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How to Improve the Professor-Student Relationship: Teaching from the Center

The college professor-student relationship can be a wonderful, enriching experience that makes lasting impressions on students amidst the crucible of higher education. One way to build those relationships is to teach from the center. 

Let’s face it from the student's perspective, higher education is a complex organizational playing field of faculty and administration within a meritocratic and hierarchical system: students move ahead in their academic program based on their course accomplishments, guided by a team in charge of the learning experience. Professors, help your students move ahead by forgoing the hierarchical system of teaching and getting in the middle of things. 

So, what does teaching from the center mean and how will it help students?  

It’s a mindset. Imagine a concentric circle representing your course, with faculty in the inside circle and students in the outside circle. Not a top-down or linear model, but one that fully positions the professor 360 degrees in the middle of the mix of students and the course. It means you know what’s really going on in your class because you’re dialed in with the students. You’re at the center of the student experience, all on the same team, and this can help with engagement and positive course outcomes. To get there, you’ll need to do a few things.  

Earn the Relationship 

For starters, meaningful relationships are earned and achieved by shared experiences, building trust and respect, and learning from successes and failures. You can easily do this by taking a few simple steps:  

  • Earn the trust and confidence of each student by teaching from among the students: move away from the front of the classroom and away from the podium and move around the room.  

  • Begin each class with a team-building activity to get everyone leveled and focused. Share favorite movies, and weekend plans, or guess two truths and one lie.  

  • Model positive relationship-building behavior by being overly available for students (evenings, weekends, office hours, email, text, phone….anytime!). 

  • Timely grade and return papers. 

  • Be proactive in seeking feedback.  

  • When a student falls short of expectations or if they knock an assignment out of the park, seek them out and talk about it.  

Demonstrate your role is at the center of the classroom ecosystem by building mutual trust and respect and go beyond lectures and fulfilling assignments and grades. 

It Comes from Within 

Teaching from the center is a mindset that works when all involved are encouraged to be self-motivated. It means demonstrating that you’re immersed with them in the course experience and a source of encouragement for them to reach within and succeed.  

  • Regularly solicit feedback on the course and feedback on your teaching style. Be open to making changes. 

  • Take 5 minutes at the start of each class to reflect on intentions and purpose for that class (professors do this too!). Share your thoughts and call out a few students to share theirs.  

  • Encourage students’ awareness and motivation by asking them to write down three things that are going well for them in the course and three areas for improvement with remedies. Ask for volunteers to share what they wrote. 

  • When students come to you for guidance, inspire critical thinking by asking open-ended questions to help identify solutions (e.g., “how do you think you could have done better on that assignment?” or “what study strategies are working for you?” or “if you were me, how would you like me to help you?” and “what is the reason you think you received that grade?”). 

  • At the end of the course, crowdsource modifications for the next time the course is taught and ask students how faculty can do better. 

Showing encouragement goes beyond getting through the lecture and class time. It is the extra nudge to help students and build a positive relationships.  

Establishing both a meaningful relationship and self-motivation in the classroom means that you’re teaching from the center. You’ve demonstrated that you’re with them in the challenge, showing encouragement, openness to feedback, celebrating successes and learning from failures. So, get in the middle of the mix with your students to help them achieve course outcomes and a positive classroom experience. 

About the Author

Christopher G. Bona is adjunct faculty at Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication. He teaches a mix of business and communications courses.

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