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Teachers as Role Models

Updated: Nov 9, 2021



The Early Career Framework states that teachers must learn that... Teachers are key role models, who can influence the attitudes, values and behaviours of their pupils.


A role model is a person whose behaviour, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people. The term role model is credited to sociologist Robert K. Merton, who coined the phrase during his career. Merton hypothesized that individuals compare themselves with reference groups of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires. An example being the way young fans will idolize and imitate professional athletes or entertainment artists.


True role models are those who possess the qualities that we would like to have, and those who have affected us in a way that makes us want to be better people. They help us to advocate for ourselves and take a leadership position on the issues that we believe in.


Role models show young people how to live with integrity, optimism, hope, determination, and compassion. They play an essential part in a child’s positive development.


Teachers are key role models, who can influence the attitudes, values and behaviours of their pupils. A positive role model serves as an example–inspiring children to live meaningful lives. Teachers are a constant presence in a child's life. They influence children as much as—if not even more than—parents do. Over the years, I've seen the tremendous impact teachers have had on their students. They're not just educators; they're role models who inspire and motivate children outside the classroom as much as they impart knowledge inside it.


Role models are people who influence others by serving as examples. They are often admired by the people who emulate them. Through their perceived personal qualities, behaviours, or achievements, they can inspire others to strive and develop without providing any direct instruction. Social scientists have shown that much of learning that occurs during childhood is acquired through observation and imitation. For most children, the most important role models are their parents and caregivers, who have a regular presence in their lives. After these, it is their teachers. Teachers follow students through each pivotal stage of development. At six to eight hours a day, five days a week, you as a teacher are poised to become one of the most influential people in your students’ life. After their parents, children will first learn from you, their primary school teacher. Then, as a middle school teacher, you will guide students through yet another important transition: adolescence. As children become young adults, learning throughout middle school and into high school, you will answer their questions, listen to their problems and teach them about this new phase of their lives. You not only watch your students grow you help them grow.

As a teacher, it is impossible to not model. Your students will see your example – positive or negative – as a pattern for the way life is to be lived.


According to David Streight, executive director of the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education and a nationally certified school psychologist, we know the following about good role models for children:

  • The way you act and the kind of model you offer your students constitutes one of the five well-researched practices proven to maximize the chances your students will grow up with good consciences and well-developed moral reasoning skills.

  • The right kind of modelling can influence how much empathy your students will end up feeling and showing in later life.

  • The chances of your students growing up to be altruistic – to be willing to act for the benefit of others, even when there are no tangible rewards involved – are better depending on the kinds of role models children grow up with.

  • Good role models can make lifelong impressions on children, regarding how to act in the difficult situations that they will inevitably face in life.

Role modelling is a powerful teaching tool for passing on the knowledge, skills, and values of the medical profession, but its net effect on the behaviour of students is often negative rather than positive

“ We must acknowledge . . . that the most important, indeed the only, thing we have to offer our students is ourselves. Everything else they can read in a book.” – D C Tosteson

Role models differ from mentors. Role models inspire and teach by example, often while they are doing other things. Mentors have an explicit relationship with a student over time, and they more often direct the student by asking questions and giving advice freely.


Ducharme (1993), Guilfoyle, Hamilton, Placier, and Pinnegar (1995), as well as Regenspan (2002), remind us of the complex dual role of teacher educators. Korthagen, Loughran, and Lunenberg (2005) elaborate on this when they say:

Teacher educators not only have the role of supporting student teachers’ learning about teaching, but in so doing, through their own teaching, model the role of the teacher. In this respect, the teacher education profession is unique, differing from, say, doctors who teach medicine. During their teaching, doctors do not serve as role models for the actual practice of the profession i.e., they do not treat their students. Teacher educators, conversely, whether intentionally or not, teach their students as well as teach about teaching

Being a positive role model requires effort, fore-thought, and self-control for most teachers. Because your students are watching you all the time, your actions, beliefs, and attitudes become integrated into your students’ way of being; therefore, it is very important that you be very intentional about what behaviours you model for your students.


Unfortunately for teachers, the saying “Do as I say, not as I do” simply does not work. Students can sniff out hypocrisy like a blood hound, and they gain the most from teachers who demonstrate consistency between their actions and their values by “walking the talk.”

Students respect adults who live by the rules they preach. Hypocrisy disillusions students and sends them looking for alternative role models to follow.


Model through your own actions. For example, consider how you:

  • handle stress and frustration

  • respond to problems

  • express anger and other emotions

  • treat other people

  • deal with competition, responsibilities, loss, mistakes

  • celebrate special occasions

  • take care of yourself (what you eat, how much you exercise, balance your commitments)

Your students are not only watching you carefully for clues about how to be; they are also listening to you. The way you speak, what you speak about, and the opinions you express will influence their values.


Consider how you speak to them.

  • Do you model respect of others through your words and tone of voice?

  • Do your words indicate respect for differences and tolerance toward all people or do they subtly support lack of acceptance for others different from yourself?

  • Do you “bully” your students with harsh words and threats when they misbehave, or do you respond with discipline based on respect for your students’ humanity?

Ask yourself what kind of people you want your students to become, and then consider what you can do to model the behaviours and attitudes that would reflect that kind of person. This is another way of saying that it is helpful for you to examine your own values.


For example, do you want your students to:

  • develop a strong work ethic?

  • have a generosity of spirit?

  • have courage?

  • stand up for their beliefs?

  • be kind and considerate?

  • be patient?

  • be diligent and persistent?

  • be assertive?

  • be a contributing member of society?

  • take good care of their bodies?

  • be open to new learning? To find pleasure in reading?

If you wish for these traits in your students, then do these things yourself!

