Are you cooperative or oppositional? Dominant or submissive? Examining your natural style could improve the way you teach

Let me tell you half a story. Judd likes to have things his own way. If challenged, he likes to explain why he is right and why the teacher is being unfair.

Ten minutes into a lesson, Judd leaves his chair and goes to the other side of the classroom to look for a book. Well, that is the impression he is trying to give. In fact, he has gone to talk to his best friend who is sitting nearby. Connie, the teacher, realises what is going on and…And?

I’ll tell you the second half of the story in a moment. But before I do, ask yourself this: if you were Connie, what would you do? Your answer may well indicate your teacher-student relationship style. We all have one and, according to Theo Wubbels, professor of education at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, it fits into a matrix that places you between dominance, opposition, submission and cooperation. The four dynamics are in two overlapping continua: dominance versus submission and cooperation versus opposition.

Where we sit on that chart indicates our default way of interacting with students. It can have a profound effect – either good or bad – on what happens in the classroom. What is more, it can also have a significant bearing on a teacher’s level of job satisfaction. So let’s take a closer look.

Dominance v submission

Dominance is characterised by classroom control, clarity of purpose and strong guidance. Teachers with this dynamic know what they want, have a clear idea of how to get there and give academic and behavioural direction along the way. These are the positive characteristics but there are downsides. Because they are focused on their own clear purpose, teachers high in dominance can lose sight of the needs and wishes of their students and may appear uninterested in them as individuals.

At the other end of the continuum is submission. Teachers high in this dynamic tend to be, well, submissive. They lack control and purpose and give little academic or behavioural guidance. They don’t know what they want or how to get it. Or, if they do, they may be hindered by a lack of confidence. They are often nervous or fearful.

Cooperation v opposition

The second continuum is cooperation versus opposition. Teachers high in cooperation are concerned with the needs, interests and opinions of their students. They know them as individuals, including a little about their lives outside the classroom. But again there is a downside: they often lack resolve, needing reassurance and approval to move forward.

At the other end of this continuum is the opposition dynamic. Teachers with this trait are characterised by irritability, anger and aggression. They tend to view any instance of student misbehaviour as an outrageous intrusion or a personal attack – or both. If a student displeases them, and many do, they may seek to actively thwart that student’s wishes.

The middle way

Much of this makes for troubling reading. Certainly, no single dynamic offers a template for the perfect relationship style. So what is a teacher to do? You have probably guessed the answer. Teachers should combine the best of dominance with the best of cooperation. Dominance is most strongly related to student achievement and cooperation is related to a positive classroom atmosphere. By combining the two, you get the optimal teacher-student relationship – in other words, a relationship style that leads to more learning and a happier class.

But doesn’t this mean pulling in opposite directions at the same time? Not necessarily. The best teachers have no problem combining the two. For example:

  • They are in charge and they negotiate.
  • They prioritise learning and take an interest in their students as individuals.
  • They use assertive body language and demonstrate warmth.
  • They follow up on misbehaviour and they are respectful.
  • They follow through with consequences and they are proportionate.

Above all else, they are consistent. Whatever the pressure, whatever the situation, their default style remains the optimal one of dominance-cooperation.

Remember Connie? Let’s look at how she responds to Judd and his thinly disguised misbehaviour mission. She doesn’t shout and she isn’t sarcastic, so she isn’t oppositional. She doesn’t ignore it either, so she isn’t submissive. She goes over to Judd and helps him to find a book. Once the book is chosen, Connie leads him back to his seat and tells him that if he wants anything else, anything at all, he should put his hand up and she will come to see him. Judd tries to argue his way out of this but Connie has her response prepared. She says that she is glad he wants to discuss the matter and he can stay back after the end of the session to do so. She then tells him to repeat the instructions she has just given him about putting up his hand, which he does.

Finally, she smiles warmly at Judd and, as she turns away, praises two nearby students for their hard work and focus.