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When a Student Hates You

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This post is now available as a podcast. To listen, just scroll to the end of the post.


 

 

The first one was Amy. She was 12, a sixth grader I had in my first full year of teaching. She had two good friends, Kelly and Chloe, and at the beginning of the year they were a unit. Amy-Kelly-Chloe. I liked all three of them. They had that maturity some sixth grade girls have, where you feel like there are other adults in the room besides you, kids who seem a little above the fray. When I gave assignments, I knew those three would get right to work, that I could count on them. And I noticed the way they looked at me—those gazes that hung on the things I said, too shy to ask me personal questions but always listening when I answered the ones the others asked. I was 26, still a “young” teacher. When I was their age I’d felt that way about some of my teachers, looked up to them, wondered things about them, like what their apartments looked like. It was pretty cool to be on the receiving end of that.

About halfway through the year, Amy started to dress more, well, slutty.* Lower necklines, thicker mascara, heavier eye liner. In her class journal, she started mentioning a boyfriend, Rob. I didn’t know him. Her attendance was deteriorating, she spent less time with Kelly and Chloe, and her attitude changed. She didn’t try so hard in class, and when it was time to go to the library or start group work, she moved with less pep. I figured she was just becoming a teenager.

In early spring, I had lunch with Kelly and Chloe in my room—a reward for some kind of class contest. While we ate, I tried to socialize with them. This wasn’t easy; I could bond with students in class, but one-on-one, it was awkward. And Kelly and Chloe were not super chatty. After a few small-talky questions, I brought up Amy. Said I noticed they weren’t with her much lately.

That got them talking. Amy was dating a 21-year-old guy. Her mom was okay with it. He even spent the night at her house. Internally, I freaked out. I had a feeling Amy was already out of reach, but these two could still be saved. I told them it was probably a good thing they’d drifted apart, that it would be wise to keep their distance. I talked about the importance of choosing friends who made smart choices. I complimented their good sense, their good character. Soon, lunch was over. I patted myself on the back for being such an awesome mentor and assumed that was the end of it.

Well, it wasn’t the end. A few days later, Amy showed up late to class, with Kelly and Chloe in tow. When I told them I had to give them a tardy, Amy produced an excuse note from the office. As I took it, she glared at me with disgust. “Too bad you can’t get us in trouble,” she muttered, loud enough for the whole class to hear.

A couple of kids inhaled sharply; everyone else was dead silent. I wasn’t a “feared” teacher by any stretch: My kids fooled around plenty, but no one had ever been flat-out hostile. In the waiting quiet, Kelly and Chloe studied the floor. But Amy stared right at me.

I need to see you in the hall, I told her.

The next few minutes were horrible. A different, tougher teacher would have told Amy off right away, spelled out expectations, issued some kind of consequence. But I wasn’t tough. I started off okay, demanding she explain herself.

Through angry tears, Amy read me the riot act. Kelly and Chloe had told her everything. She couldn’t believe what I had done. “What kind of teacher talks about a kid behind her back to other kids?

I couldn’t deny it. I tried to explain, saying I was worried about her, but it did no good. I apologized for hurting her feelings. Nothing got through. Her flushed, hateful stare only intensified. I told her she could stay out in the hall until she was ready to come in. Going back inside, I tried to straighten my face, to look like everything was under control, but I was shaken. I glanced at Kelly and Chloe, seeing them differently now. They’d had plenty to say about Amy the other day at lunch. Why did they turn it all around on me?

It didn’t matter. I was the adult. I should have known better.

 

Mark was second. Like Amy, he was more mature than his peers, which, in eighth grade, was something I appreciated. He got my jokes. Struck a nice balance between friendly and respectful. He already seemed to have a clear idea of who he was. And he did excellent work.

So I was surprised one day when he got a 65 percent on a quiz. It wasn’t like him. Then again, no one did well on that particular quiz. They weren’t ready. The next day, as I was returning the quizzes, I joked about it. “Man, this one was a doozy! We’re gonna have to go over this stuff a little more.” There were groans and laughter as students got their papers. Then I added, “Even Mark got a D, if you can believe that!”

