The Importance of Connections and Role Models in Education

I have long debated writing this blog as it felt like it was a topic that feels somewhat out of place within an educational context. Thinking about our role as teachers, does not necessarily manifest in the classroom in the same way as a blog on metacognition, or feedback may. It also may not be as apparent a factor when evaluating performance of students, nor something that we find ourselves willing to critique ourselves on. But, as I find myself re-reading thank you cards from my year 11s, it made me think about how my role as their teacher has impacted on their education.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a role model as “a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated”. Our role as teachers aims to serve this purpose; we are the adults with subject knowledge that we impart to our students to enable them to gain cultural capital and pass their exams.

Modelling has been shown to be highly effective in how our students learn, whether that’s through use of various methods such as “I, we, you” modelling or modelling behaviours through metacognition.

However, despite our use of modelling for an academic purpose, it can be understated how much our behaviour as an adult figure in our students’ lives can impact how they see the world. Our students are constantly observing our behaviour, not only in how we teach or understand a concept, but through the way we interact with each other, the way we hold ourselves, our practices, and mannerisms.  For many of our students, besides parental figures, we are the adults that they see most regularly, as a result we are also responsible for the behaviours they pick up. With greater use of social media and technology, students are finding more behaviours to emulate from sources online. As Bozeman says: “One key characteristic is that this generation (Generation Z) does not know or remember a time before social media, and as a result, they tend to live their lives “online.”  This has profound implications for everything from their relationships to how they learn through virtual reality training and problem-solving.”

“We must acknowledge . . . that the most important, indeed the only, thing we have to offer our students is ourselves. Everything else they can read in a book.” D C Tosteson

It is my belief that simple things can help nurture valuable relationships with our students and help us become the role models we believe them to be. In a blog post by Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman she outlines some of these as 7 characteristics of a positive role model.  Here are a few that I feel are particularly important to me:

Transparency and the truth: Often students do not have the foresight to understand why certain rules and actions have been put in place. We tell students that they have to wear certain pieces of uniform, but do we understand why beyond “that’s what the school rules are”.  Do they not deserve to understand a uniform is an important part of the workplace? That their uniform serves as an equaliser? That often the consequences of poor presentation are serious within employment? Or that a piece of work while it may not be what they need to learn for later in life will teach them skills or give them the foundational knowledge they need to succeed. We as adults would not be satisfied if a doctor prescribed us a medication without explaining why we are required to take it. Students deserve a similar level of respect, they are not cattle being processed, but a garden being tended to.

Be yourself: My students fully understand that I am not cool. Nor do I have any real desire to be. My taste in sunglasses or Cardigans often give students ammunition to comment on my fashion sense. I often teach using stories from my life and anecdotes that give a window into my world.  It normalises the idea that I don’t need approval from others (an especially important message for teenagers to learn given the rise of social media). It has enabled students to see that I am more than an authority figure that I exist beyond my classroom, and I often find students with similar interests, that I can use to engage with their world.

Apologise: There is a simple power in humility, and nothing more so than the ability to apologise. Apologies are wonderful ways of showing vulnerability and understanding, especially to students who may not have heard an adult apologise to them. Normalise making mistakes but even more valuably normalise the ability to understand opportunities to grow and develop, by showing students that you made a mistake and plan on rectifying it. It also gives student an importance lesson in forgiveness and compassion.

Show respect: It is my belief that respect is earned but one must be respectful to be worthy of respect. We tell students that they have to respect each other and teachers, but often we can forget to show them the respect. Teaching is a partnership between student and teacher, the best student in the world cannot hope to achieve their best with a subpar teacher, and similarly the best teacher in the world will struggle to teach a demotivated student. How are we to teach students to value respect if they have not been shown it themselves?

Acknowledge your own growth and vulnerabilities: One of the biggest struggles my students face with their mental health is the isolation they often feel from it. Students never seem to understand that their problems are not as rare as they think, nor are they the only people who have ever felt the way they do. I have always tried to not shy away from difficult conversations about these. In a recent assembly I did, I talked about my own personal experiences with grief and bereavement, but also in with culture, religion and identity. The catharsis it provided for me helped me to see my own insecurities, but also showed students that I am growing as a person too.  This adult, almost double their age, has not got it figured out, so neither should they, despite pressures and expectations, they are still children. We celebrate diversity through celebrating the individual journeys that everyone has undergone through life. Rises and falls. By showing students your own vulnerabilities, we can give them the inspiration and strength to face their own. Giving them opportunity to see adults, who they fathom as impenetrable bastions of stability, we can provide them the opportunity to find adults they can identify with, adults that understand them as a person, who will have had similar struggles, while also potentially knowing the small advices and stories to help them through their problems.

For especially our disadvantaged students they need to understand that there are adults that are there to help them succeed and want to see them become the best versions of themselves. While we should avoid painting them all disadvantaged (or any students) with the same brush, there is a very real possibility that there are students within our care that have not had adults to give them the support and undeniable faith that they deserve. For one of my students this support came in the form of just having a room to do homework in, as their home is especially crowded with no real space to do work quietly. I wasn’t even required for help, they just wanted a quiet space. Or understanding a student’s dietary requirements so that when you buy emergency breakfasts for those students who skipped breakfast panicking before their exams, you are there for them. Students with low self-efficacy require us to help nurture it within them. During my own schooling I would have been given many of the titles that students with barriers to their learning may have. Pupil Premium, free school meals, and have English as an additional language, and yet I can attempt to be a role model for those who may not have the best starts already.

The caveat to this is that there must still be clear boundaries between ourselves and the students, that the best gift we can give them is opportunity, success, and unequivocal faith in their own ability to succeed. Even our most difficult students feel a connection towards us and often it is the only connection they have. As Rita Pierson in her excellent TEDed talk says “Every child deserves a champion.” I admit I have my own room to grow and develop as a person, an educator, and blog writer. But I hope the high expectations I carry for my students will serve them well as they transition to the next phases of their lives. Though many of them do not have the desire to pursue Physics, at least I can hope I have prepared them for the rest of their lives.

Fahim Rahman

Science Teacher & Research School Associate

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