Editor’s note: This blog is part II of a two-part series based on questions Professor Kim received from his two daughters, Alyssa (7th grade) and Abigail (5th grade), after taking them to his class one day. For Part I see here.
Abigail: Do you like your students? Do they like you?
Yes, Abigail, I do like my students. I often find myself raving about how stellar they are to anyone who will listen. Of course, like in all meaningful relationships in this fallen world, there are times when conflicts or misunderstandings arise; certainly, there are moments of frustration and tension. But overall, I am fond of the students that I teach.
In fact, in Christian learning communities like mine, we often talk about how we as faculty are called to love our students in a way that reflects God’s love for us. Admittedly, I am still learning to do that more consistently – love my students. At times, the idea of “loving our students” can feel theoretical, vast, and overwhelming; it can easily become one of those Christian clichés.
Whenever something feels abstract or too broad, I personally find it helpful to operationalize the idea using a few measurables (yay social science!). When it comes to this idea of loving my students, I think about the following three “necessary and sufficient conditions” for positive relationships as articulated by Rogers: genuineness, unconditional positive regard (i.e., respect and warmth), and empathy. Let me riff on these three constructs a bit.
1. Am I demonstrating genuineness in relating to my students? That is, love for my students must include a sense of realness that goes beyond wanting to “tickle their ears.”
One way I think about genuineness or authenticity in relation to my students is to hold them accountable (and allow myself to be held accountable by my students). This means that I would live out the truth of “iron sharpening iron” (Proverbs 27:17) in relation to my students. It also means that when students go astray, I do not turn a blind eye, and instead keep them accountable. As it is aptly declared in the famous passage about love in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (verse 6).
Another way I think about genuineness is by thinking about vulnerability. Rogers was all about being transparent with one’s thoughts and feelings in his relationships. For example, in a famous, recorded counseling session1 with a client named Gloria, Rogers tells Gloria that he would enjoy having a daughter like her – yikes. My students and I cringe whenever we see this part of the counseling video, and students vow that they will never say something like that to their future clients, but we also recognize that Rogers was practicing vulnerability that was true to his theorizing.
As for me, what feels congruent to how God has created me is to be vulnerable with my shortcomings (we might say, sins) with my students. I do not mean that I treat every interaction in the classroom as an opportunity for confession of my brokenness. But I do mean that what makes the faculty-student interactions distinctive and life-giving in a Christian learning environment is that we take this exhortation seriously: “Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
Let me share an example here in this blog piece, in the spirit of vulnerability. When I teach about racial microaggressions, I include stories of how I have microaggressed against another person, as a way to model the reality that microaggressions can occur despite the best intentions. It is a scary place to be as a teacher; but Rogers would argue, and I would also contend, it is also a necessary place that we as teachers need to return to over and over again, if we are to demonstrate appropriate genuineness (i.e., vulnerability) to our students.
2. Second, to love my students is to show respect and warmth to them. I am to honor my students. And this manner of loving my students is rooted in the firm belief that they are created to reflect God’s image, and therefore deserving of my respect and warmth independent of any kind of academic accomplishment. Again, 1 Corinthians 13 provides additional ways to assess if I am showing respect and warmth: love is “patient and kind” (verse 4) and “not easily angered” (verse 5).
3. And finally, I am called to demonstrate radical empathy for my students. This is one of the reasons why I love teaching about the intersection of faith, culture, and psychology. DEI-focused courses such as Cross-Cultural Psychology can provide an effective framework and a set of cognitive tools for understanding another person’s (and community’s) experiences; narratives that have shaped the student into who they are currently. Whether it is the grieving of individual or communal stories, or the celebration of achievements, loving my students well means that I am intentional about the Biblical urging to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
I haven’t forgotten the other part of your question, Abigail: Do my students like me? Honestly, I am not sure. When I first started teaching, I was overly consumed with this question, and it provided misguided energy for many aspects of my teaching. Is this PowerPoint slide entertaining enough? Will the students complain about this exam question? Am I showing enough video clips in class? Am I making students laugh? And so on.
Don’t get me wrong. These queries can be valuable for the effective delivery of course content to this generation of students. Moreover, I still battle the tendency to idolize the approval of my students – I suspect it might be a lifelong thing based on how God has created us with proneness to certain tendencies (e.g., sensitivity to others’ approval).
But as I reflect on my own teaching inclinations now, I do sense a slight but clear shift, a transformation of some kind. There is a more willingness to focus my energy on showing kindness and affection to my students – indeed, love – in the ways that I have articulated above. Sometimes, my posture toward students results in reciprocated affection from my students; these are truly sweet moments in teaching that I cling to as “happy moments.” But other times, despite my efforts to show genuineness, empathy, respect, and warmth, the student response can be underwhelming, nonexistent, or even oppositional. Using your words, Abigail, some students just don’t seem to like me. On bad days, I still lose sleep whenever I have these realizations. But again, it’s not as frequent as before, and I am thankful to God for working in my heart and through my teaching to help me more consistently love my students in a genuine, emphatic, and warm manner, without expecting anything in return (see 1 Corinthians 13:5 – love is “not self-seeking”).