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Teachers’ self-perceptions and what students see

October 28, 2007

Hello again,

I have you ever experienced the feeling that, while some students really react well to you, others seem to have a negative response? It may seem puzzling...

... because as a teacher you believe your behaviour and teaching style are consistent and yet these attributes don’t always appear to fit the students’ expectations. As in life, so in the classroom. You don’t hit it off with everyone you meet and the same holds true for your relationship with learners. But is there anything you can do to lessen the chance of a poor reaction?

You are probably familiar with the Johari window; it is a useful tool for thinking about how you see yourself and how others see you. The window has four panes. The top two represent what you reveal of yourself. The left pane is what you know about yourself and reveal to others. The right pane represents what others see but that you are not aware of showing. The bottom two panes represent what is hidden. The left pane shows what you know about yourself but keep hidden from others and the right pane is that part of you that is hidden both from yourself and from others.

When you think about how your students see you, you probably think only about the left, top pane. But remember students will see more than that. For example, if you are somebody who routinely hands out praise or criticism, sincerity will be essential. If you do this as a mere reflex, the students will pick up the fact that you don’t really mean what you say. To get a clearer view of how students see you and how much you see of yourself, you could initiate discussions about what students expect and like in teachers. You can tell them your expectations of students. By exchanging views, both you and the learners can increase not just the level of understanding between you but also the clarity with you view each other. Of course a certain level of trust is needed before you disclose personal views, and it is probably best to do it in a structured way. You could devise a questionnaire: five things I like teachers to do; five things I don’t like; five questions I would like to ask my teachers and so forth. You could do the same for learners.

Of course those parts of yourself that you like to keep hidden or that you are unaware of require more sensitive handling. Let us say, for example that a teacher is gay. It may be inappropriate in the context of the school and the place to acknowledge that. And everybody is entitled to their privacy. You may therefore wish to set boundaries for what your students may ask: no religion, no sex, no politics: that kind of thing. And as for the parts of yourself you don’t know about, that’s another story. I have recently delved into some rather whacky topics such as Human Design and the Venus Sequence. To my amazement, these analyses have revealed aspects of me that I only suspected and the impact on my life is phenomenal.

What I am suggesting through this post is that perceptions are linked to our behaviour and the subconscious messages we send out. But these factors can all be changed if we are prepared to open up to others and explore what we see and think we see.

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  1. Terri Says:

    This article comes at a time when I have really begun to wonder about how my students perceive me.

    The recent problems of a colleague (due to complaints from students) have caused me to question myself as a teacher. We receive praise from students that goes unnoticed by administrators. Some students admire and appreciate us but never let us know that in concrete terms. On the other hand, if a student is unhappy enough to contact our supervisors, we always hear about it.

    So, my question to you is specifically about the Johari window and how it can be applied with the help of students as opposed to colleagues.

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    I think the first use of the Johari window is simply to reveal to people that we all have this complex mixture of visible and invisible qualities. In using it with students I would first pair them and ask them to do an exercise in which they complete the window for themselves as far as possible and then share aspects with their partner. They need not share anything they wish to keep private. You may need to prepare the ground by teaching personal traits and qualities, or brainstorming them.

    From there, when you feel they have grasped the idea of how perception is highly subjective, you might move to a discussion about teachers and ask them what they look for and respect in teachers and what they dislike. You could do the same for students. You could then say that you like students to make any complaints to you personally before going above your head. But making it personal to you is tricky and you would have to judge for yourself whether this is something you could do or not.

  1. David Says:


    There is also the cultural background of students that influences their perceptions of teachers.

    In many Chinese schools, ESL teachers are often viewed as comic relief - a time for students to lay back and not challenge themselves. Many students expect to be entertained because they view foreign teachers as being more lively,easy-going and less strict than their own Chinese teachers.

    Now, when a foreign teacher does not fully fit this view there is some disappointment and quite often resistance on the part of students.

    Does a teacher in this case change his methodology to appease students or hope that students will later see the value of his approach.

    Especially now that many private schools in China and some public ones - are asking students to rate teachers - and bonuses (and sometimes longer contracts) are given if the ratings are good - there is the conflict of what students think is right vs what the teacher thinks is right

  1. Serge Says:

    I absolutely agree on what David said. A foreign teacher is expected to be a little wacky even if he's not. So the perception of that comes from general knowlege about foreigners, and not so much from the specific person in question.

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    You raise a thorny problem. I am not sure how free the teachers in this position feel to discuss the issue with students. I certainly think some form of dialogue is needed to allow the teacher to explain his or her approach and what the expected outcomes of such an approach are. I think learning should be enjoyable but a teacher's primary role is not that of entertainer. Perhaps a questionnair followed by discussion might help?

  1. Sophie Says:

    I'm starting to teach ESL, and I know the students will be women from traditional backgrounds, married with children. The first thing they usually want to know about a new teacher, or any new acquaintance (especially female) is how many children she has.

    I don't think it's appropriate for a teacher to say she is gay; it might even create a sort of block between the students and the teacher. The students don't consider it a question about sex, or even a personal one; to them it is very strange that a woman over a certain age should have no children and not be married. Any ideas on how to approach this subject would be appreciated. Thanks!

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Hi Sophie,

    I have experienced similar problems when being asked about my religion. I feel that teachers have a right to their privacy, so of course you do not have to tell them anything you do not wish to disclose.
    So what ar your options? If you say you do not wish to talk about your personal life they will probably feel you have some guilty secret. I suggest you say that you have chosen a teaching career and that you decided some time ago that you wished to remain free to follow the opportunities that arise. Maybe say that you have contact with children (cousins, nieces, nephews, friends' kids) so you don't feel that you are missing out. I don't know how old you are, of course, but another possibility is to say that the right partner hasn't come your way yet!

    As a discussion point at some stage you could raise the issue of how various cultures offer women different views of their roles and choices.

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