Sometimes when I think about my first year of teaching, I want to look up where all of those students are now and send them apology letters and fruit baskets.
I totally understand why you hated me, the letters will say. I get it now. And I’m sorry. Love, That Extremely Moody English Teacher You Had Five Years Ago Whom You Have Probably Tried to Block From Your Memory
During that first year, I couldn’t see that I was doing anything wrong. I was nice to my students, I respected them—why were they so awful to me? But one of the painful but very helpful truths about teaching I’ve come to realize is this: if your students hate you, there is a 98.99% chance you can do something about it. Yes, a huge part of the classroom struggle for teachers (like me) in Title I schools has to do with issues kids are facing outside of school, and yes, there is the occasional wild card who may still be holding a grudge because you accidentally stepped on his foot the first day of school, but for the most part, many of the decisions we make as teachers either earn or lose our students’ respect, whether or not we even realize it.
Now, some teachers don’t care whether students hate them or not, and that’s fine. But I am not one of those teachers. I care because a) I don’t particularly enjoy being hated, and b) because I have found that students are much more receptive to the material when they are not also busy plotting to slash your tires.
Before I get to the list, understand that the reason I am able to write this is because all of the reasons I list are reasons students have hated me in the past. Any finger-pointing I appear to be doing here is in front of a large, full-length mirror. I’m writing this because I know what it’s like to feel hated and helpless in the classroom, and because I also know how beautiful teaching can be when you and your students like each other and everybody wants to be there, and I want you to be there. With me. (On the beautiful side.)
So without any further ado, here are some reasons why your students may hate you (and things you can do about it!):
1) You don’t have control over your classroom.
Once, I was in a college class where another student kept interrupting and talking over other people in the class, even the professor. As the class went on, I found myself being increasingly irritated not only with the student, but also with my professor for not being able to control this curmudgeon (I love that word).
It’s the same way for our students. If you let them run the classroom, they no longer have a reason to respect you. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “What am I supposed to do if I can’t control them?” you ask. First of all, you can. Second, read The First Days of School by Harry Wong. Then put rigid expectations in place, even if it means taking a week off from instruction to reset your class. (If you need me to justify this to your administrator, let me know and I’d be happy to write a letter along with stacks of research detailing why instruction can’t take place unless classroom control is there.)
If you’re still having trouble with some of your angels, find and enroll in a Love & Logic course or read up about it online. If you follow the advice of these experts with an open mind, you’ll soon find yourself in the driver’s seat of your class again. If you scoff your way through it or keep finding ways to blame your students, they’ll run you into the ground.
2) You aren’t listening to them.
Students do a lot of listening to you. But how much listening do you do to them? If your classroom is one where you do the vast majority of the talking, consider these options to show students they are being heard:
- Make classroom discussions a weekly habit (my students love a particular one we do where I’m not allowed to talk).
- Have students fill out surveys of what is and isn’t working several times throughout the year. Report your findings to your students and have them help keep you accountable.
- Ask students to write you a letter about anything they want—school, home, their favorite dip to accompany chicken nuggets, whatever. Make sure to write some kind of response back, even if it’s just “Fascinating!” or “I also dig honey mustard.”
- If you teach English/Language Arts, have students write journal entries on open topics for a daily grade and write positive feedback only in the margins. The combination of student choice and positive, individualized feedback should boost the confidence of even the most reluctant participants.
3) You may need to refocus your priorities/expectations.
Let me be clear: wanting to know that you’ve had a positive impact on students is a great and important thing for a teacher. In fact, I would be very worried if I met a teacher who didn’t care about those things. But when recognition and appreciation are the focus of your role as a teacher or are expectations that you can’t function without, things start to go downhill. (Also, if you are really into recognition or appreciation and need a lot of it often, you may want to change jobs. Like, now.) What will happen is that you’ll get frustrated that students aren’t immediately standing on their desks to read poetry like the boys in Dead Poets Society, they’ll get frustrated that you’re frustrated, and a vicious cycle will begin.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I went into teaching with these kinds of Hollywood expectations, and it made for one tough first year. But once I began to trade places in my approach to teaching, once I stepped back and stopped expecting to win some kind of teaching Oscar and made my students the important ones in this story instead of me, my teaching life became much easier and more gratifying.
4) You’re afraid to look foolish.
During professional development a few years ago, I told a story during break to my tablemates about how I’d been extremely cranky at school that past week and stopped class to apologize to my students. One of the teachers at the table scoffed.
“That’s silly,” he said. “I’ve never once apologized to my students and I’ve been teaching for thirty years.”
“Oh my goodness!” I said. “Thirty years without making a single mistake in front of your students? That’s amazing! What’s your secret?”
(He was not happy with me.)
Teaching will often make you look like an idiot. There are small mistakes, like tripping on the last step up the stairs during a passing period, and large mistakes, like finding an assignment in your bag that you accused a student of not turning in. But students respond extremely well to vulnerability. If you can laugh at yourself, make sincere apologies to students, or talk about your moments of weakness, you will gain major points with your classes. If you can’t, you will come off as superior and detached.
5) You have forgotten The Golden Teaching Rule.
Much of teacher-hatred can be The Golden Teaching Rule: to teach the way you would want to be taught. I’m not talking from a learning styles perspective (or my class would be entire periods of silent reading, the way I like to learn), but more from a leadership perspective. When you find yourself annoyed by a leader, check yourself to make sure you’re not doing that to your students.
Do you hate going to professional development seminars where the presenter literally reads off a Powerpoint the entire time? Don’t do that to your students.
Do you hate it when someone in a position of authority treats you as much younger than you actually are, or gives you tasks that are ridiculously below your ability level and gets mad if you finish them early? Don’t do that to your students.
Do you hate it when you are told to do something a certain way, and then the expectations or deadline is changed halfway through? Don’t do that to your students.
Do you hate it when someone doesn’t follow through with what they say they’re going to do? Don’t do that to your students.