How to Like Your Students More

Most teachers like their students. Ask them about their job and they’re likely to complain, but those complaints usually center around the adults they work with or for, the stupid policies made by people who never step foot in a classroom, the lack of respect they feel from society at large, and the shrinking autonomy they have thanks to canned programs, an over-focus on testing, and micromanaging administrators.

However, most teachers, over the course of a long career, experience a year where they don’t exactly love their students. To be more precise, they may love a lot of their students, but there are enough they don’t like that the scales are tipped just enough to make going to work feel like a chore one must endure. Enter a teacher’s lounge and you will likely hear one of the following from these teachers:

“My class this year, they just can’t (fill-in-the-blank).”

“I hate to say it, but I have an unlikeable group of kids this year.”

“They don’t respect anyone else’s stuff.”

“All they do is needle each other all day and then tattle.”

“This group is driving me to drink.”

If you happen to have one of these classes this year, I have advice: First, don’t admit it. Teachers never admit they don’t like their students to anyone who is not a fellow teacher. That’s the first rule of being a teacher. Second, there is a way to start liking them more. Take a page from Ben Franklin.

Today, we remember Gentle Ben as an affable polymath, a founding founder of our great country, a writer of wise aphorisms, and a weirdo who flew kites in the middle of thunderstorms and sat around nude in front of open windows.

So it’s hard to understand how anyone could dislike him. But back in the 1730s, when Franklin was running for political office, he encountered a wealthy influential legislator who seemed to hate his guts. The man would not speak to him and he threw his considerable political weight behind Franklin’s opponent, supporting him at every opportunity and denouncing Franklin and his wacky ideas.

Franklin sought to woo the man to his cause, and he soon discovered a piece of information he could use as leverage: the man loved books. The man loved books so much he had amassed an extensive collection of rare and expensive ones. Franklin recalled an old maxim:

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Franklin wrote to his rival, asking him to borrow a particularly rare book and promising to return it within a few days. The book promptly arrived and Franklin did as pledged. He appended an effusive thank-you note to the return package.

Franklin explains the effect of this favor seeking in his autobiography:

When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

The “Ben Franklin Effect,” as it has since been named, is a psychological phenomenon that has been confirmed in multiple studies. One showed that when a researcher asked participants to return the money they had earned in an experiment as a personal favor to him, they tended to rate him as more likable afterward. Another found that asking someone for assistance solving a puzzle made the helper feel closer to the person asking for help.

You’re more likely to like a person to whom you grant a favor, and you’re more likely to do that person additional favors, which will solidify the perception that you like him.  Researchers surmise it’s because of cognitive dissonance; our brains can’t reconcile our helpful actions with dislike, so we assume we must like the person for whom we did a favor and we act accordingly.

The Ben Franklin Effect can be used to improve relationships in any sphere. Salespeople use it to build rapport with clients by asking them for assistance in rating products. Employees can use it to get along better with colleagues. Dale Carnegie cites it in his bestselling book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Even dog owners can use it to like their dogs more. Praising your dog and giving her treats will result in you liking your pet more.

Your brain expects your actions to match the beliefs you have about yourself. So whenever your behavior is in conflict with your beliefs, your brain will change how you feel, since it can’t do anything about what you did. If you do something nice for someone you think you don’t like, your brain will simply amend how you feel about that person.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true. If you’re an asshole to someone you care about, your brain will convince you that the person must have deserved your shabby treatment and you will attempt to confirm that new belief by looking for faults so you can justify liking him less. Your brain thinks like this:

Why would you treat somebody like that? You’re a good person, so what the hell? Ah, I know. Since you are a good person (there’s really no denying it, just think of all the good things you’ve done!), then surely you must have had a damn good reason for saying what you said. And since that reason cannot possibly be that you’re not the wonderful person you know yourself to be, then it must be that the other person isn’t what you thought she was. Something is obviously wrong with her. She deserved it, obviously. In fact, come to think of it, she’s awful, and I can think of many awful things she’s done!

Soldiers who kill enemy servicemen may look for ways to dehumanize them after the act. Jailers come to look down on their prisoners. The atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War can probably be at least partially explained by the phenomenon.

Seeing the damage we do to other people is difficult to reconcile with the self-image most of us have, so our brain tricks us into seeing our victims as people deserving of the damage we have caused so that we can continue to see ourselves as good.

The implications for the classroom are obvious. If you want to like your students more, consider that you might have the directionality wrong. Don’t wait to like them and then assume that your actions will match your feelings. Turn it around. Regardless of how you feel about your students (or even two or three students), act as though you like them and your brain will convince you that you do. Do your students favors. Buy them donuts for no reason one Friday morning. Surprise a student with a book you know they will love. Tell a student with whom you have a poor relationship something that you honestly admire about him. The act of doing so will cause you to like him more.

Just beware that it works the other way, too. If you spend all day yelling at your class, if you complain about them at every opportunity, if you scold, criticize, and ridicule, then you shouldn’t be surprised that you don’t like your students very much. Such actions guarantee that you never will.


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3 Replies to “How to Like Your Students More”

  1. Dear Murph: Yes, yes, yes! Absolutely true. My head filled with memories galore when I was implementing the Ben Franklin Effect though I had no idea that you would one day write about it and name it thus! One example springs to mind – 30 years ago – teaching in a secondary school in Australia where students were ranked for their English classes: As and Bs and Cs. The C group understood where they were situated and were not unnaturally resisters. I was philosophically opposed to this ranking or “streaming” as it was otherwise known and in fact the class was full of brilliance – but it took time to reach that point where they might be brave enough to let me know it. One lad gave me much pause for thought as we read and wrote (or didn’t, early on). I sometimes read to the class – it was a regular thing – and one day I asked if anyone might like to read – to rest my voice – a few brave hands went up and they each read a paragraph or two – and this one particular boy – 15 he would have been – took the challenge. He read aloud better than me. Beautifully fluent – all the nuances highlighted – the stresses at the appropriate moment. He became the regular reader. I won’t say it calmed him totally – there were a lot of uncomfortable things going on in his life I understood later – but it changed the classroom dynamic dramatically. We went on to read picture books (I had a collection in crates of around 200 – for the children which sadly – all three – prematurely still-born – did not come – to my wife and me.) Quite a number were non-readers – had never read a book – they told me. Picture books are something else. By the time we had finished our two or three weeks of solid reading – a minor check list for each book – author, illustrator, etc. no one had read less than 30 books. At which point we switched into small groups – choosing their own – with friends – and they created their own picture-books. Then we visited a local pre-school – where they read their books to the little ones. The local newspaper came. The owner/editor in fact – he took photos – noted the major aspects of the story – and they were all famous! Readers, writer/illustrators – community citizens. How proud I was of them. Next we had a real life writer call in to speak to them about her book (not a picture book) set in Australia’s centre – Alice Springs – a tale of an Indigenous girl – at school and on cultural business and visiting relatives in Brisbane and in the northern part of our state New South Wales. The Traeger Kid by Margaret Sharpe – an academic with years of sociolinguistic study and research behind her – one of my teachers in fact. More feeling special that class. And still those memories live bright. Thanks again, Murph.

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