Enhancing the Educator-Student Dynamics at AU

By Kimiya Parker-Hill, Class of 2024 & Reba Mathews, Class of 2025 

As American University students, we bear witness to the significant impact that educator-student relationships can have on the classroom and university community. Through this project, we were able to foster a stronger sense of AU’s community while critically analyzing the current classroom practices existing at AU today. We want our AU community to prioritize these dynamics and promote cultivating learning environments where both students and educators can thrive. In the hope of supporting the reconstruction and enhancement of these relationships, we focused our investigation on the perspectives of AU students. We concluded from our findings that there is a need for more conversations surrounding the educator-student dynamics in AU classrooms. We want AU to be a community that not only supports but prioritizes its educators and students.  

Our Focus Group

We facilitated a focus group with a few students enrolled in EDU-437 Intro to Antiracist Pedagogy, taught by Dr. Altheria Caldera. Our focus group created a space that accommodated students sharing authentic experiences and opinions on the classroom culture at AU. The intention behind this approach was to create an environment in which students felt comfortable being candid about the hardships that have become normalized as a part of the student experience. During our conversation the following themes were discussed: Professor approachability, student vulnerability, and collective accountability. 

Professor Approachability

As an educator, it is important to present yourself in a manner that students feel comfortable learning from you. At the same time, it is important to recognize that presenting as approachable is not something professors can promise to give every student. Professors of color have a unique position in the classroom. As an antiracist and antibias institution we must stay aware of the historical stereotype that Black and Brown individuals are unapproachable, as well as the ideology that male professors may be less approachable due to the tough exterior stereotype. Approachability can be categorized as friendliness, openness, accessibility, patience, and respect (Utah State University, 2016). Utah State University’s study suggested that instructors who convey the opposite (a sense of discomfort, dislike, or avoidance of students) demonstrate a lack of approachability.  

The following are some quotes from our focus group discussion regarding professor approachability: 

  • “I have one professor who I think is so approachable. And the other who is like, almost made me cry.” 
  • “[It] can be frustrating to sit in a class where you don’t even feel acknowledged as a human being, let alone, a student that is [not] being seen as valuable to your professors.” 
  • “You [professors] end up, talking to students about things they probably, can resonate with more than you can. “(academizing student experiences)  
  • “I am sure we all understand that professors know that they have a job to do but, when you’re only pushing that agenda and I understand why you feel limited to only that agenda, but then, you don’t get to have that community that you’re talking about.” 

What these students shared about professor approachability demonstrates the importance of students feeling acknowledged, validated, seen, heard, and emotionally safe. By presenting approachable practices professors provide space for students to be vulnerable in their learning. 

Student Vulnerability

For students, academics are typically a top priority. But, because life happens, at times academics can’t come first. It is important that students be open to different styles of teaching and be vulnerable in the classroom. Being vulnerable does not mean sharing personal details that invade one’s privacy, but rather diving into the class with a fresh lens and remembering that, while first impressions are important, they should not make or break the rest of the semester. Being vulnerable is hard, especially at an age where we are paving our career plans and experiencing living away from home; however, it is vital to maintain positive learning environments. As students share experiences and ask questions about the professor there will be room to create strong supportive relationships. 

  • “It felt like, they just know everything like they expect us to, and then I feel bad. I’m confused. I’m like, they’re supposed to be teaching me.”  
  • “I have a chronic illness. So sometimes I just can’t do anything. And if there’s a professor who’s like, absolutely no extensions, like you have to come to class, you can’t do this. Like, unless you are literally dying, you are not getting an extension. So, I’m like, great, so I’m never talking to you.”  
  • “Like we’ll have these very progressive or politically “forward” advertised classes at AU, but then you have professors that maybe don’t have the best teaching skills, so their classrooms do not reflect these ideas. What does that kind of create when you’re trying to teach about liberation, but what are you doing to your students?” 

Students are willing to be vulnerable, but it is important for professors to create a space that meets their students’ needs, emotional and academic. As students continue advocating for themselves, instructors should listen and consider such expressions opportunities to better adapt their teaching to the unique needs of their students. 

Collective Accountability

The purpose of this project was to highlight the necessity of establishing a strong classroom community and an ethical classroom culture. While we’re aware of the present constraints on the higher education system, we want to emphasize the importance of aligned student and educator goals of ensuring spaces of cooperative learning.  

  • “She’s so nice. She’s not too serious… I was so bad at [coding]. But she’s always like… ‘Oh my gosh, look at you!’ So, she’s so nice. And she always makes jokes. And she kind of understands that everyone in the class is in different places. And she’s very understanding about that.” 
  • “In this class, we got to help make the syllabus, [it] was really cool. There was a syllabus that I guess either she had made, or the School of Education gave to her, and she was like, ‘This is what it looks like, but we can edit it.’ 
  • “It even helped us create our own classroom dynamic… And as much as we love this work, it can become daunting… so I think having the small class and being able to create our own syllabus or even feel heard enough to create a syllabus was super cool. 

We hope to encourage a classroom culture that follows an etiquette of care and respect for both the educator and students. This culture requires an inclusive framework and a conscientious approach to student learning. It is important that both students and educators take accountability for their own learning while also providing those opportunities for learning to happen.