Yep. Said that.

I had my reasons, sort of. I was trying to make them feel better. They knew Mark got fantastic grades. And Mark was so mature, so laid-back. He knew I thought he was great, right? He could take a little ribbing. I was so sure of this that when I made the comment, it didn’t occur to me that it would bother him.

But as he left class that day, he didn’t look over and say “see you later” like he usually did. He kept his eyes straight ahead. Stone-faced. No lopsided grin. It registered with me, but not for long. Middle school kids are moody, and that included Mark. I figured he had something on his mind and moved on with my day.

That afternoon, when he passed me on his way out, he ignored me again. This time I paid attention: Mark always, always threw me a friendly wave at the end of the day. No matter what. When he showed up the next day with the same stone face, I knew something had changed between us.

At the end of class, I asked him to stay back. At first, when I asked him if anything was wrong, he shrugged it off. But the evidence was right there in the way he looked at me—no smile or anything. So I asked again. Finally he said, “I just didn’t appreciate you announcing my grade to everyone yesterday.”

My jaw dropped. (Yes, I really hadn’t recognized what a jerky thing I’d done until that moment.) In an instant, it hit me that despite Mark’s outward confidence, he was no more immune to public embarrassment than any of his peers. I pictured myself at the front of my classroom the day before, flippantly tossing out Mark’s grade for the whole class to devour, laughing as I watched.

 

Denise and the Springfield women were third. This was less than two years ago, and it still stings.

Denise was a student in one of my college classes. I was excited to be teaching the Instructional Strategies course for the first time. The only wrinkle was, it was a distance learning course, the kind where I talked to a camera in one location, and my students watched me on video monitors at three other campuses, miles away. They could ask questions via microphone, but unless they had their button pressed, I heard nothing from them.

For the first time, I struggled to connect with my students. Although I also had a video-monitor view of their faces, the screen wasn’t big enough to show their expressions. It made it hard to get a sense of how well they were taking things in. Suddenly, I was struck by just how much the success of my teaching depended on visual feedback from my students.

Denise was at a location we’ll call Springfield. She was one of five women, the oldest—about the same age as me. On a “get to know you” form I gave all students, she told me she was nervous about returning to college after a 20-year break. I was excited to help build her confidence.

I’d chosen a challenging textbook that semester, and I expected them to struggle some, but I believed the concepts it taught were worth the trouble. At first, I thought everything was going okay. The questions that came over the monitor were polite, on-topic – it appeared they were keeping up. But then I started getting e-mails and phone calls, especially from Springfield. Some of them were having a hard time. I e-mailed back, called back, spending hours trying to help each of them. With every conversation, I thought I was making things better. I even drove out to Springfield one day and conducted class from there. Face to face, they were shy. Like it was the first day of school. They didn’t have a lot of questions. More than anything, they seemed uneasy with me being there. Still, I hoped showing up in person would help.

The e-mails and calls kept coming. One Springfield student told me that others were getting angry, especially Denise. I tried to reach her several times, and she finally responded with a long e-mail, telling me what had started all the trouble.

In one of our first classes, she told me, I’d asked her a question about the assigned reading. I was demonstrating a strategy called “No opt out,” from Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion. I was showing them how you ask a student a question, and if they can’t answer it, you don’t allow them to say “I don’t know.” You either prompt them until they can answer, or you have another student answer, then come back to the first student and have them repeat the correct response. When I did this with Denise, I’d heard some laughter over the monitor, and she did eventually answer the question, but in the e-mail, she said she’d felt publicly humiliated, and never quite got over it.

I called her. We talked it over, I apologized for making her feel singled out, explained that it was a new strategy for me and I never intended to embarrass her. When I hung up, I felt like the problem was solved.

