When I first started teaching, I had no idea what I was doing. I understood the material, and had read the course outline, and had watched To Sir, With Love, but I didn’t really know anything about the art of teaching. Since then, I have taken a certificate program on teaching adults, which helped a lot, but not as much as just getting the experience in the classroom and working out my own ways to Be the Teacher.
One of the most difficult things about teaching, which is never covered in any course is how do you get your students to both respect you AND like you? I was really concerned with making sure my students liked me until I realized I was doing them a disservice. By trying to make them like me, I was letting things slide and letting them walk all over me. I kept explaining things multiple times, or just giving answers, or accepting really bad excuses for why work wasn’t done or why it was done poorly. I let all this go with a laugh and a joke and yeah, sure, my students loved me. But they also weren’t gaining the characteristics that employers value, like time-management, personal responsibility, critical thinking skills, effective listening skills, etc.
I work in a community college; my whole goal at work is to Get Students Jobs. As I became more familiar with teaching methodologies and learning pedagogy and all those sorts of things, I realized that what mattered was that I was creating students who were prepared for jobs, and I started to realize how to do this. With this realization I knew that whether or not students liked me didn’t matter, but they had to respect me because that was the only way they were going to learn from me. Respect from students comes from, in my opinion, the following places:
- Being passionate. Be passionate about your students and their success. Be passionate about what you’re teaching. Passion and excitement are often infectious. A colleague of mine wears her Canadian historical political figures t-shirt every time she teaches the Canadian Constitution because she’s so excited about it. Her students think maybe she’s a bit crazy, but they remember the material and they respect her enthusiasm. Students respond to passion.
- Having high expectations. Working in a community college, a lot of people have, and perpetuate, low expectations for my students; I was once guilty of this myself as it had become a mindset at my college. But then I remembered that people live up to your expectations – if you keep telling them something is too hard for them, it will be; if you give up when trying to explain complex concepts to them, then they’ll believe themselves incapable of understanding any concept. But if you have high expectations of your students, you will be amazed at how they can push themselves to meet them. I have a group of students right now that I’ve had since their very first semester and they’re now going into their last: they are amazing. And every class I tell them that. I always remind them how smart they are and how capable they are, how impressed I am with their work ethic and their dedication to their studies while working and raising kids. Your students will respond to this. I recently booked a learning session with a librarian as a refresher on how to do research before my students start a big case study. The librarian running the session requested a copy of the case study assignment so she could cater the session to the assignment. I emailed her a copy and she wrote back telling me that even with her help, my students will have a hard time with such a difficult assignment. She obviously doesn’t know my students and how bad ass they are. For in-class assignments they write research reports without typos and with charts and sourced images and thoughtful analyses and recommendations. Having high expectations creates respect with your students because they know you value them and their talents.
- Being honest. Always be transparent. Always be fair. Don’t ask trick questions. If you forgot to mention everyone will lose two marks for every spelling error, then you can only take one mark off. If you said no late assignments, then do not accept late assignments, no matter the excuse. (Mind you, most institutions have some sort of evaluation policy that may allow for this if official documentation such as a doctor’s note is provided.) Don’t change due dates. Don’t have pop quizzes. Nobody likes those and what are they really telling you about your students? Take attendance in order to cover your butt and keep everything legit. If a student appeals a grade at the end of a semester but you have records showing they only attended a quarter of the classes, they will not be winning that appeal. Also, if you can, keep track of who’s late. You can do this easily: have your students sign in on a sheet of paper and after 30 minutes, draw a line across that paper; anyone who signs below the line, you know they’re late. This helps when students appeal a grade or come to you being like, “But, I don’t understand anything!” Of course you don’t! You’re always an hour late for my class! Always write up breaches of academic honesty. Develop a reputation for it. Spend a copious amount of time in the first and second and third weeks of class explaining the importance of academic honesty. It’s important and I find many students have no idea why. Help them understand. Honesty, transparency, being fair, these are qualities students respect.
- Showing your students you’re there for them. I don’t mean personally; that’s what counselling services are for. I mean professionally, you are at school for them. They are the entire reason you show up; show them that matters. I do this by posting relevant job postings to my twitter and course shells, finding articles and materials that will help them succeed academically and professionally, having office hours every day, participating in initiatives and projects that will improve their school experience, getting guest speakers to inspire them and get them excited about their chosen fields. Like with anything, when you see someone in a perceived position of power doing things for you and making sure you’re getting the best of whatever is being offered, you respect that.
- Giving respect. This one’s obvious. If you want respect, give respect. Don’t talk down to your students. Don’t think you’re better or smarter than they are. You might know more about your particular area of study, but they could teach you just as much about something they’re passionate about. Only dicks think they have nothing to learn from their students. Don’t be a dick.
- Having boundaries. I look very young, so many students think I am their peer and we can go out partying together or whatever. Don’t go out partying with your students while they are your students. I always used to go out with my university professors to strip clubs and partying in Detroit, but I don’t really think I respected many of them in the classroom after I’d seen them puking in a snowbank outside of Leopard’s Gentlemen’s Club. I still respected them as people but it made the classroom environment different. I feel college (in Canada at least) is a bit different from university - especially once you get into the MA and PhD levels and your teachers become your colleagues - but personally, I’ve always found having boundaries to serve me well. Students don’t have my phone number or my personal email address; I don’t add students to my personal Twitter or Facebook accounts (I created teacher accounts on both these sites so I wouldn’t have to); I don’t go out with students or eat lunch with them. I like to maintain the utmost professionalism when I’m at work, and this includes maintaining boundaries when interacting with my students.
Usually when you do all these things, students like you. But you’ve also made it clear that you are their friendly educator, not their friend. I’m naked on the internet and not once has a student ever brought it up in class. Ever. And they definitely know about it. That is professional respect and goddamn do I ever appreciate it. But my students also make me cupcakes with cat emojis on them, so I know they like me. And that’s perfect, because I respect and like them too.