Stephen Louw

“I don’t like Teacher Nick.”

Is it important for a teacher to be liked by the students?


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.

Manager: Okay.

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.

Some reflection

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.




Comments

Spot on, Steve.

If all of your pupils hate you, it doesn't mean you are a bad person. It means you aren't cut out for teaching.

I'll caveat that with giving your second year a chance.

By Neil, Rayong (3rd February 2024)

In the grand scheme of things, who cares if my ESL students like me? I mean, it's not like I'm here to teach them English or anything. I've got more important things to worry about, like making sure my lessons are as dull as possible and my teaching methods are confusing. Who needs clarity and effective communication, right? And let's not forget the thrilling ambiance of my classroom – who wouldn't enjoy the vibe of complete indifference? It's not like I'm here to create a positive learning environment or help them develop essential language skills. No, my top priority is definitely not making a lasting impact on their academic journey. So, if they don't like me, well, that's just another reason to celebrate my exceptional ability to not give a second thought about their opinions.

By Joe, The Big Mango (28th January 2024)

I would say that, first, when evaluating a teacher, you need to know something about their knowledge base, and, if possible, ascertain their level of caring for the students. (In response to a previous post, a PGCSE may not all be a guarantor of a good knowledge base; this is not always easy to predict based on one's CV). Another very important 3rd quality of a teacher is their ability to communicate their knowledge clearly. Being pleasant and likeable could also be important, but i would say it's less important than the 3 previous qualities I've mentioned. Student opinion can be taken into consideration, but I would say you need peer observations along with observations from a knowledgeable supervisor order to make an accurate assessment of a teacher. As an example, I remember 2 of my main 6th grade teachers well. 1 was wildly popular, yet looking back on it, he often tried too hard to be our friend, whilst the other teacher was considered bland, but I ended up learning much more from the bland teacher as his lessons were full of information and well thought out; however, this insight came to me many years later.

By LG, Bangkok (26th January 2024)

One thing that I think is grossly overlooked in comparing teachers and using being 'liked' as any measure of anything as follows.

Comparing a teacher who has a good work ethic, a diploma possibly from a decent university, years in the game, pgce, a professional license. In short, someone that has something behind him and something to offer. Then you have the edutainers and the frauds. One by and large enjoys the job. The other is just a means to an end much like every hack job before. They spend as little time on campus as absolutely possible. They hate the work. Well, they hate any work. It shows.

Often, these teachers are liked because they are slack, waste time, give ridiculous assignments and easy grades. What's not to like?

At the better schools the students know the difference. At one very good school I had students complain to me teachers just taking the piss and cheating them of opportunity. At my current school there is a teacher. Seemed to be well liked beginning of the year. Throughout the year he was never prepared, called class early, never had quality materials. Made a bunch of promises to help students with this and that unfulfilled. His concept of grading was lazy. When the students came around he was gone early. Soon they didn't bother. I rarely ask students about what they do in another efl class but the few times I did it was met with eyerolls. The class was often just one big chat session. He ran out of game midway through the year.

His personal touch isnt about caring but about sharing a superficial laugh. If they were a few years older they'd see how shallow the act is. Children will often be grateful for wasting time and lack of homework.

Winning hearts and minds is about genuinely caring for students. That might mean helping with some writing, a scholarship essay, practicing IELTS. In the better schools when you help students achieve, really achieve something you get something better than merely being liked, you get respect.

Teachers that are merely liked never go anywhere unless they've got a friend with an inside track. Luck, pure insufferable luck. Being liked I guess if that is a strategy lets them live another day.

You want job security? Achieve respect. Change lives and I mean that with the deepest sincerity.

Ice cream is liked. Pizza is liked.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (26th June 2020)

Developing a range of skills is possibly a good thing to do, well I suppose that goes without saying, it’s common sense, right? Unfortunately, common sense is not always common practice (guilty)! I think teachers, as with most humans, we tend to think one way, or the other. Maybe a third alternative, an integration of style with substance, however, style should go first, to ensure low affective filters, and resonant relationships start to form, creating an environment, of openness, enjoyment, and safety. If we consider emotions as a type thought, then possibility more academic value would be placed upon the soft skills of a teacher. Then the hard skills are deployed, and challenge, must be present! Students need to grow and develop, this challenge, must be at the right level. The Zone of Proximal Develop should be considered, along with plenty of scaffolding to ensure success. As with all things that are great, a balance of art, and science, would not just be a good thing, but the right thing to do, then it becomes less about good teacher, bad teacher, liked/disliked, but more about rightness.

By Stuart Bailey, Bangkok (1st December 2019)

Maybe it's just me, but I don't find it that hard to have the students like you. If you're a genuinely nice person, the kids will obviously pick up on it.

Now, the tricky part is getting the kids to respect you. You can be the nicest person in the world, but if you can't manage and control your class well, the kids will take you for an idiot. They may well still like you, but they won't respect you properly and that lack of respect will feel like they don't like you. It's the same dynamic as being a boss and dealing with your subordinates. Being nice will get you so far, but you do need to know what you're doing.

As a teacher or a boss, don't fall into that trap of thinking that you need to lay down the law unfairly and assert yourself in order to get respect - you won't. Students and adults will pretend to respect you, but deep down you'll know they don't; and that will just fester inside and bring out the ugly sides of your personality (Similar to small-man syndrome, but respect can be earned if you apply yourself honestly)

If you don't have what it takes to be a good teacher or boss, that's okay. Find something else to do. Just don't stick with it and become an arrogant asshole whose ego is actually just detrimental to your school or business' performance. Know your limits.

Oh, if you're a P6 or M1 teacher, you have my sympathy. They're just at that age where they really can be little dick bags.

By Craig, Bangkok (21st November 2019)

Yea I find that to please the students is to say'well, lets give you what your parents paid for' but one has to be also careful as to not annoy them with too much strictness and grammar stuff. As a native speaker myself, I am very careful with my spelling and know that my job is very important to the kids learning. As my old man once said "educate first, please second"

By jase the ajarn, bang kae (19th November 2019)

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