The Power of Positive Regard

Can effective teachers learn from the unconditional love of effective parents?

H. Michael Miley / Creative Commons

August 24, 2015

A few months ago, I tagged along with my wife, a middle-school teacher, to a workshop on classroom management presented by the Center for Teacher Effectiveness. The session focused on the center’s "time to teach" theory — the idea that the less time teachers have to spend dealing with disciplinary issues, the more time they’ll have to cover important concepts.

Classroom management is a topic that has long interested me, so I was curious to hear what the presenters had to say and whether it would apply to me as a college instructor. Of course, much of what I heard was more applicable to K-12 teachers. But I was surprised to learn, over lunch, that I was far from the only college professor in attendance. I was also pleased to discover that the seminar offered several useful takeaways for us postsecondary folks on concepts that are just as important in teaching young adults (and older adults) as they are in teaching children.

Foremost among those concepts, and my favorite part of the entire presentation, was what our speakers referred to as "unconditional positive regard," a phrase borrowed from the psychologist Carl Rogers. They argued that effective teachers can learn a great deal from effective parents, who love their children unconditionally. That doesn’t mean letting children get away with anything they want; far from it. It means those parents approach both teaching and discipline from a position of unconditional love, and their children understand that from the outset.

The presenters also weren’t saying that teachers must love their students in the same way, or to the same degree, that parents love their children — only that you are generally more effective as a teacher if your students know, up front, that you care about them as individuals. As the late Madeline Hunter, a pioneering educator, famously put it, "Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Of course creating an atmosphere of positive regard is easier in a fourth-grade classroom of 28, or even in a college writing classroom of 24, than in a crowded lecture hall filled with 500 students. For that reason, this column is aimed primarily at faculty members at community colleges and other teaching-focused institutions, which tend to have small class sizes. However, it might also apply to those who teach upper-division and graduate-level seminars — basically, anyone with a small enough class to get to know all their students by name.

There’s no way I can capture all the good information covered in the workshop in one column, but here are a few key points.

Building trust and rapport. No doubt we all agree that establishing rapport with students is a good idea — if you can pull it off. But I think sometimes we fall into the trap of assuming rapport has to do with personality, as if only teachers who are charismatic or entertaining can really establish rapport with students.

That’s not true. In a 2001 journal article, Wiliam Buskist and Bryan K. Saville defined rapport simply as "an alliance based on trust." Rapport, they wrote, "is a positive emotional connection among students, teacher, and subject matter that emerges from the manner in which the teacher constructs the learning environment."

Educational research shows teachers can build trust and rapport in common-sense ways, for example, by being: available (posting and holding office hours); discreet (keeping sensitive information confidential); fair (treating all students equally, grading equitably, and avoiding favoritism); and benevolent (never doing anything to take advantage of students, make them lose face, or embarrass them). That last one is especially important for college faculty members.

The importance of building trust and rapport cannot be overstated. Numerous K-12 studies have shown that a strong teacher-student connection leads to higher academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. I see no reason why that would not hold true for college classrooms, as well.

Getting to know students. Let’s be honest: Many of us in higher education tend to be a bit stodgy — some by nature and some because we learned it from our professors. I fall into that category myself, at times. We also have very specific ideas about "professionalism" and can be quite meticulous in defining and maintaining clear boundaries between ourselves and our students.

Obviously, a certain amount of caution is necessary, if for no other reason than that we’re adults dealing with other adults (technically, at least), and so the lines can indeed become a bit blurred. But if we’re not careful, we can also use "maintaining professional distance" as an excuse for failing to relate to students in positive and beneficial ways. There may be a natural gulf between us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally reach across that gulf or respond to them when they reach out to us.

One simple way to bridge that divide: Learn students’ names and then use them regularly in and out of class. That should go without saying, but I fear it’s an area where many college teachers fall short, including myself. However, as I’ve made more of an effort to learn and use students’ names, I’ve been amazed at how positively they respond.

Another highly effective strategy involves what the workshop presenters described as "noncontingent interactions." A "contingent interaction" is when what we say to students depends entirely on what they say to us: They greet us and we reply in kind; they ask a question and we answer. A student complains that an assignment is too difficult and I say, "Welcome to college." Those sorts of interactions are a normal part of teaching, taking place dozens of time a day. There’s nothing wrong with any of them (OK, my third example might err on the side of snarky). But when all of your responses are contingent on something students have said, you’re just doing the minimum required of you as a teacher and a human being.

A "noncontingent interaction" is proactive, not reactive. It’s when you reach out to students first — just to ask how they’re doing or to inquire about a problem you’ve noticed — because you care enough to do so. Maybe you can’t do that with every student every day, but you should try it as often as possible. And not just with the friendly, talkative students. It’s especially important to go out of your way to chat with students who are shy, withdrawn, or standoffish. That may help to draw those students out and will prevent you from appearing to have favorites. Your goal here is to help students feel recognized and valued as individuals.

Letting students get to know you. This is something many college faculty members struggle with — either because we don’t want to cross any lines, we don’t want to make the course all about us, or we just value our privacy. Those are all good reasons for proceeding carefully in your interactions with students.

But remember, back when you were in elementary school, the first time you ran into your teacher at the supermarket? Remember how shocked you were to realize that he or she was an actual human being who did the same things other human beings do, like buy groceries? That’s a powerful epiphany. Chances are, you looked at that teacher a little differently afterward. You probably felt slightly more connected.

You may or may not run into your students in the supermarket. But there’s no reason you can’t make some kind of personal connection with them in class — just by using examples from your life to illustrate points in the material. Just don’t go overboard.

I know that for some readers, these suggestions might seem a little too new-agey or touchy-feely. I myself am much closer to "curmudgeon" than "nurturer." But I had been moving in the nurturing direction — toward establishing better rapport with my students — even before I attended this seminar. That was partly for my students’ sake, because I worry about losing them to the many distractions of 21st-century college life. But it was also for my sake, because I was beginning to feel stuck in a rut. I wanted teaching to be fun again, and I thought one way to do that might be to make learning more enjoyable for my students.

Above all, I wanted to create a learning environment like the one Buskist and Saville describe, where "student and teacher unite to achieve course goals." This seminar provided me with some useful tools for doing just that, tools that have worked remarkably well for me as I’ve started to apply them. Anecdotally, my students have become noticeably more engaged, and I’ve seen fewer behavior issues (such as chit-chat or texting during class). Maybe these strategies can have a similar effect in your classroom.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.