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Fondness or dislike, respect or a sense of injustice – schools, like theatres, are places where spectacles are performed daily. Teachers and students play assigned roles. The problem is that sometimes they do not play well. The good news is that parents can join in the game and improve the script, says Doctor Marta Majorczyk, educator and family counselor from SWPS University.

“What happens at school is like a theatre play”, wrote Andrzej Janowski, Polish educator and former Deputy Minister of Education, in his book Uczeń w teatrze życia szkolnego (Pupil in the theatre of school life). Teachers and students are actors, the classroom is the stage, theatre wings include washrooms, the smoking zone behind the school, the playground, the teachers’ room and school hallways. A relationship based on the mutual perception, communication and personal attractiveness develops between the actors.

Perception is defined as acquiring information through one’s senses, while communication is understood as sending information from one place to another. People communicate via verbal and non-verbal cues, i.e. by physical contact, gestures, body language, appearance, and orientation movements, such as taking a specific position in a room. They also use paralinguistic aspects of speech, such as accent. Interpersonal attractiveness means a positive attitude towards another person, which Professor Bogdan Wojciszke defines as fondness (liking somebody and a willingness to spend time with this person) and respect (admiration and seeking approval of this person).

Research shows that in teaching a good relationship between teachers and students is most important. It develops when students are subjects and teachers treat them as individuals. These conditions are not finite. Relationships need to be nurtured and developed on proper basis.

The roots of fondness and antipathy

Fondness for teachers stems from various factors, such as the frequency of contact and teachers’ attitude towards the students as well as the teachers’ character traits and a degree of resemblance to the students. If you look at each of these factors separately, it becomes obvious that it is not easy for teachers to gain students’ acceptance.

Positive feelings, just like negative feelings, between teachers and students are influenced by the frequency of interaction. If students spend a lot of time with the teachers who have sparked positive emotions, there is a probability that the fondness will grow proportionally to the number of interactions. It also works the other way around. If the students do not like the teacher from the start, most likely their interactions will strengthen negative feelings.

What happens when the feelings are neutral? If the teacher does not do something that would tip the scales towards dislike, frequent interactions will increase positive feelings towards the teacher. It is the result of the mere-exposure effect: the more frequently people are exposed to something, the more they like it. A mere recognition of a person or a thing, sparks positive feelings. Additionally, the mechanism of reducing uncertainty comes into play. The frequent interactions gradually decrease the feeling of uncertainty, which in turn is conducive to the development of positive feelings.

Most popular teacher?

Teachers play their roles in different ways. It is visible in their authoritarian or liberal management of the classroom, in their attitudes towards students, their perception of student behaviors, in the way they teach their subject or in their preferred teaching methods. Research shows that students most value the following characteristics of their teachers:

  • ability to teach (explain clearly, provide examples and are well organized)
  • “deep” understanding of the subject they teach (are able to point out most important issues, differentiate between important and unimportant things and are able to link situations that spontaneously occur in the classroom with the subject they teach)
  • overall behavior (cheerful, gentle, patient and not easily irritated)
  • pro-student attitude (friendly, supportive and open to interactions with students)
  • genuine interest and understanding of students
  • impartiality (no favorite students) and fairness in grading.

The teacher-student relationship is all about maximum gain. For teachers, positive educational results are important. For students, apart from good grades, gaining practical knowledge and support, having a good time in the classroom and interesting conversations are crucial. Each of the actors pursues a different gain, therefore the same characteristic of a teacher may be perceived as positive by some students and as neutral or even a negative by others.

Whether the teachers are liked or not depends not only on their good characteristics, but also on their flaws. Here, the negativity bias, i.e. the tendency to assess someone or something based on the negative rather than positive information, comes into play. For example, if students find out that the math teacher likes to joke, explains the subject well, but is unfair, the last characteristic triggers a warning, because it is a potential threat to students’ interests.

The final assessment and attitude towards the teacher stem from the student’s balance of gains and losses. However, that’s not all. Whether students consider a specific character trait of the teacher as a positive or negative depends on the context in which they develop a relationship with the educator. Students tend to like their teachers more if the teachers are similar to them, at least to some degree. The similarity rule refers not only to character traits, but also to habits, likes and dislikes, gestures, views, attitudes and opinions. Psychologists C.R. Snyder and H.L. Fromkin have shown that we tend to most like people who are moderately similar to ourselves, while we tend to dislike people who are very much like ourselves or very different than us. Close likeness threatens the need to maintain one’s individuality.

Many adults assume that learning is a duty and children should not be rewarded for this activity. Nothing could be more wrong. Children should know that grown ups see and appreciate their efforts.

The power of positive support

Many adults assume that learning is a duty and children should not be rewarded for this activity. Nothing could be more wrong. Children should know that grown ups see and appreciate their efforts, are happy with their achievements and understand that children may be tired. It is especially important, because bad grades in school often do not provide additional justification. Students do not understand why they received bad grades, what they can change and improve. Additionally, if the teacher who gave the bad grade is known not to like the student, there is a tendency to perceive the grade as unjust and unfounded and the child begins to feel resentment. This may lead to anxiety, withdrawal and sometimes even aggression.

If teacher’s feedback is too formal, for example “student interrupts the class” or if the feedback lacks emotional engagement, for example “Smith, you’ve been lucky this time”, instead of “Jack, you have passed. Congratulations!”, students feel objectified in school. Dehumanization, regardless of age, triggers rebellion and protest. In adolescence, it also sparks the feelings of revenge, usually taken on helpless teachers or weaker kids.

Parental coaching

The analysis of teachers’ work, the assessment of the child’s negative opinions about the teacher and support for the child are obvious rights of the parents. However, it should be done constructively and gently. Therefore, parents should neither share their critical opinions about the teacher with the children nor solve disputes in the presence of the child. Such behaviors weaken the authority of the teacher and may negatively impact the relationship with the child. Everyone needs time to get to know the other person. Teachers, who must get to know many students, their learning style and behaviors, need this time even more. We should afford them this time.

Parents should also remember that children behave in one way at home, defiantly when they are on their own and still differently when they are in a group of their peers in the classroom. In the process of developing a good relationship between the teacher and the student, the task of the parents is to support both parties rather than hinder the progress. Therefore, the parents should actively listen to their child’s stories related to the teacher and by this try to understand the problem, the needs and the emotions of the child.

Active listening helps the child to understand where his or her negative feelings towards the teacher come from, encourages the child to think independently, helps to diagnose the problem independently and to find his or her own constructive solutions. This method also helps to strengthen the parent-child relationship, because it allows the parent to understand the child as a separate individual and at the same time it ensures readiness to support the child if the situation escalates. Another good side of active listening is that the child is more open to the views and opinions of the parents. It is also conducive to the development of independence and the sense of responsibility for oneself.

Parents may also apply the coaching model for goal setting and problem solving, GROW (G - goal, R - reality, O - obstacles/options, W - way forward). This method is focused on problem solving and does not require coaching competencies or knowledge of psychology.


The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 3/18”
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About the Author

Marta Majorczyk, Ph.D. - Marta Majorczyk, Ph.D. - educator, academic teacher with extensive experience, family counselor at Niepubliczna Poradnia Pychologiczno-Pedagogiczna Uniwersytetu SWPS (Private Education and Psychology Clinic by SWPS University in Poznań).