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Touching Students' Lives

Published onJun 06, 2023
Touching Students' Lives

In a school setting, the learning of knowledge and skills happens because of the interaction between teachers and students. Teachers typically are in possession of knowledge, whereas students are in need of it. It is often thought that when a teacher showcases their knowledge or skills, the student subsequently learns it. However, learning is not that simple. For effective learning to occur, teachers need to be role models to their students and need to be willing to show students the kind of person they are. It is this authenticity of teachers that this essay will focus on.

Traditional Teaching: Teaching Based on Knowledge

In this essay, I will discuss three models of teaching, the most well-known being the traditional model. The basic idea of the traditional model of teaching is that teachers are the students’ guide to knowledge. Teachers know more than their students and have better skills. Therefore, they have something of value that a student does not have, but that he or she wants to obtain. It is this imbalance of knowledge and skills between a teacher and a student, that makes the student willing to learn from the teacher. Traditionalists view education basically as a transaction between students and teachers. A common teaching practice among traditionalist teachers is one in which the teacher gives instructions to his or her students and students are mostly passive listeners. This teacher-centered method is content-oriented. The teacher is the starting point of this knowledge exchange. The characteristics of the student, his or her motivation, aptitude for learning, and personality are not primarily taken into account. The same goes for the motivation and personality of the teacher.

Interestingly enough, the higher the educational level, the more persuasive traditionalist teaching used to be. Universities traditionally hired candidates that excel at doing research, who are then asked to teach. The standard for reappointment and promotion used to be quality research, and often teaching was not, or only very modestly, taken into account (Zucker, 1996). Unlike teachers at lower levels of education (primary/secondary school) these researchers are not required to have had any didactical training before they start teaching. Apparently, the idea is that people who do well in research, should also be able to transfer this knowledge to their students.

For some researchers, this is undoubtedly true. However, doing research and teaching are two very different skillsets that do not always come together in one and the same person. Moreover, educational researchers have shown that the underlying ‘transfer’ model of teaching is fundamentally flawed, or at the very least too limited to adequately describe and shape teaching practices (Wringe, 2009). Luckily, in the past years, universities have invested in teaching practices which are more in accordance with the science of teaching. Furthermore, recent developments show that universities are becoming more interested in attracting employees with a diverse set of skills. Tilburg University for instance now focuses on a program called ‘Recognition and Rewards’, which focuses on personal leadership, self-reflection, teamwork and also gives education more priority (Tilburg University, 2023).

Didactic & Pedagogic Teaching: Teaching Based on What We Know about Learning

Instead of focusing on the knowledge that a teacher has to offer, the focus in successful teaching should also be on the optimal facilitation of students’ learning. Didactics can be seen as the science about teaching, and pedagogy as teachers’ ability to use and implement didactical knowledge in educational practice (Theelen & van Breukelen, 2022). In didactic teaching, teachers focus on the methods that are available to facilitate student learning. Didactic teaching focuses on structured lesson plans, learning objectives, and course evaluations. Pedagogy takes into account that there are differences between students in the classroom, and focuses on engaging all students.

A difference between traditionalist teachers and didactic teachers is, for example, the way they handle the existing knowledge of the students. Traditionalists will be inclined to regard this as a ‘gap’ to be filled, whereas didactic teachers will actively seek ways to tie new knowledge to the knowledge that students already possess (Marius-Costel, 2010). Didactics help a teacher to choose the methods to facilitate this fusion of old and new knowledge. In class, a discussion can be held which focuses on how the new material can be incorporated into already existing knowledge structures, that might stem from earlier classes. On top of that, pedagogical teachers will take this one step further, by taking into account contextual issues, like students’ needs, objectives and available resources. Pedagogical insights help the teacher to adapt his/her teaching to respond to the complexity and needs of the learning situation (Hamilton, 1999; Theelen & Van Breukelen, 2022).

Universities have started more and more to educate their teachers on didactical and pedagogical principles. In the Netherlands for instance, teachers are required to obtain a University Teaching Qualification within their first years of teaching. This qualification contains elements of how to plan teaching, presents different work forms that might be used in class and information on reliable and valid forms of assessment. This new development helps researchers to develop into better teachers. Even with these improved teaching skills, it can however still be difficult to interest students to do more than learn for their exams. Their motivation and engagement to apply what they’ve learned to real world problems might still be lacking.

Authentic Teaching: Teaching as Character Building

It is often thought that teachers should leave their personality, values and convictions at home. Especially at Universities, teachers feel that they need to be neutral, non-political and impersonal. But neutral agents are not particularly good at conveying cultural values and norms. However, in order to solve the large number of problems that our societies are dealing with (climate crisis, wealth-inequality, racism etcetera), we need changemakers who are motivated and able to contribute to solving these problems. Their values and norms are the guiding principles that shape their (working) lives.

