yes, students are very good at identifying teachers they like and their opinions have a meaningful match with ‘effective’ teaching. The fact is, though, it’s not the fun, affable teachers who win student approbation, it’s the teachers who create lessons that are challenging and engaging.
So yes, Nick probably ought to be concerned that his class is of the opinion that he doesn’t match up to Tracey. Bloody Tracey! All the students adored her.
Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.