The Teacher as Role Model: Using Your Behavior to Help Students Succeed

Not only do our students watch us, but eventually they begin to act like us. And the students are always watching.

Being a role model is more than a side effect of our teaching: It’s the root of why we need to always be “on” in the classroom. Though role modeling in general means behaving the way you’d like others to behave, it means something more in the classroom because your behavior (and life experience) can show students how to become successful learners.

Teachers who are role models can help students figure out how to solve difficult problems.Remember — schools are primarily academic institutions where students need to leave our classrooms with a greater capacity for learning. You can become an excellent academic role model for students if you try these tips:

Talk about your academic history

You didn’t become a teacher by accident. Tell your students what your academic history was like, warts and all. Some of the best teachers struggled mightily in school until the day that things just clicked — and they began to live up to their potential.

Aside from sharing your memories, talk about what you did to succeed. This may have included skipping some social occasions to stay in and study, learning how to prioritize your time and reaching out for help when you were stuck. Don’t underestimate your power as a resource here.

Don’t avoid discussing your struggles

School won’t always be a breeze for your students. Eventually, they’ll run into a teacher or course that will challenge them. Speak at length about that moment when school was the most difficult, and how you overcame those hurdles.

Emphasize that while students are surrounded by resources and help, most of them don’t reach out for that help when tough times come. On the other side, share your good experiences. Speak of the teachers who inspired and helped you to be a better student.

Remind them you’re a resource

Strive to help your students see you as someone they can turn to for help. As a teacher, I rarely took lunch in the teacher’s room. Instead, I ate in my classroom (there was always grading to be done), and students were welcome to eat in my room, too.

Often these informal lunches gave students the opportunity to receive extra help, and to learn it’s OK to ask for guidance. Half the battle in being seen as a resource for your students is to be open and available at the moment when they need the help.

Point in the right direction (if needed)

It’d be foolish to think that you’re the ultimate and only help for your students. If a child needs more help than you can provide as a role model or a resource, help connect them to someone who can.

You may have to walk them to someone’s office and make a personal introduction, and perhaps even stay for the initial conversation. Being a role model means children will trust your guidance and look to you for support.

Listen closely and don’t tell

Half the time, people can figure out a problem just by talking about it. While you may be tempted to offer direct advice, it’s wiser to enable students to arrive at a solution on their own.

Ask questions that encourage them to think deeper about what’s giving them trouble, and have them formulate a personal response. When you have a personal experience, pass that along to the student, and let them know how your situation played out. Rather then tell them what to do, be the guide who helps them learn how to solve the problem if it comes up again.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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