Do You Have Learners or Prisoners in Class?

According to American psychologist Carl Rogers, “If we measured the teacher’s attitudes during the first five days of the school year —the attitudes as they exist in the teacher and as they are perceived by the students— we could predict which classrooms would contain learners, and which would contain prisoners.”

This powerful statement should make every educator reflect on their behavior (words and actions) and how students interpret these cues.

The issue is complex, as it involves a myriad of intertwining factors: first impressions, past experiences, body language, and the emotions of both teachers and learners as they interact.

According to Rogers, for teachers to become true facilitators of learning, they must embody certain attitudes:


  1. Unconditional Positive Regard for Students

Embodying this attitude means respecting and valuing students for who they are as individuals, accepting them without judgement. Put simply, it involves having confidence in their potential and accepting learners with their flaws and imperfections.

When we recognize that students are imperfect human beings (like us), we become more tolerant of their behaviors. For instance, a student may occasionally arrive late to class or come unprepared without having completed the assigned homework. On  occasions like these, how do I react? What judgments do I pass on students exhibiting such conduct? Depending on our personalities and past teaching experiences, embracing an unconditional acceptance of every student could pose a challenge.


  1. Empathy

Empathy is understanding students when we look at things from their perspective, from their inner-selves, without judgement.

For example, a student may express dislike towards a particular assignment, regardless of the reason. When they voice such feelings and we resist the urge to prove our point or convince them otherwise, the student feels understood, supported and accepted.

In these cases, it’s crucial to provide students with choices. In addition to fostering their autonomy, when students feel truly heard and understood, they become more open to experiment and take risks. They become free to learn at their own pace and in their own way.


  1. Realness and genuineness 

This is probably the hardest attitude to acquire and enact, as we are often constrained by culture, traditions, policies, past experiences, and social conventions. It’s also an attitude that involves being in touch with our feelings while in the classroom, which poses a challenge for many teachers.

A helpful way to understand this trait is by asking ourselves: Am I genuine and transparent about my feelings and thoughts when interacting with students? How do I respond when they ask sensitive questions or inquire about my political stance on a particular issue? How do I react when I get upset with a particular behavior?

Contrary to what some educators might believe, projecting a ‘professional self’ could potentially undermine our effectiveness in the classroom. When teachers present themselves as multidimensional individuals with genuine feelings and convictions, they actually become more authentic facilitators, appearing as ‘real’ people to their students.

I admit that embodying these attitudes is no simple task, as it demands continuous self-awareness and effort. For most teachers, cultivating such mindset takes years of practice; and for every individual, the way it manifests will be unique. However, once this state is achieved, the relationships between teachers and learners become a truly transformative experience – a catalyst for profound personal growth.

The choice is ours – to be catalysts of growth through authenticity and empathy, or to remain confined by our self-imposed limitations.