The Likability Factor: Do students have to like you to learn from you?

As I was watching an interview with Mike Marzio of Real English and Sarah Lilburn of The Daily English Show, I was prompted to give thought to the role a teacher’s likability plays in the learning process. The host of the interview, Jeff Lebow of EFL Bridges, asked his guests to give advice to others who are considering making their own instructional videos. Sarah, one of the first to go online with original ESL/ EFL videos, encouraged educators to make what they want and what they believe in. Someone is bound to like it and find it useful. Those are courageous words, because when a teacher like Sarah infuses her personality into an educational video, its success as an instructional tool largely depends on likability. Viewers want to learn from what they watch. They watch what they like. Fact: No one person can be liked by everyone. Luckily, Sarah has achieved a successful mix of personality and instructional content. Her solid following proves this.

In the online world of ESL/ EFL instruction, students today have such a wide choice of sources. Naturally, they gravitate toward the providers they like, but both Mike and Sarah confirmed that it’s not possible to win over all visitors to their channels. I myself have told viewers who are not overly supportive of (much less enthusiastic about) my work on YouTube that one advantage of the medium is that they can stop a video halfway through and look for another channel that is more to their liking. There is no offense in doing this (unless they post harsh criticism before leaving the web page). This contrasts with the classroom experience, where student behavior is regulated by etiquette, and one cannot simply stand up and walk out without causing disruption. Even so, no instructor either in a classroom or online is made happy by the fact that a student doesn’t like him or her.

So how much should we be concerned about our students liking us? Is it petty to think about this, or is the question relevant to the learning outcome?

I’ll continue this discussion in my next posting.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Eric Roth says:

    First, your essay and your poll ask very different questions. Your asks “Do your students have to like you to learn?” The answer, clearly and empirically, remains a definitive no. Students respect and learn from many teachers they do not “like”. Remember the old American TV series about law school called Paper Chase?

    Your poll, however, asks a far more meaningful and nuanced question: Does a teacher’s likability play a role in the learning process?
    And, of course, likability does play a role – especially among the less serious, casual English students who might be forced to study our strange, difficult, and misspelled language. If students like an English teacher – and they must attend a course, then the “popularity” of a teacher makes a huge difference. In fact, many private language school administrators and many parents might believe this is the most important criteria. Further, likability matters in optional self-learning situations such as YouTube video presentations. Viewers will vote with their clickers – just as adult students vote with their feet.
    Yet wiser, and more serious, English language learners will focus on the teacher’s knowledge and effectiveness. “What can I learn from a teacher?” is a far healthy question than “do I like my teacher?”
    Substance, in short, matters.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Hello, Eric, and thank you for posting your comment. You make some important points. For example, some people prioritize likability when selecting a private school. You’ll see in my follow-up posting that I agree with many of your ideas.

      Yes, the two questions are not exactly the same, but I see the second as an extension of the first. I wanted to start with a simpler question to gain readers attention. The first leads into a discussion of the YouTube experience, and I planned for the second one (on the poll) to help me shift the focus to the classroom experience, what more teachers can relate to. I didn’t want to state my own opinion before others had the chance to voice theirs. I had hoped to use the poll to get readers thinking a bit more deeply about how exactly likability affects learning.

      As with any tool, it takes a little practice to become skillful, so have mercy on me if I led you or anyone else astray with my poll quesiton.🙂 It was my first time to include one on this blog. I’m hoping the next one will be effective. I’ll place it at the end of my follow-up posting. My goal in asking how much other teachers are concerned about their likability is to make voters reflect on their degree of concern about this issue. (I’m also curious to see if my own level of concern matches that of the majority.)

      Please consider posting an additional comment after the second half goes public. I appreciate the thought you put into your first comment.

  2. Hi, Jennifer,
    I was once told by a mother that her daughter had not got good grades in the final tests because she did not like me and I was not her pop star. I did not play the guitar in the classroom like the previous teacher used to do.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Ouch. Comments like that can hurt. We teachers do have feelings, but remember that learning is a two-way street. Both the teacher and the student are responsible. That young woman was responsible for her own learning to a degree. Did she give your teaching style a chance to work? Was she open to your instruction? I certainly don’t feel you have to take guitar lessons to make a student happy, but bringing in a video or audio recording of a song from an artist or group she likes and making that song a part of one lesson could be one way to reach such a student. My basic advice remains the same: Teach your very best and remember to teach from the heart as much as from the mind. Most students will appreciate this and respect this even if you don’t end up being one of their favorite teachers.

  3. Eric Roth says:

    Excellent responses. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    BTW, those YouTube videos are. very popular and effective with my students.

  4. Wonderful issues altogether, you simply gained a emblem new reader. What would you suggest in regards to your publish that you simply made a few days ago? Any sure?

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