12 Things Students Remember Most About Good Teachers

Post by Open Colleges on June 28th, 2015

In 2013, Canadian educator Lori Gard wrote a popular piece for Huffpost Living which highlighted caring as the most important thing a teacher can do for his or her students. Two years later, I want to bring the conversation alive again by adding something more than personal experience: scientific research.

“At the end of the day,” Ms Gard writes, “most students won’t remember what amazing lesson plans you’ve created. They won’t remember how organised your bulletin boards are. How straight and neat are the desk rows. But they will remember you. Your kindness. Your empathy. Your care and concern. They’ll remember that you took the time to listen. That you stopped to ask them how they were. How they really were.”

It’s an inspirational message–one that most of us can agree with and even use as a daily mantra. But what’s even more inspirational is that there’s actual scientific proof that caring does make a difference. Take a look.

Why You Should Care

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have found that the more a teacher cares about her students, the more respect she will receive from them. By investigating and testing Dennis Wrong’s widely referenced “five forms of teacher authority,” the researchers found a sixth form of authority, “the authority of care,” that appeared to be missing from Wrong’s typology.

Wrong, a sociologist who was interested in understanding power relations in general, identified five forms of authority: personal, legitimate, competent, coercive, and by inducement. Personal authority appears to be the most prevalent in educational settings, and describes a scenario in which a student follows directions because he wants to please his instructor.

But Doctor Gale Macleod, who co-authored the report, says she and her colleagues found another reason students might choose to respect their elders.

Looking across four different settings—at a mainstream school, a youth workplace, an SEBD school, and an outdoor education center— Macleod and her colleagues carried out a series of interviews with staff and young people.

“We are at the early stages of the project,” Macleod says, “but the emerging analysis suggests that there is something missing from Wrong’s typology which we are, for the moment, calling ‘the authority of care’.”

Macleod says there is a strong theme emerging in her data suggesting that “young people do what adults ask them when they have a sense that the adult cares for them.” The young people used phrases such as “has our best interests at heart” and the adults who were identified by the young people as “sound” used similar language—they talked about caring for the young people, building relationships over the years (and sometimes across generations of the same family), looking to the future, and caring about outcomes.

“None of the values articulated by the staff come as a surprise,” Macleod says, “but the force with which the sense of being genuinely cared about came through from the young people was a surprise. Although the word trust wasn’t used, it was implicit in what the young people said.”

“This goes beyond what Wrong calls personal authority,” she added. “It isn’t about young people doing what they’re told because they want the adult to like them; they do what they’re told because they feel that the adult already does like them.”

Another theme to come up was that the young people weren’t only responding to the individual character of the teacher, but to what that teacher represented in broader social terms, including gender, class, and age.

“It would appear that teachers who carry signifiers of positions which are powerful in wider society might actually have a harder time establishing personal authority with the young people as they are treated with suspicion,” Macleod said. “The data on this is weaker and we’re still trying to figure out what it means, but there do seem to be some implications in there for how we select people for the profession.”

How to Show You Care

“Sometimes it is difficult to identify the behaviours that evoke a feeling of care in a student,” write the authors of a 2014 study entitled ‘Caring for Students: What Teachers Have to Say.’ “Therefore, what makes caring a challenging notion is teachers’ understanding of how they should care for their students which may not be congruent with their students’ expectations.”

To gather data for their study, the researchers interviewed teachers, conducted sit-in observations, and asked for self-reflections from teachers at suburban institutions in the southern part of the United States. Campus administrators provided the names of individuals they perceived as caring teachers and briefly explained their choices. The researchers selected four participants who were perceived as being compassionate and had a reputation for establishing nurturing and caring relationships with all students by campus administrators. The participants included an African-American, Hispanic, Korean, and white female educators. Their ages ranged from early 30s to over 65 years old.

The major findings revealed that participants in this study associated caring with the following behaviours:

1. Fostering a sense of belonging

Teachers in this study fostered a sense of belonging by promoting a sense of community, providing positive nonverbal communication (making eye contact and smiling), refraining from nonthreatening verbal communication, conveying a positive disposition toward students, and using proximity to support students.

The educators in the study believed that caring for students included talking directly to students as a group, but more importantly, making individual contact. The conversations between teacher and students were personal in nature rather than about grades, missed assignments, or homework. Statements such as, “Hey, you okay?” “How was your weekend?” and “Is everything going all right with you?” reflect the teacher’s sincere interest in her students. These positive interpersonal behaviours, where teachers spend time talking to students about their personal or social issues, promote a sense of belonging and strengthen a bond between teacher and student.

2. Getting to know students personally

According to the researchers, getting to know students personally refers to knowing about students’ academic, socioeconomic, and social backgrounds. During the interviews, the four teachers expressed that caring was critical for a successful teacher-student relationship. Caring about students extended beyond classroom observation; outside information was gathered to assess student learning needs. “I find out if there are issues affecting students’ learning and I am sensitive to family emergencies when students get behind or fail to complete assignments,” stated one teacher. The teachers also believed that showing concern for the students’ cognitive needs was one way to care for students.

Talking to students about their interests and listening to students are ways to convey a caring ethic . In contrast, students who perceive an uncaring teacher are more likely to be academically distant.

