Are you being authentic?

Last week, Inside Higher Education highlighted a study that was published recently in Communication Education. The research conducted by Johnson and LaBelle examined instructor behaviors that influenced students’ views of teacher authenticity and (in)authenticity and how those behaviors manifested themselves in classroom contexts. Before I delve into the findings, I thought I’d set the stage a little.  The study was conducted by two researchers who work in the field of instructor communication where they examine “not only the way that messages are constructed and delivered to persuade and inform students (i.e., the rhetorical perspective), but also the way that teachers and students use messages to mutually create and develop relationships with one another (i.e., the relational perspective)” (p. 2). They argue that this dual purpose of instructor communication makes examining teacher authenticity important.  Johnson and LaBelle write, “the authenticity of the message delivery likely impacts student perceptions of teachers, and subsequently the teacher-student relationship” (p. 2).  By impacting student perceptions and relationships, the authors suggest, teacher authenticity can also impact student learning.

In their study, Johnson and LaBelle invited students to list qualities and behaviors from authentic and (in)authentic teachers.  Almost 300 students responded to the call and the researchers used a grounded theory approach to code the responses. Looking at the developed codes, the researchers found that students perceived authentic teachers to be approachable, passionate, attentive and capable. In contrast, (in)authentic teachers were viewed as unapproachable, lacking passion, inattentive, incapable and disrespectful.  Digging deeper into the indicators that related to each code, authentic teachers made themselves available to students, talked to them before and after class, got excited about the content they were teaching and were prompt and organized.  (In)authentic teachers ignored students outside of class, avoided questions, didn’t know students names and did not offer assistance when their students were struggling.  Surprisingly, the majority of the indicators provided by students had little to do with an instructor’s content knowledge or their expertise. The researchers write that “descriptions of a teacher’s lack of knowledge or incompetence regarding material were less recurrent and forceful within the data.”  In fact, across the list of indicators provided in the study, only one directly connected to these aspects; instructors who were “unfamiliar with material” were perceived as inauthentic because students viewed them as being “incapable.” Interestingly, students also viewed instructors who read directly from Powerpoint slides or from a book as being “incapable.”

Lately, it appears that more and more research is emerging that highlights the importance of the affective dimensions of teaching. While Johnson and LaBelle’s study contributes to this conversation, it also offers an additional perspective. While institutions of higher education value professors’ content knowledge and research acumen, students overwhelmingly see teacher immediacy, empathy, and helpfulness as being the more important indicators of an instructor’s authenticity and ability.  Just to be clear, Johnson and LaBelle are not suggesting that instructor competence isn’t an important factor for teaching and learning. In their study, however, participating students gravitated to the relational aspects of teaching over the rhetorical ones when examining an instructor’s authenticity or (in)authenticity.  From my point of view, this is an important finding.

We instructors like to identify ourselves as teaching organic chemistry or teaching anatomy and physiology or teaching philosophy. More importantly, we have to remember that we’re teaching students and their learning is dependent on the positive, supportive teacher/student relationships we foster.

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