It wasn’t. The e-mails and calls kept coming from Springfield. Students in other sections started talking about it. From my most raw, sensitive core, a voice I tried to ignore was asking over and over, Why don’t they like me? I’d been teaching college for three years, with outstanding evaluations from students. Why did this particular group dislike me so much? In private, they kept saying how confused they were, but in class, no one asked a single question.

My defensiveness came out one day while I was explaining a new assignment. I started with the basics—showing them where on the document to record their students’ grade level, subject, and lesson title. Then I looked directly at the camera and said, “Got that, Springfield?”

Nothing. Crickets.

I knew I was being unprofessional. I couldn’t stop myself. I added more sarcasm. “Just want to make sure you’re getting this.”

On the monitor, their five faces just stared back at me. I could only imagine what they were saying under their breath.

It got to the point where I felt knots in my stomach whenever class time approached. The e-mails from Denise grew hostile. Speaking for her entire section, she told me a good instructor would do something if every one of her students was having trouble. My defensiveness grew. I looked more closely at the work of the Springfield students. Two had A averages, the other two had high B’s, and Denise had a C. Apparently, not everyone in Springfield was struggling. In the next class, I announced that students could re-do any assignment for a higher score. I also pointed out that almost everyone had either an A or a B, and only a few had C’s. With the last few remaining assignments, it was certainly possible to end the semester with everyone in the A or B range.

A few minutes later, after starting everyone on a group activity, my classroom phone rang. Did I mention we had phones? Students from the remote campuses could call me during class if they wanted to talk privately.

It was Denise.

“I just want to say that I know what you’re doing,” she said, “and I think it’s disgusting.”

I looked up at my monitors. No one was paying attention to me. Which was good, because the camera was still on me, and my heart was racing.

I turned away from the camera and spoke in a low voice. “Denise, what are you talking about?”

“Oh, don’t even try,” she hissed. “You know exactly what you’re doing. Telling everyone my grade like that. I can’t believe you.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. For another ten seconds, she kind of screeched at me. Then she hung up. I held on to the phone a while longer, not willing or able to face the camera.

I spent the next few days looking through university policies, to see if some kind of disciplinary action could be taken. Surely a student couldn’t talk to an instructor like that and get away with it. But I found nothing that fit—she hadn’t threatened me or been violent. She hadn’t even used profanity.

For the rest of the semester, I went on auto-pilot. I was excessively professional. I didn’t interact with Denise unless I had to, and then only in writing. I was more lenient with everyone’s grades and made sure my end-of-year review covered every single thing on the exam. Nothing was going to make this better, but I could try my hardest not to make it any worse.

 

I’m sure there were more. I taught over a thousand students ranging from age eleven to fifty-five. Surely there were others whose feelings I hurt, who felt wronged, who felt ignored, who didn’t find me to be their cup of tea. But these three stuck, because they let their feelings be known. And as much as it hurt, I’m grateful to them, because I learned from each one.

From Amy, I learned that if I have a concern about a student, I should go to them directly. It’s awful to hear that people are talking behind your back, and to have an adult do it must be devastating. For the rest of the year, Amy never warmed up to me again. Her attendance and her grades continued to drop. That summer she moved, and I never heard from her again. I still think if I’d handled things differently, I might have gotten through to her.

Mark accepted my apology with grace, and soon we were back on friendly terms, but I was careful to never again overestimate my students’ confidence. Even the most well-liked, accomplished kid may not have the self-assurance to withstand his mistakes being broadcast. A cheap joke isn’t worth losing someone’s trust. Now I try to err on the side of shutting my mouth.

And what did I learn from Denise? When I consider her story alongside the other two, I see one thread that runs through them all.

Ego. On both sides, ego is what caused all the trouble.

Without intending to, I wounded each student’s ego significantly, and when you do that to someone, they never forget it. Denise told me at the beginning of the semester that her confidence was fragile. I just didn’t realize how much. I never intended to embarrass her early on, but once I did, she felt threatened at every turn. That’s going to happen sometimes, and the best thing I can do is not take it personally.

And this is where we come to my own ego, which played an even bigger role in all three cases.

