‘Authentic’ teachers are better at engaging with their students.

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Teachers who have an authentic teaching style are more positively received by their students, according to new research published in the journal, Communication Education. The ideas that the researchers have come up with have a great deal of relevance to how business leaders should manage.

What the researchers say: To achieve a more authentic style, teachers should use time before and after class to converse with students, allow opportunity to share experiences, and view teaching as an opportunity for dialogue between themselves and their students. This is something most corporate leaders could learn. However, to be truly authentic, teachers should enact such behaviors only so far as their personality and demeanor naturally allow, say the study’s authors.

Around 300 college students were questioned about their perceptions of authentic and inauthentic teacher behavior and communication. Responses indicated that authentic teachers were seen as approachable, passionate, attentive, capable, and knowledgeable, while inauthentic teachers were viewed as unapproachable, lacking passion, inattentive, incapable, and disrespectful.

Authentic teachers showed a willingness to share details of their life, and displayed elements of their humanity by telling personal stories, making jokes, and admitting mistakes. They also demonstrated care and compassion toward students by recognizing them as individuals and attending to their needs both academically and personally, for example, by emailing those absent from class due to illness to ask how they were.

According to the authors, “Our participants made it clear that a teacher’s efforts to view themselves and their students as individuals had a lasting impact. The process of teaching authentically need not be more complicated than making simple and direct statements regarding the level of concern and care that a teacher holds for their students.

“Our implication is not simply that teachers should engage in limitless amounts of self-disclosure. Rather, by making efforts to engage with students beyond their expected roles in the classroom, teachers can greatly impact students’ perceptions of them and their course.”

Students report higher levels of learning and deeper understanding in learning experiences described as authentic. Perhaps more importantly, at-risk students are positively impacted by teachers they perceive as authentic in their communication. By teaching authentically, teachers may create more meaningful experiences and deeper learning for all students in a variety of settings and across disciplines, the authors conclude.

Lead author Johnson also commented, “This research indicated that students do pay attention to the messages we send about ourselves in the classroom, and that their perception of those messages seem to play an important role in how they connect to the content of the course. Further, our findings suggest that we must attempt to be thoughtful when presenting our true self; not dishonest or antithetical to our real self, but rather cognizant of how students might perceive our actions. Overall, authentic communication appears to be a critical component of meaningful communication in multiple contexts.”

So what? Obviously from this what makes an authentic teacher also makes an authentic leader in any sphere. If a teacher can get greater learning from his or her students by being “authentic” then a business leader can get better value from his or her followers by the same authenticity. Much of what the authors call being authentic is similar to what would be called a “transformational leadership style” in corporate circles.

In either case the essence of it is that a teacher, like any leader, has to be a good parent and encourage, rather than force, learning or productivity.

What now? The message of this study is clear, but it goes against modern management practice (though not management theory). Management must stop seeing employees as merely computers-in-waiting and see them as human beings with social, economic, emotional and psychological needs. These needs are not difficult for a good leader to meet and with a bit of training most can get there. But even good leaders are sometimes trapped by the economic and other demands of outside stakeholders and this is often where the problem lies.

The job of a leader, like that of a parent, is, above all, to defend his or her followers and that is that is not happening. Defending them does not just mean making sure that they have security of employment. It means looking after the other, more intangible, needs as well. Like any good parent, or teacher, would.