You will be a larger influence in your students’ lives if you have a warm and nurturing relationship with them, and your students are more likely to emulate you if they feel close to you and supported by you.

  • Give them unconditional “love” in a safe environment that also provides consistent, firm, and flexible discipline so they know what is expected of them.

  • Listen to them without judgment when they are upset. Share your own feelings with them so they get to know you; share some of your choices and decision-making as examples to guide them.

Build a connection with them based on trust so they know they can count on you when they need you, and so that they learn to be trustworthy in return.

Nobody is perfect – neither you nor your students. That means that mistakes will be made. What is most important when mistakes are made is the way you handle the situation.

When you or your students or someone else makes an error:

  • are you unforgiving or accepting?

  • do you deal calmly with the situation to resolve it or do you berate the perpetrator?

  • do you get angry and look for someone to blame or do you assess what has gone wrong and consider what can be learned to avoid a repetition?

If you make a mistake by doing something that you later regret, you can use that as an opportunity to show your students how to handle errors in judgment by:

  • acknowledging the misstep.

  • accepting responsibility for your part in it.

  • apologizing to any hurt parties.

  • finding ways to make amends.

  • thinking about what you can do next time so you don’t repeat the error.

These steps are all part of a healthy process of reacting when you mess up. This is the same process you can use if you respond to your students in a way that you later regret.


And what do you do when your students make a mistake? You can:

  • let them know that mistakes are opportunities for learning and that nobody is perfect.

  • help them to go through the steps outlined.

  • have a forgiving and responsible attitude toward making mistakes.

There are no hard and fast rules to being a "good role model" but there are several articles available online for you to read which give some great tips.


Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman has a fabulous article which details seven ways teachers can make a positive impact (read the full article here). While there is some variation in every teacher’s definition of what it means to be a good person, the following 7 characteristics of a positive role model remain constant:

  1. Model positive choice-making

  2. Think out loud

  3. Apologise and admit mistakes

  4. Follow through

  5. Show respect

  6. Be well rounded

  7. Demonstrate confidence in who you are

In her article, these seven characteristics are further explained and there is a lot you can take from it. @TeacherToolkit advocates a DECIPHER model in his article "8 Tips For Becoming A Teacher Role Model" which is another excellent read. Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD write about 5 qualities that matter as a role model in her article "What is a Role Model? Five Qualities that Matter to Youth". Clarendon Learning also provide advice on how/why teachers ARE role models in their article and Dr Candice Singh writes Role Model: 4 Tips on How to Be The Best One in Your Students’ Lives .


References


[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]

Aronson, J. (Ed.) (2002) Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education. New York: Academic Press.

Bandura, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Campbell Collaboration (2018) School-based interventions for reducing disciplinary school exclusion: A Systematic Review. Accessible from: https://campbellcollaboration.org/library/reducing-school-exclusion-school-based-interventions.html .

Chapman, R. L., Buckley, L., & Sheehan, M. (2013) School-Based Programs for Increasing Connectedness and Reducing Risk Behavior: A Systematic Review, 25(1), 95–114.

Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., Rockoff, J. E. (2014)

Measuring the Impacts of Teachers II: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood. American Economic Review, 104(9), 2633–2679. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.104.9.2633 .

*Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Accessible from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Hanushek, E. (1992) The Trade-off between Child Quantity and Quality. Journal of Political Economy, 100(4), 859–887.

*Institute of Education Sciences (2008) Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom. Accessible from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/4

Johnson, S., Buckingham, M., Morris, S., Suzuki, S., Weiner, M., Hershberg, R., B. Weiner, Hershberg, R., Fremont, E., Batanova, M., Aymong, C., Hunter, C., Bowers, E., Lerner, J., & Lerner, R. (2016) Adolescents’ Character Role Models: Exploring Who Young People Look Up to as Examples of How to Be a Good Person. Research in Human Development, 13(2), 126–141. https://doi.org/10.1080/15427609.2016.1164552

Jussim, L. & Harber, K., (2005) Teacher Expectations and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Knowns and Unknowns, Resolved and Unresolved Controversies, Personality and Social Psychology Review 2005, Vol. 9, No. 2, 131–1557.

Lazowski, R. A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2016) Motivation Interventions in Education: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 602–640. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654315617832 .

Murdock-Perriera, L. A., & Sedlacek, Q. C. (2018) Questioning Pygmalion in the twenty-first century: the formation, transmission, and attributional influence of teacher expectancies. Social Psychology of Education, 21(3), 691–707. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-018-9439-9 .

*PISA (2015) PISA in Focus: Do teacher-student relations affect students’ well-being at school? Accessible from: https://doi.org/10.1787/22260919 .

Paice E, Heard S, Moss F. How important are role models in making good doctors? BMJ 2002;325:707-10. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

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Slater, H., Davies, N. M., & Burgess, S. (2011) Do Teachers Matter? Measuring the Variation in Teacher Effectiveness in England. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0084.2011.00666.x .

Tsiplakides, I. & Keramida, A. (2010) The relationship between teacher expectations and student achievement in the teaching of English as a foreign language. English Language Teaching, 3(2), P22. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1081569.pdf .

Wubbels, T., Brekelmans, M., den Brok, P., Wijsman, L., Mainhard, T., & van Tartwijk, J. (2014) Teacher-student relationships and classroom management. In E. T. Emmer, E. Sabornie, C. Evertson, & C. Weinstein (Eds.). Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (2nd ed., pp. 363–386). New York, NY: Routledge.

Zins, J. E., Bloodworth, M. R., Weissberg, R. P., & Walberg, H. J. (2007) The Scientific Base Linking Social and Emotional Learning to School Success. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 17(2–3), 191–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/10474410701413145


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