I hate to admit it, but I think I did know what I was doing when I talked about those A’s, B’s and C’s on camera that day. I wanted to send Denise a message, to defend myself against her claims that everyone was lost and confused.

At my lunch with Kelly and Chloe, my ego was working, too. At first, three girls were worshippy with me; then there were just two. To preserve what I still had, I tried to be the wise female mentor, offering sage advice Kelly and Chloe would remember forever and tossing out Amy’s trust in the meantime.

Even with Mark, ego got in my way. Those low quiz scores told me something had gone wrong, and I was trying to gloss over it by getting a laugh, by being cool.

It’s hard to write all this down. These stories definitely don’t make me look good, and they don’t represent most of my time in the classroom. I share them because I suspect some of you have had moments you’re not proud of, stories you’ve never told anyone, and I want you to know you’re not alone. One of the hardest things about being a teacher is the incredible vulnerability of it; the more you care about your students, the more they can hurt you. You can respond to this by caring less about your students and about what people think about you in general. Plenty of people do just that.

Or you can get better at noticing when your ego is starting to mess with you, then wrestle that sucker down and pin it to the ground. For your students’ sake, and your own. ♦

 


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Update, September 16, 2015: 
Since writing this post, several readers have pointed out a serious mistake I made in one of the situations I describe above. In the first story, I failed to recognize that Amy was quite possibly a victim of statutory rape, in which a minor child has a sexual relationship with an adult. This is a reportable offense, just like cases of child abuse or neglect, and my failure to report it meant that it was allowed to continue. To learn more about how statutory rape is defined in the U.S., read Statutory Rape: A Guide to State Laws and Reporting Requirements, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Statutory Rape: What Teens Should Know, published by the pro bono law firm Public Counsel. And for similar information for Canada, read Professional Advisory: Duty to Report, published by the Ontario College of Teachers. You may also be interested in listening to this interview between Canadian teacher Kristen Schmidt and Justice Marvin Zuker about teachers’ duty to report suspected child abuse.

* On the use of the word “slutty”: In April of 2016, a reader pointed out that the use of the word “slutty” was offensive and contributed to an overall culture of slut-shaming. I happen to agree with her, and I feel this further continues my reflection on how we view our students. I have chosen to leave the word in for the sake of conversation, and I urge you to scroll down and read Dallja’s comment.

 

Let’s stay in touch.
If this one spoke to you, I’d love to have you come back for more. Join my mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration — in quick, bite-sized packages — all geared toward making your teaching more effective and joyful. To thank you, I’ll send you a free copy of my new e-booklet, 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half. I look forward to getting to know you better!

 

 

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Jennifer Gonzalez

Editor-in-Chief at Cult of Pedagogy
Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

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Jennifer Gonzalez

Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

83 Comments

  1. Wow! This is a wonderful piece. Life is one lesson after another. You seem to be as good a student as you are a teacher. Your shared stories and personal insight offer an authentic glimpse into the life of an educator– a caring, talented, and self-aware educator. You. 🙂

    • People are too sensitive about names. Face it, some people (both male and female) are “sluts.” Some people are fat slobs. Some people have filthy, disgusting habits. Those among us who are perpetually offended have coined phrases like “slut shaming” and “fat shaming.”

  2. This post is so open and authentic. I really appreciate that you were willing to talk about such a hard topic. Many people don’t like putting negative things out there. But they happen! And the only way to learn from them is to share and grow together!

    Cassie
    Create-abilities

  3. I appreciate your honesty – the first story struck a chord with me, and it helps to consider it as a learning experience. We all say things we wish we hadn’t; it’s a field in which we talk ALL DAY LONG and there are lots of opportunities to mess up. Thanks for sharing your stories!

    • No kidding! I’ve often said that if you’re not comfortable with failure, teaching is not the profession for you, because you basically fail in some way EVERY DAY. Thanks for your comment, Chrissy!

