Irena Barker

Does it matter whether students like their teacher?

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New teachers are often warned that the job isn’t a popularity contest – but, in fact, research suggests that being liked by students leads to better learning and improved wellbeing. So, does it really matter whether you’re popular with your class? Irena Barker finds out

Does it matter whether students like their teacher?

The 1990s sketch show Fist of Fun features an anti-establishment teacher, Mr Kennedy, who wins popularity by smoking in lessons and dishing out alcohol on the last day of term. He encourages students to call him by his first name and he swears in front of the headmaster. He’s a god among teens.

Unfortunately, he is not a god of good grades: all his students fail their exams.

The message here is clear: if you focus too much on getting your students to like you, you can wave goodbye to any chance of them learning anything. And it is a warning that new entrants to the profession get repeatedly in these first few weeks of term: popularity doesn’t win prizes.

Looking at the research, though, that is not strictly true.

One German longitudinal study of 1,070 third-grade (equivalent to Year 4) pupils and their 54 science teachers found that a “student who – compared with his or her classmates – reports liking the teacher more will also be more interested in the teaching units after pre-existing subject-related interest is controlled for”.

A smaller US study found that high-school students who reported liking their teacher had higher levels of effort and persistence, and earned higher grades.

And the broader research around student-teacher relationships, rather than likeability specifically, also suggests that being popular with pupils matters.

Andrew Martin, professor of educational psychology at the University of New South Wales, Australia, has carried out research looking at, in his words, “the academic and personal wellbeing yields of getting on with or liking your teacher”.

In a recent study, he found that the more positive the relationships students have with teachers, the more likely they are to enjoy school, participate in class and say that they want to continue with the subject and their education as a whole.

Meanwhile, in a review of research on student-teacher relationships, he found that “high-quality interpersonal relationships in students’ lives contribute to their academic motivation, engagement and achievement”.

Role models

It’s not just grades that get boosted: good relationships, Martin explains, contribute to student wellbeing, establishing a vital base for learning and providing a “buffer” against stress and risk.

“Good relationships are a protective factor in your emotional and social life. But they are also an enabling factor; they make good things happen,” he says.

And when students like their teachers, he says, they’re more likely to be receptive to their teachers’ positive modelling of behaviour.

Debora Roorda, assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam, has found similarly positive connections between teacher popularity and student results. She analysed 99 studies that looked at the importance of one-to-one emotional bonds between teachers and students, and found that they have an impact from pre-school to at least 12th grade (Year 13).

Positive affective relationships, Roorda says, had a positive impact on everything from test scores and grades to reducing “externalising behaviour” such as aggression and hyperactivity.

So popularity does matter. But don’t rush off to brush up on grime, watch the entire Netflix most-popular list and swear at your line manager just yet: being popular does not require you to morph into Mr Kennedy from Fist of Fun.

So what does it require?

Firstly, you need to really care about what pupils think of you. By ensuring that this is a factor in everything from your planning to how you talk to individual students, you can ensure that you are monitoring and assessing how well your relationships with pupils are progressing.

Next you need to take care of the basics. Roorda says that the key factors in the positive relationships found in the research were warmth, emotional support and open communication from the teacher.

According to Dr Amelia Roberts, deputy director of the UCL Centre for Inclusive Education in London, you can demonstrate these features by being dependable, consistent and empathetic.

While these three characteristics might not be easy to stick to last thing on a Friday, they should be relatively simple to display most of the time, as long as you are teaching within schools with strong behaviour and conduct systems.

Persuading every child that you like them, whether they like you back or not, is also important. Children who feel respected and liked feel more secure, and with security comes better learning.

Unfortunately, recent research has shown that the students who are most in need of a strong relationship with their teacher are often the hardest ones to build that relationship with; for example, those with behavioural problems. “Quite often the child the teacher doesn’t like is the child that needs them to like them the most,” Roberts explains.

What about your pedagogical approach – does a certain style of teaching make you more popular?

“From the child’s perspective, if the teacher is designing a lesson that makes them feel stimulated, excited and clever, then they are going to end up liking that teacher,” says Roberts.

That should be equally possible for those who teach from the front, those who use role play and group work, and for everyone in between.

And beyond this central tenet, there are plenty of other hallmarks of good pedagogy that breed good relationships and should be applicable across the teaching styles.

For example, Roberts explains that being a “firm” teacher, who is consistent and has really clear boundaries and expectations, can make students feel safe and fairly treated.

Being organised and well-planned is also better than being “nice, but inconsistent”, she says. Setting a positive emotional tone in the classroom is vital too, Roberts explains, as is planning lessons to avoid scenarios where conflict and negativity may arise.

She recommends, for example, using transitional tasks such as simple “peer talk” exercises to settle classes before the main body of the lesson.

“You have a much better chance of them accessing the next task because the teacher isn’t being made to feel frustrated, the teacher is not being put in a situation where they have to be negative,” she says.

All in the details

On a one-to-one level, Roberts reveals that using the child’s name at the beginning of the school day and asking about students’ lives and remembering those details can be really important. It’s also crucial to think about how individual children might be experiencing school, she says.

“Poor attainment, difficulty making friends, getting lots of detentions and so on, are stressful, and an understanding teacher will be very welcome,” she explains.

But it is important for teachers to “stay in role”, Roberts adds.

“It’s not about being a friend or a parent or a counsellor, but about being the best possible teacher,” she says, “consistency and courtesy will carry you far.”

Martin, meanwhile, recommends an approach that he refers to as “connective instruction”, which aims to help students to make personal connections with the teacher, content and learning through the normal course of lessons.

“If we tell teachers to spend the first six weeks of the year having heart-to-hearts with all their kids, they just can’t do that – they don’t have time,” he says.

Using the connective instruction approach, the teacher makes personal connections with students by listening to their views and getting to know them as people, regardless of their academic performance.

Teachers also need to connect students with the subject matter by making the tasks and activities relevant, interesting and meaningful to them, he says.

So how do you think you are doing? Reading the above, and reflecting on their practice, the vast majority of teachers will likely be doing many of these things already. Does that mean that they have nothing to worry about?

Martin warns that teachers should not presume that because it’s common sense, they are actually doing it consistently – he believes that constantly reflecting on your practice is crucial to getting this right. And he’s probably correct: after all, there is a Mr Kennedy within all of us, fighting to get out, and we probably need a regular reminder that he may represent something we like but he does not represent something we need.

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 18 September 2020 issue under the headline “Tes focus on...Popularity: does it matter?”

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