Why a popular teacher is the last thing you want to be

21st April 2017 at 00:00
Too often teachers try to manage situations by aiming to be popular with students – but that’s a fool’s errand, says Mark Roberts

There was once an NQT who found himself with a tricky Year 7 English class. The timetable had dealt him the crummiest of hands: he had them Friday period 3 and period 5, lessons that bookended a period 4 maths lesson that the students hated.

They were fine during the first session, but after lunch, and after maths, they metamorphosed into Lord of the Flies-style savages. Drastic action was needed.

He came up with a masterstroke: period 3 was to be a normal lesson, complete with extended writing, high levels of challenge, the full works. But period 5, assuming that they complied during period 3 (God knows what he would have done if they hadn’t), was different. Period 5 was to be a fun lesson, euphemistically termed “film studies”. The deal: you work hard in Period 3, you get to watch a tenuously linked DVD in the final hour of the week.

The kids loved it. They loved him. He was the coolest teacher ever. He was happy.

But he came to regret this approach. He changed. A sense of crushing guilt had permeated those wasted hours of Year 7. This burden of conscience had been relieved slightly by the pupils doing well regardless – they’d made solid progress – but he couldn’t help thinking about the progress they might have made if he’d cracked the whip and ploughed on, despite the timetable conspiring against him.

He’d courted and fallen for popularity. And he had failed the students as a result. Ultimately, that popularity was shortlived anyway. Even 12-year-old kids get bored of watching endless movies…

That young teacher was, of course, me.

Seeking popularity doesn't work

“You know, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like,” says Rita Pierson in her famous TED Talk (bit.ly/PiersonTED). As the talk is all about education, when Pierson says “people”, she really means “teachers”.

After first reading the statement, I felt that Pierson was guilty of a colossal mistake: encouraging teachers to seek popularity.

But before rushing to judgement (as tempting as it is when confronted by an “inspirational” teaching epigram), I watched the video of Pierson’s talk. Guess what? I liked her. She was warm, funny, self-deprecating, well-meaning and honest.

And some of her philosophy was difficult to disagree with: she focussed on boosting the non-existent self-esteem of disadvantaged students; she recognised the power of positive mantras and that success breeds success in learning; she refused to accept damaging labels like “bottom set” and “low ability”.

But some of her ideas were definitely more Oprah Winfrey than edu-guru ED Hirsch: lavish praise given when pupils had scored poorly on tests, public apologies to her pupils for significant areas of weakness in her subject knowledge, a general belief that if we only believe then it will happen. A “build it and they will come” pedagogy.

We all know that kids learn from people they don’t like – I had an A-level teacher who I despised

What is most wrong about the quote is that we all know that kids do learn from people they don’t like. I had an A-level teacher who I despised (the feeling was certainly mutual) who nonetheless taught me to appreciate the nuances of prosody in the poetry of Tennyson (I didn’t much like him either, but it stuck). I had a French teacher who I adored because of his humorous digressions about his schooldays and his witty anecdotes about getting lost in the Pyrenees, yet I learned a lot more when I moved to a different class where the teacher was dull, dry and repetitive.

Anecdotal experience aside, what does the evidence say?

Well, Professor John Hattie prescribes an effect size – we need to be cautious about some of the data – of 0.52 (roughly an increase of a GCSE grade) to teacher-student relationships. But apart from using the word “positive”, the exact nature of these relationships is unclear.

Teachers who I admire have positive relationships with their pupils. They talk to them politely. They offer praise when it’s earned. They build up a rapport over time in a non-intrusive way, getting to know things about their pupils’ hobbies. They tend to say “thank you” rather than “please”.

But when it comes down to it – and in teaching it always does come down to pivotal moments of instant decision making – they make it clear who is the boss, that they are the adult and they make the calls. Especially when unpopular decisions have to be made. Invariably, this will include:

  • * Refusing to accept sub-standard work, even if the student has put quite a bit of effort into it.
  • * Doing an assessment on the last day before the Christmas holidays because the group has an exam the first week back.
  • * Sitting pupils away from their friends.
  • * Making pupils practise key exam questions until they get them right, even though they are really fed up with doing them.
  • * Telling pupils when their answers, ideas or interpretations are just plain wrong.

How do we gain respect?

So after my initial dalliances, there were no more “free lessons”. Every last ounce of learning was squeezed out of each lesson; no opportunity to develop knowledge wasted. Rather than dancing with popularity, I pursued something much more worthwhile: respect.

Respect is hard. How does one gain it from pupils? To begin, it’s probably easier to list ways that will quickly lose pupil respect by alienation and exasperation. These include:

  • * Poor subject knowledge.
  • * Group punishments – keeping the whole class behind owing to minority behaviour.
  • * Not following the school’s behaviour policy.
  • * Indecisiveness, hesitancy and changing the goalposts.
  • * Continually getting pupils’ names wrong.
  • * Inappropriate humour, sarcastic attitude, deliberate attempts at humiliation.
  • * Generic feedback at parents’ evening.

Pupils do not respect the detached teacher who, going through the motions, sees them as a homogenous personified spreadsheet. Pupils don’t respect the draconian teacher who bans them from ever asking a question or uttering an opinion. I had an art teacher like this once. We were all terrified of him. We worked in silence. Forever. Nobody knew what they were doing. Nobody dared to ask.

Pupils don't respect the overly friendly teacher who blatantly sidesteps the school rules in a display of maverick tendencies

Pupils do not respect the overly friendly teacher who, winking, blatantly sidesteps the school rules in a display of maverick tendencies. Pupils usually find this amusing to begin with but soon find the excessive familiarity and intrusions into personal space creepy and tiresome. These days, the worst insult anyone could ever say about my teaching would be “he’s too busy trying to be the kids’ mate”.

Ultimately, the most productive relationships, to my mind, are when the teacher combines a) firm discipline, b) high expectations and c) an obvious care for the pupils’ progress. They will demand very good behaviour and effort and in turn will provide challenging lessons and high-quality feedback.

Then, and only then, will they gain respect. They will not be motivated by a desire to be liked. They will, of course, eventually end up being loved by their pupils. This is explained by my first and final law of the Popularity Paradox:

“The teacher who seeks popularity shall never find it; only the thick-skinned, self-assured educator will gain the status of the adored.”

Spread it wide and far.


Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the South West of England. He tweets @mr_englishteach

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