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Teaching Is a Relational Activity


“I don’t want my questions to be treated like a bump in the road to lecture.”

How you and your students get along affects how far and how fast you move along the path to learning. Teaching is a relational activity. Respectful interpersonal relationships are key to successful learning. We don’t want our students to feel that their classroom questions are “treated like a bump in the road to lecture,” as one student so aptly put it.

There is no possible way to separate the processes of teaching and learning. Instead, together they form a process of “creating mutual meaning” around ideas and concepts. In order to make meaning together, a relationship of trust and mutual concern needs to be developed, and the success or failure of the joint effort invested in teaching and learning is the central to what happens in the classroom.

What we found in a recent series of focused feedback sessions held by the Instructional Development Service with UMD students on issues of classroom respect, was that a crucial feature of that relationship was the creation of a climate of mutual respect in the classroom. and how intertwined respect, relationship, and good teaching really were. Initiated by Shelley Smith, IDS, assisted by Allison Schmidley, a student in the Department of Education, these feedback sessions provided an “educational GPS” for the directions instructors may want to consider before entertaining any intellectual travel plans with their students.

At some time, all instructors muse over what student do or don’t do that they find irritating, infuriating, or just plain frightening. For example, at recent IDS workshops on campus respect and civility, faculty listed the following behaviors at increasing levels of concern

  • Not preparing
  • Leaving class early as the spirit moves them
  • Chatting loudly in class
  • Packing up before the class ends
  • Asking insensitive or politically incorrect questions
  • Expecting special treatment or “hand-holding”
  • Lacking cultural awareness
  • Coming to class under the influence of alcohol
  • E-abuse…
  • Taunting and/or yelling in class
  • Harassing or stalking

Over the course of time, the list of trying behaviors has changed from irritation over what seems innocuous today (e.g., wearing hats to sleeping in class) to irritation over laptop or cell phone use and abuse in class, and demands for “service” today. New technology, evolving social values and the democratization of higher education have changed what is generally acceptable in our classrooms. All this has altered our relationships with students, and at times assaulted our perceptions of what is civil or respectful behavior ––particularly when we feel we don’t receive the respect we feel we deserve.

After talking with students, we learned they often have similar feelings. It became readily apparent, as might be expected, that there is not as much difference between what makes instructors feel respected by students and what makes students feel respected by their instructors. What has changed is that, for a variety of reasons, our students are now demanding the respect they want. They are savvy consumers and view their education as a commodity that they pay for with their time and money. However, most of them genuinely want to learn, to have good relationships with their professors, and to feel that their professors care and are concerned that they learn.

We hope that this research can serve as a guide to decreasing dissonance between UMD students and faculty in the hope of creating places and occasions in classrooms, offices, or hallways in which the learning we envision can take place. Although the results of these interviews have not yet been fully scrutinized and additional interview sessions are planned, we feel it is important to share a preliminary glimpse into what our students shared with us. We will be discussing four key questions in this brief overview; more will be shared in subsequent articles.


Interviews were carried out in focus groups ranging in size from 3 to 15. Students were asked the following questions, and with facilitator prompting, individual responses were discussed among the participants to clarify, to refine understanding, and to check for agreement and disagreement. We will be sharing those responses that had the highest consensus among the students.

Focus Group Questions

1. Who should be respected? Why?

The Professor:

2. What makes you (students) feel respected by a professor?

3. What makes you (students) feel disrespected by a professor?

4. ;How do you (students) react to a professor’s disrespect?

5. What makes you (students) respect a professor?

6. Why would you lose respect for a professor?

7. How do you (students) react to student disrespect of a professor?

Other Students:

8. Why would you lose respect for another student?

9. What student behaviors do you see as disruptive?

10. When a student is disruptive how should a professor handle it?

11. When a student is disruptive what do other students do?

Student Demographics

volunteers who participated were solicited in a variety of courses, disciplines, and academic levels, and treated to pizza during the interviews. As a more or less self-selected group, we found that they essentially embodied the middle of the bell curve, so to speak, representing neither the malcontents nor the most enthusiastic students. They were, instead, the bulk of the students we so badly want to reach, the ones who can, for want of a better term, “swing either way.”






















Majors represented included Mechanical Engineering, Communication, Education, Business, Theater, Fine Arts, Environmental Studies, Psychology, Political Science, Economics


Early in the interview process it became apparent that the answers to question 2, “What makes you (students) feel respected by a professor?” were the same as the answers to question 6, “What makes you (students) respect a professor?” and that the answers to question 3, “What makes you (students) feel disrespected by a professor?” were the same as those to question 5, “Why would you lose respect for a professor?”. As a result, we will be discussing the responses for those sets of questions together.

Who should be respected? Why?

The answers to this question was “everyone, because we’re all human.” But when pressed, it became clear that a relationship, it seems, starts essentially in neutral:

“Someone either earns or loses your respect.”

“You have to give respect to get it.”