  4. Wow! I can just imagine how painful that must have been to write, to put out to the world to see… and THANK YOU for it. I completely agree with Chrissy – we all mess up from time to time, and the important thing is to grow and to learn from it. I’m very proud of your strength, bravery and ability to self-reflect.

  5. Wonderful post, Jennifer. I struggle with transparency when I write, but your transparency kept me riveted throughout your piece. And I have made all of these kinds of mistakes with my various students through the years. This is a great overall reminder to be authentic and humble with the souls we have been entrusted with.

    • Thanks, Laurie. It’s a relief to hear other people say they have made the same mistakes. Part of me was a little worried that readers would just think I was a jerk and then maybe I’d never get another teaching job again!

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this story, I don’t think it was easy to share. I have made some of those exact mistakes and learned similar lessons along the way. Even after teaching for 20 years, I find myself learning lessons from my students about respect and motivation. Never stop learning!

    • Thank you, Shannan. It’s funny, because having written this, I know I will probably screw up again despite having reflected and shared. It’s just human nature, I guess. I found that the apologies were really the only shot I had at redemption in those cases. Sometimes we have to learn the same lessons over and over again!

  7. Sometimes we need to sit back and let our minds be quiet, while we ponder the day – what went well, and what may/may not have made a difference in our relationships with students and colleagues. I walk my dogs verry early in the morning, and think about anything untoward I may have done – many times it’s for naught – but I always figure a solution, or someone to whom I can speak to unfurl those knots. I find speaking to the students and apologizing, and asking them to “cue” me in the future should I be headed in the wrong direction can help. I have made public apologies before, as well. No one is infallible. These are life’s little lessons. Your first tale, I would have phoned home, after speaking privately with the student. The last student I would have called, as well, and then done a public apology – once done you feel vulnerable yet strong. The second one you handled quite well.
    I’m encouraged by your stories. They are those of every teacher – if they admit them or not.
    Thank you!

    • Tony, I am all too familiar with those knots. Sometimes I can’t even figure out why I have them, and I have to do the same kind of reviewing to figure it out. I so agree with you about apologizing. I think some people see it as a sign of weakness, but I think it’s just the opposite. Thanks so much for commenting.

  8. Your post reminds me of my last group. There were three teenagers who were definetely racist, and as if this wasn’t enough, they wanted everyone to know that, specially me, a BLACK TEACHER. Once, one of them asked me why I kept my smoothy and flowing hair always in a bun?? Yes, she dared to ask me using these words, but in Portuguese, I’m Brazilian. Since I noticed all she wanted was to embarass me in front of all class, I couldn’t lose the opportunity to mock at her. I said that unless she underwent an ear plastic surgery and lost some pounds, I woudn’t answer her question. I was lucky she is fat and has some “floppy ears”, (I don’t know if the expression is correct).
    Well, as expected, all her classmates joined me and laughed a lot at her, and sincerelly, I didn’t feel bad. I think that sometimes we must put students in their place. We must make them aware they can say or do whatever they want to, but they also must bare in mind the consequences for their actions. I won’t see her anymore because now I have another job, not because of this “incident”.
    Now that some time passed, I know that it wasn’t the ideal answer. I know that my answer for her racist question was also discriminatory. But I don’t regret.
    I’m happy, becasue she will never forget me, and maybe, she’ll be more careful whenever she thinks about approaching a black teacher this way.

    • Wow…Wow. I doubt she thinks any more highly of you, you probably just confirmed her negative thoughts in her mind. Such a poor way to use a learning opportunity with a child. Grow up.

  9. Even when we don’t make egregious mistakes with our students, I think being hated by students is one of the “occupational hazards” of teaching. Very tough when you’re a teacher who likes to be liked. I find, also, that students can “turn on a dime;” i.e. you’ve been getting along great with one of them and you do one thing that they don’t like and boom–you are on their hate list. The one thing I always do with every student, no matter what our relationship is, is work on “catching them being good.” I seek out every possible opportunity to compliment and/or thank students for anything positive they’ve done in their work or in being a good “school citizen.” (I don’t know why I am using so many phrases that need quotation marks!) I teach at-risk high school students who have never head nearly enough positive relationships and/or experiences in their lives, so this is my small way of trying to put a few more positive vibes in their lives (and hopefully keep our relationship decent).

