Related to facilitating learning from diversity, building relationships with students was seen as a key step for good teaching, particularly with international students. When asked what they saw as the key attributes of a good teacher, many participants highlighted ‘patience and empathy’ (Participant 36, Business and management, Unaffiliated pre-1992), before or rather than mentioning content knowledge or pedagogical expertise. This may suggest that expertise is taken for granted, but simultaneously suggests teachers that the importance of empathy is not. Good teachers, in this way, were perceived to be ‘understanding that who knows what is happening in the lives of each student’. (Participant 8, Engineering and technology, Unaffiliated pre-1992), highlighting ‘the caring side of teaching’ (Participant 30) and the importance of ‘build[ing] rapport’ (Participant 43, Social sciences, Russell Group). We heard a wide variety of statements from participants along the lines of:
I think there’s an element of approachability that is probably more important than anything. … You’ve got to be approachable enough for students to be willing to ask me questions (Participant 1, Business and management, Unaffiliated post-1992)
So I try to keep open to students that want to tell me, look, I’m struggling, I don’t get you, this is not the way I’ve learned to learn. And so I’ve been very empathetic in these respects. (Participant 37, Business and management, University Alliance)
I think students really appreciate that friendliness, showing that you care about them, and being accessible outside the classroom as well. (Participant 16, Education and teaching, Russell Group)
Most of our participants recognised the challenges that international students experience. For those with international work or living experience, they particularly reflected on understanding the fear and anxiety generated by seeking to participate in a high-stakes situation in one’s second or third language when the rules are not fully understood. Many participants, thus, understood the pressures on international students, alongside the challenges of transitioning to a new academic environment and its consequent emotions. They positioned ‘empathy’, ‘care’ and ‘understanding’ as central to developing a positive relationship to enable students to learn.
In our follow-up workshop, however, some participants discussed student feedback that characterised their attempts to develop a more supportive and relational approach as ‘patronising’:
I teach a very mixed module, with a mixture of maths and physics students, and I’m really very, very empathic and encouraging. And I’ve got comments back in one module survey that I’m absolutely mortified about, saying that I’m coming across as being patronising. (Workshop participant)
Others echoed that they felt ‘scared’ of their teaching evaluations, and adopted particular strategies to ‘subvert’ such interpretations of their approaches:
I am super patronising and, and I just put my hands up and say that I’m really sorry if you feel patronised. But for those of you who don’t, it’s really important I say these things ..I just go full in their face and own it. (Workshop Participant)
Participants also suggested a range of practices to forge positive relationships with students. In particular for international students, there was recognition about the need to know students’ names, understand how to pronounce them and get them right daily,, as key to establishing a space in which students are valued as people and as individuals.
The first thing that I do, I always learn all their names. So the first week is to make sure that I can recognize every single person and again, call the person by name because they need a sense of belonging. (Participant 18, Physical sciences, Russell Group)
Personally, I make it a priority to learn everybody’s name within the first few weeks, and I get to know as much as I can about each of the individual students in my class. (Participant 9, Computing, Million+)
These participants made an implicit contrast of this practice against other colleagues, who they felt did not make this effort. But for those participants who described regular classrooms of 90 students or more, for some without access to an electronic register, this task may not be realistic: ‘With the best will in the world, that’s always going to be a sea of faces’ (Participant 29, Social sciences, Russell Group).
One participant adopted an inverse approach, focusing on how they present themselves to their students:
The majority of our international students are Chinese. .. It’s very rare not to have an English name, or a Western name. [So I adopt] a Chinese name for myself. And it is a brilliant, brilliant icebreaker. When I tell Chinese students my adopted Chinese name, the whole relationship changes just like that. (Participant 35, Computing, Unaffiliated pre-1992)
This suggests an effort at reciprocal adaptation, showing engagement with students’ cultural and linguistic contexts. The participant further clarified that he signs his emails with this name in Chinese characters, and has adopted names from other languages as well.
Some participants described wanting to bring some more of their personal identity into their relationship with students, to show a sense of vulnerability and authenticity. For example:
I’ve worked in a Chinese High School, so I see where these students have come from. So when I’m talking to my students, I will personalize it a bit, say, Oh, when I lived in China, and I lived here, and these are the places I go to … forging that, that connection, I guess. (Participant 22, Language and area studies, Unaffiliated post-1992)
They appreciate, especially international students, seeing you as a person. And I do refer to my pets or at home or my daughter. They like that, bringing a bit of you into the classroom and they like to feel that it’s not just that teacher in the front. (Participant 16, Education and teaching, Russell Group)
This incidental sharing was seen to enable a more authentic relationship between teachers and students, based on personal, individual experiences and responses, rather than stereotypes or hierarchical roles.