On The Importance of Liking Students

Probably the most important trick to being a good teacher is believing that you have something to teach students, and that they are better of learning it then not. But the second most important thing, I think, is liking your students.

Many professors don’t have any problem with the first thing. We are, in general, corky about our subjects. We love them. We don’t understand why anyone would not be fascinated by them. It just seems obvious to us that everyone’s lives would be incredibly enriched if they understood how World Fairs shaped the Victorian imagination, or what food exchange can tell us about a marriage ceremony.

But often we are less enthusiastic about our students. Some professors love to teach, and others don’t — and that’s fine. But I worry that people on the fence are too easily sucked into the massive negativity about teaching that exists on social media.

Many readers will know what I’m talking about: Professors posting ungrammatical sentences on Facebook, or telling stories about students who don’t know how to do anything except check their cell-phones. Comment threads that suggest ever-more punitive measures. Rants about How It’s On The Syllabus. Their unearned wealth. Their sense of entitlement. People posting that one passive aggressive poem about skipping class.

Some kvetching is natural and necessary, and I understand where it’s coming from. I’ve been kvetching on the Internet for fifteen years. And for people in the precariate, complaining about dealing with students is more than understandable — it’s a natural reaction to being paid little money to do a lot of work. Although, that said, I do worry sometimes that anti-student sentiment just prevents potential solidarity with students and keeps your eyes off the management.

Being a good teacher is like being a diplomat — it takes a lot of time, requires tremendous composure, and involves slowly winning someone over to a point of view they might not have been on board with before. It requires a lot of selflessness and a strong superego (or so I’m told!). When another student doesn’t read the syllabus, it’s much easier to say “kids these days” and much harder to say “how can I change this class to make sure my students read the syllabus?” When a student makes mistakes lots of students have made in the past, it’s easy to take out your frustration with past errors on the student, and a lot harder to say “what can I change so that mistake doesn’t happen again?”

But beyond all these skills, it simply helps to like students, and to find them interesting. Most people in school want to learn, and they walk into class hoping that you will make that possible — indeed, that you may be the exception to the rule. When you see the value of them, they see the value of you. If you show them obvious impatience or contempt, they won’t stretch in that way that is called “learning”.

One of the teachers I remember best from my grad school days was Wayne Booth. Wayne has a kind disposition. He liked people. That made it easy for him to like students. And he didn’t just like them, he was fascinated by them. He found them as fascinating as they found themselves — which is quite something given how narcissistic many people in their late teens and early twenties can be. It made him a great teacher.

In fact, I bet that many of the teachers I’ve had throughout my life were good at their job because they had a natural inclination to like students, and to find them interesting. I probably just never noticed because I was a narcissistic late teen early twenties type. They were willing to dig deep and put up with me, because they believed in… me? Teaching? One of the most incredible things about teachers is their ability to meet a total stranger and believe that they are going to be successful and are capable of doing great things.

I’m not writing this because I feel like I’m a good teacher. On the contrary, I am pretty sure that I lack many of the emotional qualities I’ve described above. In fact, it has taken a decade of teaching for me to see that teaching well doesn’t just require pedagogy, patience, and diplomacy. It requires cultivating a self that gives affection more easily and is more optimistic.

They say that in good teaching, both the student and the teacher learn. I think that liking students helps. If you are skeptical, give it a try some time. It might just work.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “On The Importance of Liking Students

  1. I would prefer to go for respect.

    There has been quite a lot of work done in the sociology of education on teacher attitudes to student/pupils, why the negative images arise and are reinforced – and how to deal with the problem. Start with Hargreaves on ‘The Occupational Culture of Teachers’ – https://books.google.fr/books?hl=en&lr=&id=HT-Hx5EgXloC&oi=fnd&pg=PA125&dq=hargreaves+occupational+culture&ots=jfyUUxf23W&sig=XRbIG36rPKHaiCVh7pUCXfxqAFs#v=onepage&q=hargreaves%20occupational%20culture&f=false . (Useful insights can be garnered from criminology dealing with the ‘canteen culture’ in police stations).

  2. rex–i’m often in this place when, for the nth time this semester, no one seems to complete the reading. i’ve often found that it helps to take a somewhat ethnographic approach here. perhaps you do not approve of the behaviour (use of devices in class, not completing assignments). perhaps you never will. but you can be curious about your students and more than a bit empathetic with their situations. i don’t think that i am a particularly good teacher (at my best, i am clunky), but i do try to let my students know that for the course of the semester, i am invested in their well being. sometimes, i need to remind myself of that

  3. Hear, hear! I find it troubling when some fellow instructors consistently blame students for all the problems they have in the classroom. Of course, some students aren’t going to read the assignment for a given day or ask questions that could be easily answered by reading the syllabus. Part of our job is learning to deal with these facts of life while also developing our courses in ways that incentivize completion of required tasks. If students aren’t reading, we have to find ways to make them accountable for the reading. Students are like faculty, constantly triaging their time. If they can get away without reading or just doing “deep skimming” for a class, they likely will. And honestly, how many of us did all of the assigned readings as students if there were no penalties for skipping over some of them? My sense is that students develop respect for their professors when they’re treated with openness and respect. When they’re treated like petulant children, they often act in kind.

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