  10. (coming to the thread late, I know)

    You didn’t mention it, but another common thing in all three stories was violating confidentiality. Something we all do now and then without meaning to.
    What bothers me more is that you had reason to believe Amy was a victim of statutory rape, her mother encouraged it, and you dealt with it by telling her friends to stay away from her? When I was 15 I had a friend who bragged that she had a “boyfriend” a married man, and how wonderful it all was. Years later she told me that wasn’t how she felt about it at all. Were you expected to report such things, and did you?

    Finally, I’m appalled at Talita’s attitude. For an adult, especially one in a a position of authority to respond to childish insults with more childish insults is not putting anyone in their place, it’s simply lowering yourself and setting a bad example.

    • Hi Susan — you’re absolutely right. Confidentiality was definitely an issue. Another way I broke their trust in me.

      As for the statutory rape issue, I’m embarrassed to admit that it did not occur to me to report it. Not only that, but I never even approached Amy with concern about her situation or treated her with care. I assumed that she was already too far gone and put my energy into “saving” her peers. I think for me at the time, it was more about my own self-image, my own ego, and I didn’t take enough of a grown-up approach to her. For some people, or at least for me, I spent a lot of years walking around like an adult, but in some ways I didn’t really act like one. I know my response was really awful, and I only hope that others reading this will take a different approach when faced with similar situations.

      I don’t recall getting any formal training on how to handle these situations, by the way. Any training I’ve had in reporting abuse (which was often a 10-minute “mention” during overall employee orientations) emphasize physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect — all of which this falls into, I realize, but it would have helped if those doing the training would have provided us with lots of specific examples of situations that some of us might not have realized fit the definition of abuse. Overly permissive parenting, for some teachers, may not set off a red flag the same way other forms of abuse would. I don’t know if I’m making sense; I guess I’m trying to figure out what my thinking was at the time.

      Thanks for your comment, Susan. You’ve given me more to think about.

    • Thank you!
      What the author did to Amy is criminal.
      Facts:
      1) Twelve year olds can’t give consent.
      2) An adult is not allowed to have a romantic relationship with a child.
      3) You did nothing.
      In fact, this article is still all about the author’s ego. There isn’t a shred of insight here. The author’s lack of insight into Amy’s suspected abuse is troubling: this doesn’t even appear on her radar, even in hindsight!
      Jennifer, stop making excuses for failing to protect Amy. It has nothing to do with your lack of training, it has everything to do with your ego. You were so concerned about her perception of you, that it turned you into a gossip and completely disregarded her needs. What you did was criminal and unconscionable. I encourage you to focus your next reflection and writing on the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse, and mandated reporting laws, as to prevent this awful mistake from being replicated.

      • Thanks for the suggestion for a future post.
        I guess I’m not seeing how it’s still about my ego now. The whole point of this article is that I was definitely, in no uncertain terms, an asshole, being led totally by ego. I don’t know what else I could have added in the article or in the comments that would have made that any clearer.

        • The article fails to mention that Amy was a victim of child abuse, and a secondary victim of your neglect.

          I’m astounded that only one other reader noticed this.

          Please let this be an example you never repeat. Amy was failed terribly. Please be a beacon for our children now.

          • I am in the process of researching mandatory reporting and statutory rape laws and working on an article that will provide information and resources for teachers, so that other teachers can go into this next school year with full awareness of this issue. I think it will be especially helpful for middle and high school teachers. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

            If you know of any good resources on this subject, especially websites I should look at or include as links in the article, please let me know. You can send me a private message via our contact form or just add the information as a comment here.

          • Yeah, I think she is aware. No need to be judgmental here.

      • Oh my goodness! Why do you feel that it is your place to make such negative judgements? We are here to share our experiences and help each other!