So rather than only focusing on how students learn, we should also focus on how to help students develop into, what humanists call ‘fully functioning persons’ or ‘self-actualized’ persons. The humanistic psychologists Rogers (1963) and Maslow (1971) describe these as individuals who clearly and accurately see themselves and their lives and who have developed into the best versions of themselves. They are true to themselves, instead of conforming to the expectations of others and the stereotypes and demands that are placed upon them by society. They are intrinsically motivated instead of motivated by status, honor, or other personal benefits. Fully functioning persons are deeply aware of the context in which they operate (Luthans & Walumbwa, 2004). These self-actualized people are also called ‘authentic’.


Authenticity as a concept (meaning ‘to thine own self be true’) has its roots in Greek philosophy. Owning one’s personal experiences, thoughts, emotions, needs, wants, preferences and beliefs helps people to act in accordance with their true self. Authentic people are transparent in their decision making, and show consistency between their words and deeds (Harter, 2002). Persons who strive to achieve authenticity attempt to navigate the pressures and temptations of life by sticking to a core set of values and principles. To the extent that they succeed, others may be inspired by their example and likewise strive to achieve authenticity in their interpersonal dealings (Gardner, Karam, Alvesson & Einola, 2021).

Due to their age and their developmental process, students are discovering their own values, morals and convictions, irrespective of those of their parents. This process is called identity formation, which starts in puberty, and continues until a student leaves university. During these times, students are looking for role models that they can learn from, and compare against. This identification refers to a process in which a person patterns his thoughts, feelings or actions after another person who serves as a model (Bandura, 1969). This process is called social learning. Social learning happens on the basis of imitation. Learning through imitation means that you do not have to discover everything by yourself. People are spared tedious and haphazard trial-and-error experimentation by learning from the behavior of role models (Bandura, 1969). This saves a lot of time. Also, trail-and-error learning only teaches you a fraction of what you could possibly learn. By imitation, you can build on the knowledge that your predecessors have gathered.

By showing that it is ok to be yourself, authentic teachers foster the development of authenticity in their students (Luthans & Avolio, 2003). So, in order to develop into self-actualized persons, students should see examples of people who are authentically finding their way through hardships, to be able to make a meaningful contribution to societies’ central problems.

Two Case Studies of Authentic Teachers

Teacher H, an example of grit and perseverance

H. is a teacher that is well-liked by all of his students. He is able to connect with his students by telling them about his journey to become a university teacher. He started at the lowest level of tertiary education, and moved his way up the educational ladder until he finally became a university teacher. In his classes, he discusses soccer with his students, and makes a lot of jokes. Whenever he has established contact with his students, he is able to explain to them why he thinks they should learn the difficult theoretical concepts that he explains in his lectures. Coming from him, the person who has seen all levels of education and knows what it is like to work hard to get ahead, students accept that learning these concepts is necessary if they want to move forward and strive for societal change in their working life later on. He is a very good example of a self-made man that is still loyal to his roots and has no problem admitting that he had to learn to be ambitious and to study hard. This inspires students to also try harder and to see where their ambition can lead them.

Teacher A, an example of vulnerability and openness

Teacher A engages her students by telling them examples of how the material that is discussed in class can be applied to herself. She is very open and honest about the mistakes she makes, and how she also still struggles to be a ‘good person’ herself. In her class about gender stereotypes, she for instance gives examples about how even she, a well-educated feminist, sometimes still falls into the trap of expecting less of women or patronizing them. Instead of showing students a perfect example of what an objective scientist should look like, portraying herself as an unattainable hero, teacher A shows her vulnerability and insecurities, and in this way invites students to do the same. Her openness about her mistakes invites students to critically look at themselves and the way they look at the world, and to see whether there is still something that they can improve about themselves.

Teachers are in the perfect position to serve as role models. They see their students relatively often over the course of a semester or even a year. They are in a classroom together, where the time is especially dedicated to learning. Students can however not learn how to be a self-actualized person from their teachers if teachers are leaving their personalities at home. Teachers need to show the full width of their personalities when trying to teach students. By doing that, they can inspire students to become the best version of themselves, to work hard, to be open to others and to keep trying. This way, they can leave an everlasting impact on their students’ lives.

Alkeline, also for me you have served as an important role model. You have shown me that it is important to invest in people and to give them your trust. You hired me when other people wouldn’t. This has increased my self-confidence and has allowed me to grow as a teacher. You also taught me the importance of being a ‘mensch’, and that it is important to let your ‘mensch-ness’ show in your teaching. I hope that I can be as much of a role model for my students, as you have been to me. Thank you so very much!


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