GUEST POST: Are Teachers As Influential As They Think They Are?

GUEST POST: Are Teachers As Influential As They Think They Are?

By: Adam Hill

Adam is an experienced primary school teacher who recently relocated to Hong Kong from the UK. He now teaches Year Four in a bilingual PYP school. Adam is passionate about educating the ‘whole child’ and preparing students for their futures. Follow him on Twitter @AhillAdam and click here to read his education blog.

A few months ago, I published a post titled ‘Our duty as role models’. I matter-of-factly stated that teachers are role models and that students are influenced by our behaviors. Learning Scientist Dr. Yana Weinstein praised my post on social media, but questioned whether the post had any backing from scientific research. Admittedly, it was written based entirely on my own experiences and what seemed like logical common sense.

The questioned remained: is there any solid research evidence that teachers are role models? Or, is there evidence to suggest that we are not as influential as we think we are? My research led me to these studies:

The Social Learning Theory

In the early 60s, psychologist Albert Bandura conducted his famous Bobo Doll experiment to test his theory that behaviors are learned through observation, imitation and modeling.

The experiment, conducted on 72 children (aged 3-6), was designed to find out to what extent the children would imitate the behavior of adults (‘models’). The children were separated into groups and the groups were exposed to either an aggressive model, a non-aggressive model, or no model at all. Children with models first observed the adult’s behavior towards the dolls. The children were then given a variety of toys while Bandura observed their aggression towards them. (To read about the experiment in more detail, click here.) 

In general, the children who observed the aggressive models later displayed more aggressive behavior themselves, compared to both the children who observed non-aggressive models or those in the control condition who did not observe anyone.

In addition, the experiment also showed that boys tended to imitate male models, but not female ones (in both the aggressive and non-aggressive groups). On the other hand, the girls were influenced by either gender. A particular need for positive male role models in school is implicated by these results.

The image below shows Bandura’s theory of how behaviors are observed (input) and eventually adopted (output). He acknowledges that there are cognitive factors at play that affect the likelihood of behaviors being copied.

The Cognitive Model (image from

The Cognitive Model (image from

Bandura outlined four mediational processes:

  1. Attention – how much attention is being paid to the model’s behavior
  2. Retention – how well the behavior is remembered by the observer
  3. Reproduction – the observer's ability to imitate the behavior
  4. Motivation – the observer's reasons to imitate or not

I now want to interpret these findings from a teaching context. Students (hopefully) give a great deal of attention to their teachers.  The teachers are on display. It is also likely that teachers’ behavior is remembered, due to the students’ continuous exposure to it. Unlike the models in the study, teachers are dominant, consistent adults in their lives. The motivation process, in an educational context, is most applicable to praise and sanctions. In non-extreme cases, it is unlikely that a teacher’s negative behavior will have immediate consequences. Teachers are rarely disciplined in front of the children. Therefore, children see no reason not to imitate.

The Chameleon Effect

Have you ever noticed how your students begin to mimic your choice of words, mannerisms or facial expressions? It isn’t just children. We all unintentionally mirror the behaviors of others. In psychology, this is known as The Chameleon Effect.

In 1999, psychologists John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand conducted a series of experiments, involving seventy-eight people, to demonstrate The Chameleon Effect and to determine when mimicry was most likely to occur. They believed that the copying was a form of flattery and an indication of how much the subject is liked.

The first experiment involved one-on-one conversations with participants. The administrators intentionally made repetitive movements, such as tapping their feet or touching their face. Bargh and Chartrand were then able to measure the extent to which the participants started to make the same movements. The results showed how the participants would later mimic the same actions that they had observed.

The second experiment set out to test their flattery theory. Following the conversations, the participants were asked to rate how much they liked their interviewers and how smooth the conversations were. They found a correlation between mimicking and positive feedback, supporting their theory that good relationships are more likely to result in mirrored behaviors.

The third experiment aimed to identify which dispositions were more likely to lead to mimicry. For the context of this article, the most relevant result was that copying was more evident when more attention was given to the interviewers. (To read about these experiments in further detail, click here).

Going back to our educational context, these experiments also support the notion that teachers are role models. As with The Bobo Doll Experiment, the tests here suggest that a person has more influence when they have more of the observers’ attention. Once again, our dominance in the classroom means that we have strong influence. Our behaviors are being watched and copied by our students, even if they are not aware of it. This is increased with stronger relationships between the teacher and student. Students are copying you every day, especially if they like you.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” - (Charles Caleb Colton)

Ecological Systems Theory

In 1979, psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner published his theory of Ecological Systems. The theory outlines different influences in a child’s environment, how immediate they are, and how they can work together for greater impact.

The Ecological Systems Model (image from

The Ecological Systems Model (image from

As the diagram shows, schools are microsystems along with their family and peers. Microsystems have immediate influence on children. The second level is also relevant to this post. Mesosystems are different microsystems working together to affect a child. The effects of the mesosystem can be positive or negative, depending on how well the microsystems work together. (To find out about the wider influences, click here.)

This theory places teachers right in the center of a child’s world and supports the idea that teachers are among the most significant influencers. The theory also raises implications regarding other microsystems. It is vital that we work with other influencers to convey consistent messages. The relationship between teachers and parents is pivotal, but also the relationship between teachers and other children. If a child’s teacher, peers and parents all demonstrate consistent behavioral standards, this will influence the child positively. On the other hand, if messages are inconsistent, behavior is likely to worsen.

Theory of Moral Development

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1981) developed the Theory of Moral Development following the Heinz Dilemma study. Kohlberg introduced the imaginary dilemma. In a nutshell, Heinz could not afford to buy the only medication that could save his dying wife, so he stole it. Seventy-eight participants were interviewed about the morality of this decision. Kohlberg aimed to find out what influences shaped their moral code. From his findings, he identified three developmental levels:

Level 1 – Pre-conventional morality

Level 2 – Conventional morality

Level 3 – Post-conventional morality

Children generally fall within level 1. They have not yet developed their own morality. Instead, their moral codes reflect whatever messages they get from adults. Their understanding of right and wrong develops through observing actions that are praised or punished. Through level 2, adolescents and adults develop an understanding of the wider society and their own personal duty. Each level is divided into two stages. (To find out more, click here).

Again, the research shows how important it is to have clear expectations of behavior, especially for younger children. We must reinforce our messages through praise and punishments. By observing this, children build the foundation of their own moral code. To strengthen the message, teachers must also be seen to follow the rules. Connecting back to the Social Learning Theory, students will copy actions that they have seen praised. It also connects back to Ecological Systems, reinforcing the need for all microsystems to hold consistent behavioral standards.


We hold great responsibility beyond the formal curriculum. This responsibility is often described as the ‘hidden curriculum’. Hidden, because it is not explicitly taught and both teachers and students can be unaware of it. Nevertheless, the hidden curriculum is delivered on a daily basis through our actions and reactions. It is argued by some (particularly Judith Rich Harris) that peers are the most influential microsystem. Even if this is true, it does not degrade the importance of teacher role models, because teachers influence the peers. Going back to the Ecological Systems Theory, we work together for greater impact.

In conclusion, I refer back to the quote that inspired the original blog post. I believe it now more than ever.

“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” - (W.E.B. Dubois)

Summary of implications:

  • Adults must have clear and consistent expectations for behavior, where positive actions are reinforced and negative actions have consequences.
  • A conscious effort should be made to provide boys with positive male role models, especially if the boys may lack this at home.
  • Teachers are significantly more likely to influence students who like them.
  • Strong connections between home and school are vital.

 If you are aware of any other relevant studies, please provide details in the comments section below and keep the discussion going. What have I missed?

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