Likeable People and Effective Teachers

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“Too many people succumb to the mistaken belief that being likeable comes from natural, unteachable traits that belong only to a lucky few—the good looking, the fiercely social, and the incredibly talented. It’s easy to fall prey to this misconception. In reality, being likeable is under your control, and it’s a matter of emotional intelligence (EQ).” ~Travis Bradbury in Forbes.

Some readers may balk at this, but if we substitute “an effective teacher” for “likeable” the  article in Forbes could have been a piece about the behaviors of emotionally intelligent teachers in The Teaching Professor newsletter.  Here’s what I mean:

Too many people succumb to the mistaken belief that being an effective teacher comes from natural, unteachable traits that belong only to a lucky few—the good looking, the fiercely social, and the incredibly talented. It’s easy to fall prey to this misconception. In reality, being an effective teacher is under your control, and it’s a matter of emotional intelligence (EQ).

The Forbes article discusses 13 habits of likeable (emotionally intelligent) people:

  1. They ask questions
  2. They put away their phones
  3. They are genuine
  4. They don’t pass judgment
  5. They don’t seek attention
  6. They are consistent
  7. They use positive body language
  8. They leave a strong first impression
  9. They greet people by name
  10. They smile
  11. They know when to open up
  12. They know who to touch (and they touch them)
  13. They balance passion and fun

These habits also characterize the behaviors of effective teachers who:

Ask questions. EQ teachers ask questions about more than content. They want to get to know their students. They want to discover what their students already know and their interests.

Pay attention. When students work up the courage to visit during office hours, EQ teachers give undivided attention. EQ teachers focus on students, particularly as they are entering the classroom.  The emotionally intentional teacher gets there early to spend time socializing as students arrive. (Contrast this with the teacher behind the podium looking over notes or quickly dashing off a text or email in the moments before class starts.)

Are genuine. EQ instructors share some personal details and anecdotes to move students from seeing the teacher as a vague figurehead to connecting with a real person. Know when to open up. It’s said that timing is everything. Shared personal information should fit the context. Stories and personal history should advance learning or establish connection, not just act as filler.

Judge product, not people. Teachers spend a lot of time evaluating student work. EQ teachers recognize that many students are dealing with financial issues, work or family stress, relationship concerns, health problems, learning disabilities, or other hidden challenges. EQ doesn’t mean low academic standards or “anything goes.” It means evaluating work while having empathy for students. Accepting a student’s circumstance doesn’t mean condoning poor choices, it means being understanding.

Share attention. EQ teachers share attention by ceding some control. This is can be done by seeking student input about content, assignments, assessments, or scheduling. Shared decision-making motivates. It’s a signal to students that they are active participants and share responsibility in learning.

Are consistent. EQ teachers avoid surprises. Rubrics minimize surprises by making expectations explicit. Clearly define standards of assessment, structure class meetings, and provide a calendar. These strategies promote consistency by helping students meet expectations and deadlines.

Use immediacy behaviors. Smile. Learn student names. There’s a vast body of literature on teacher immediacy and student learning. Immediacy behaviors include making eye contact, smiling, calling students by name, moving around the room (physical proximity), using collective pronouns like we/our, and allowing sufficient wait time after asking a question. Miller, Katt, Brown & Sivo (2014) find 20% of uncivil student behavior is explained by teacher behaviors. Not an overwhelming percentage, but large enough that teachers should consider the ways their behavior may exacerbate incivility in their classes.

Make a positive first impression. Similar to immediacy, much has been written about first day of class strategies and first impressions. Faculty Focus has several good resources: First Impressions; Advice for the First Day; Five Things to do on the First Day; First Day & Climate for Learning.

Touch emotionally, not physically. Like immediacy, humor and strong emotions are powerful forces in gaining and maintaining student interest. Effective teachers incorporate them strategically because we remember and retain that which surprises or moves us.

Balance passion & fun. Are you having fun? Do you love your discipline? Can students see, hear, or otherwise sense your enthusiasm? Some courses are required. That doesn’t mean these courses have to be dull. I’m not suggesting teachers need to entertain, but teacher enthusiasm does advance learning by promoting interest. In the words of Mary Poppins :

  • A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
  • In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.

EQ and being likeable is less about being “nice” than about being professionally effective. To be a likeable teacher doesn’t mean being a pushover. High standards and likability aren’t mutually exclusive. Teacher EQ behaviors address the relational aspects of teaching to promote student learning.  These habits can be developed through practice. Effective, likeable, high-EQ teachers aren’t born, they’re made.


Ann Neville Miller, James A. Katt, Tim Brown & Stephen A. Sivo (2014) The Relationship of Instructor Self-Disclosure, Nonverbal Immediacy, and Credibility to Student Incivility in the College Classroom. Communication Education, 63:1, 1-16, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2013.835054




About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on January 20, 2016, in Learning, Professional Development, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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