When do young students perceive a teacher as authentic? This was the main question of our research that Tom Vermeylen and myself conducted at the Artevelde Hogeschool (University College of Ghent). Our research has shown that the main thing pupils want to do in school is of course: learn, but there is more.
Why is this question so important?
As many sources have already shown (one being ‘How Cool Brands Stay Hot’) authenticity has become one of the main selection criteria for information. The concept of information authenticity has gained importance in this age of information overload. We dispose of so many sources to pick from, so we tend to choose the channels that we perceive as most authentic. Since school nowadays is only just one of the many information sources of students, what are the things that make a teacher authentic?
In education, we have already known for quite a while that authenticity is important in communicating with pupils. But it’s much more rare to actually find proper descriptions of what “being authentic” actually means to them.
How we did it?
In our research we did in-depth interviews with pupils aged 15 to 19. After thorough analyses we tested our results both in focus groups and with several experts.
In the interviews we asked respondents to describe the 3 main elements that form a good teacher. We also wanted them to choose the most important of the three.
What we’ve found
First of all, almost all student respondents had problems understanding the word ‘authenticity’, but saw it as important when given the synomym ‘real’.
We discovered 4 distinct criteria that pupils use to perceive teachers as being authentic:
- The knowledge of their topic as main criterion. A fake teacher is one who doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. Even when pupils picked authenticity as most important element of their teachers, they explicitely linked this concept to the teacher’s knowledge of his/her class topic.
- Passion. A very important second criterion. Pupils translated it as: relating classes to the current context and news and being up-to-date. They need to feel that teachers are constantly involved both in their own topics and teaching.
- Uniqueness. They want a unique experience and want to be approached as a unique individual in a unique class setting. Teachers making the same jokes or comments in every class will easily see their perception of being authentic damaged, since pupils from different class exchange experiences on the playground.
- Distance. Don’t stand so close to me… Pupils don’t want a teacher to be their friend. They do want a teacher to be interested in their life, asking if everything is fine in informal moments, but on the other hand they want the teaching staff to be prudent in sharing his or her own personal background. They don’t want to know the family troubles or leisure activities of their teachers.
It seems that when pupils evaluate their teachers, a lot has to do with the authenticity of the role rather than authenticity of the person. Everything is based on expectations. You are authentic as a teacher if your actions concur with the expectations pupils have of the profession of teaching, and in the end it means they want to learn something from an expert who’s passionate about his job and topic and can relate to their lives.