In the context of a classroom, students seemed to have clear standards about how decisions about respect were made. Responses to the following questions shed light on what those standards might be.

What makes you (students) feel respected by a professor? What makes you (students) respect a professor?

Answers to these questions tended to fall into two major categories, the first being what the students consider “good teaching”: an interactive teaching style, substantial content, good organization, punctuality, and giving timely feedback. These last two relate strongly to the students’ sense of how tightly scheduled they are: Ninety percent of the students we spoke with work and seem to struggle with the feeling that they “never have enough time.”

“Calling on students when they raise their hand shows professors respect us. It shows they want to help us – even if we’re interrupting their speech – otherwise we feel like we’re just another speed bump in their day.”

“Teaching needs to be a give and take with the students.”

“They want to engage you.”

“They’re prepared and stay on topic.”

“They come on time and are punctual with starting and stopping lecture”

“They make an effort to make the material meaningful to us.”

“They get papers, homework or tests back in a few days…. If we have to hand things in on time, they should hand them back on time.”

The second category involves relationship, communication, and showing a concern for student learning.

 “Learning our names makes us feel like they care. The connection is crucial…”

“Grades are to classes, as caring professors are to learning.”

“Saying hello to us in the hallways shows us that they we’re not just another number.”

“It makes me feel respected when teachers look me in the eye. It makes me feel important and like they are actually listening.”

 “When I’m asked for my opinion, I feel respected.”

“Paying attention to what students are and aren’t learning and then addressing it. Isn’t that the point?”

What makes you (students) feel disrespected by a professor? Why would you lose respect for a professor?

Many answers to these questions were essentially the antithesis of those given above. Lack of preparation and high quality content are seen as a lack of respect, and a waste of students’ time and money. One student had actually calculated the amount of money an hour of class costs.

“Every hour of class costs me $50! I want to be learning something for that! I work hard to be able to pay that tuition.”

Additionally, students were forthcoming about interaction with professors who made them feel disrespected.

“…if they don’t keep office hours, or if they are there, they treat you as if you’re an irritant….they treat you as if you’re less than they are.”

“Some professors are condescending, even openly insult or belittle students.”

“Talks negatively about other classes….”

“…they have rigid policies…There are legitimate reasons to miss class or not turn a paper in on time.”

“They push their values but don’t respect ours.”

How do you (students) react to a professor’s disrespect?

These answers will come as no surprise to anyone who has recently spent time teaching in a college classroom. Students admit that they skip class, leave early, don’t listen, don’t make eye contact or answer questions, talk to their neighbors, text and surf the net when they don’t respect a professor.

“I think if you’re in a class where you respect the teacher and the teacher engages you, you just don’t do it. But sometimes I’m just so bored and like ‘just get me out of here.’ Other times I forget that I even have a cell phone.”

“If you respect a professor, you come to class, you work really hard, and you make their assignments a priority because you don’t want to disappoint them.”

Why would you lose respect for another student?

Students were clear that some behavior was clearly unacceptable from other students, particularly if they feel that the instructor is genuinely trying to teach them something. “Talking when they’re trying to listen,” making “undeserved obnoxious or sarcastic comments,” offering “inappropriate input,” “complaining for no reason,” “don’t work and then get mad when they fail,” come to class “drunk or on drugs,” “brag about their dissipation,” or “make fun of a foreign professor or TA” all made the list.

What You Can Do

Decrease anonymity.

  • Online or at an initial class, using a survey or “clickers” or a questionnaire, gather information about students: why they are taking your class, how they feel toward the subject, and any distinguishing interests or experiences they might want to share. Have students compare and discuss with each other so that as you get to know them, they get to know each other.
  • Learn students’ names if possible.

Be present

  • Move out into the classroom, even if that means “working the aisles” in classrooms set up theater-style.
  • Make yourself easily accessible before and after class. Many minor impediments to learning, not so much the FAQs but the QQs (quick questions), may be quickly resolved in the “here and right now.”
  • Use a goal ranking and matching exercise from Classroom Assessment Techniques to see where you and your students share common objectives for your time together.

Have a plan

The last thing instructors want to create is an adversarial relationship with their students. However, should attempts fail in building a classroom environment in which learning thrives, instructors need to have a clear idea of what falls within the range of acceptable behavior in a classroom where learning is to occur.

  • Know university policy on classroom conduct.
  • Avoid direct confrontation which may escalate into a ridiculous scene. Some challenges are best answered privately.
  • If you have reason to believe that previous attempts to discourage unwanted classroom behavior have failed, have a note ready in your pocket to quietly hand to the disruptive student, telling him or her to leave, now.

In those rare cases where other interventions have failed, safety is threatened, or situations are truly out of hand, be ready to call Security or 911.

Ultimately, what students have told us suggests that creating a climate of respect and concern for student learning should go a long way to preventing any serious classroom disruptions and a long way toward fostering learning that flourishes.

© 2015 University of Minnesota Duluth
The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
Last modified on 06/24/13 02:03 PM
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