3. Supporting academic success

Teacher behaviors perceived as caring attributes in this theme include verbally communicating high expectations with students, expressing positive statements to encourage student effort, monitoring and assisting students during learning activities, and individualising learning outcomes. If students perceive they can complete a task successfully, they are more likely to continue on task. During the interview, all four teachers expressed that demonstrating caring actions spurred students to greater personal and academic accomplishments.

One teacher expressed that some students are allowed to complete fewer assignments whenever they demonstrate an understanding of the “big picture.” This is an example of differentiating instruction for students to meet their individual academic needs. Rather than requiring a student to meet an assignment quota, the teacher makes an instructional adjustment based on what is academically sound for the child. This behavior enhances the culture for learning by demonstrating to the students that they are cared about and their academic success is a priority. “It is interesting that both teachers and students perceived a focus on student comprehension and academic scaffolding during a teaching episode as forms of caring,” the authors write.

4. Attending to physiological needs

Responding to students’ needs by supplying the necessary resources demonstrates a way to help them feel wanted and nurtured in a safe climate. Places of learning need to become caring communities because “for too many young people, the home is no longer a place of security and love but a battleground where economic and emotional survival is a daily reality.” This last theme reflects the teachers’ moral and ethical commitment to care for their students in ways congruent with their own espoused belief about caring.

5. Knowing students’ names

Earlier this year, Utah State University PhD candidate Andrew S. Larsen published a graduate thesis entitled, “Who Cares? Developing a Pedagogy of Caring in Higher Education.” Interviewing twenty university students and ten professors, Larsen was able to identify the following eight measures of caring as most important in a higher education setting. The first was knowing students’ names.

“When you know a student’s name, you’re saying to them that you’ve made an investment in them,” says sociology professor Faith Johnson, who was part of Larsen’s study. “You’ve expended a little time and effort on their behalf. And that effort breaks out a chunk of the wall that initially stands between professor and student.”

6. Displaying care and concern during office hours

“I try to have an open-door policy as much as possible,” says economics professor Thurber, who was also part of Larsen’s study. “I communicate to students that they can come and visit me any time, and when I hand back assignments and papers I invite students to come and see me.” He also says he uses the time as an opportunity to get to know students personally. “It’s the best time to do that. During office hours you can build confidence, give one-on-one assistance, and encourage students.”

7. Knowing and understand students

When professors reach out to students by showing genuine interest in their lives, Larsen says, those students perceive care. Professors who ask questions about students’ lives, show interest in what interests them, and seek to know them better display the kinds of relation building behaviours that foster perceived care.

Attempts don’t need to be elaborate; they can be as simple as uttering the four words, “Tell me about yourself.” Whether it happens before course time, after course time, in person, or through e-mail, it still makes an impact. One student, Susan, told Larsen “A caring professor will communicate and ask questions about you…’What’s your major?’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘How are you liking the course?’ Caring professors are genuinely interested in your life your opinions, your overall view of your education process, and especially your feelings about how things are going in the course.”

8. Creating interesting and applicable lessons

Students perceive care when professors extend extra effort to make their lessons and lectures applicable, engaging, and meaningful. “To me, caring happens when a professor enables me to learn and grow in a way that is most conducive to my learning style,” Rosa, a family sciences student, told Larsen. “A good teacher can show you how the subject directly relates to you and where you’re headed.”

9. Addressing student concerns during course time

“When a professor will put their lesson on pause in order to ensure understanding or give an example to help a student understand,” said another student, Leigh, “I noticed those times and felt the professor cared for the [students] when he did that.” Other students mentioned how important it is for teachers to make students feel comfortable asking questions and expressing concerns in the first place: “They make sure you feel comfortable in sharing what’s on your mind and you know that your questions or problems are important to them.”

10. Expressing care verbally

Professors at times feel awkward about expressing care verbally. “No professor wants to come off as forward or inappropriate, so we sometimes err in the other direction,” says Professor Thurber, who has been teaching economics for over thirty years. “We make our caring efforts too difficult to detect at times because we don’t want to create an awkward feeling in class.”

But despite the risk, Thurber told Larsen that he noticed students responded very positively when he explained to them that he cared and wanted them to succeed. “They sit up and take notice. There’s a change that comes over their faces when they feel I really mean what I’m saying, that I care, and that I will do whatever I can to help them. I haven’t had a negative reaction yet.”

11. Expressing care non-verbally

Kristen, a freshman majoring in biology, puts it this way: “Little things professors do contribute to the way a class feels…It’s in the way that they speak, for example. There’s a change in tone, an excitement that comes through in the way they speak. And they look at you in the eye. I had a professor who actually tapped a kid sitting next to me who was on his phone and said, ‘I need you to look at me when I’m talking so I can understand if you’re understanding or not.’ I thought that was cool.”

Smiling and eye contact were repeatedly mentioned by students during interviews and journal recording, Larsen says. In addition, tone of voice that implied enthusiasm, excitement, and enjoyment promoted perceived care for students.

12. Projecting a “feeling of care”

Several of Larsen’s student participants noted in journal entries and interviews that they perceived care when they experienced an emotional aspect–a “feeling”–that existed within their learning environment. Joe, a junior studying biochemistry, explains: “Students can feel when a professor cares for them. You can feel when [a professor] is really interested in you as a person…You can actually almost measurably feel their desire to help you and because of that you want to do better in the [course].”

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