  11. My year is almost over, but the hate from one of my six classes has been palpable. I wanted to say I haven’t done anything to deserve this attitude. It’s just like being bullied every day. It’s not one or two kids, it’s most of the class. I still wanted to blame the kids for their immaturity and bad upbringing, but I must now face that my ego had to play a part. I can’t remember where this started, but I see myself in your transparent story. This is going to take more reflection to understand what happened.

    • Hi. It hurts a little to read your comment — I can tell you’re still in the middle of it. I’m so sorry. It’s a terrible feeling and makes it really hard to go to work every day. What I can tell you right now is that you’re definitely not alone — one of the most common search terms that brings people to this site are phrases like “my students hate me.” I think you’re right about needing more time and reflection to understand it. I hope that when you get that clarity you’ll come back and share it with the rest of us. Until then, be well.

  12. Hi Jennifer-
    I really enjoyed the honesty in this post. We’ve all made mistakes in our teaching, and when you add in all the personalities we see, each with their own backgrounds, hang ups and problems, our chances of inadvertently hurting feelings is pretty high.

    There is a small handful of students who have really, really hated me in my 21 years of teaching, and it definitely stings no matter how much time passes. I think it was extremely brave of you to share your pain with your readers, and I’m sorry that there were some who felt this was just cause to open fire on your decisions that you’ve already admitted (in retrospect) were flawed. You responded with such grace, though. You’re a better woman than I am!

    When we know better; we do better. Right? If only each of our students came with a manual…

    Thank you for sharing your experiences,
    Sharon

  13. As someone in school to become a teacher, I love reading articles and blogs and PDFs – anything that I can learn from and use to help facilitate learning, while also being a good human being and role model within my area of influence. I’ve been article surfing on this site, and I really enjoy reading what you write. While I was reading this piece, the immediate emotional response I felt was, “Wow, I would hate to have her as my teacher.” Then I thought for a second and realized that you (just like every other person) have good days and bad days, that you (just like every other person) make mistakes, and that you (just like every other person) should not be judged by your worst moments. It was that repeated “just like every other person” that really struck me – I’m going to have good and bad days, and will make mistakes, and so will the people I work with, and so will my students.
    Taking a step back and evaluating my initial response really helps me to rewire my way of thinking, and definitely helps underscore the need to see everyone as complex, contradictory, and as human as I am. Thank you for reminding me of how important that is.

    • Thanks for this response, Jeanne-Anne. I really don’t love sharing such an ugly story, but my hope is that people will take some lessons from it. In each situation, I was guided by my own ego, and my guess is that a lot of cruelties are committed for similar reasons, sometimes without the person realizing it when they’re in the moment.

      I’m glad this had an impact on you, and that you’re enjoying the site. Please comment some more!

  14. Um, no offense, but . . . I LOVED this post! What honesty. I think the only way we can improve as teachers is by practicing honest self-reflection, and you nail it here. I have grown by doing this . . . and I have also made some of these exact mistakes. I realize that I am not saying anything different than any of the other commenters have, but I just wanted to say that this post is a model of self-reflection.

    • Thank you for taking the time to write this. As you can see, I did get mixed reactions to this post, and it turns out I have grown from this experience even years later. I’m really glad you liked it.

  15. Thanks for sharing. Your blog seems to constantly be synced with my life or something! I have had a similar experience recently with a couple students and I can totally sympathize with your candid stories of a “lesser version of oneself” (that’s my code word for the times when I reflect that, ah, I could have made a better choice there…). I’m quite impressed you would share what is probably a pretty common occurrence – not being liked by a student. Face it, sometimes students just do not see us as being on their side when we insist on correct spelling or punctuation.. or homework being on time…gee, why is that? It has bothered me deeply at times that I care so much. Or that I felt pretty embarrased to even share my concerns with other teachers. Some consider it a badge of honor to be hated. I say, “ugh” to that, but at the same time, I’m not a doormat.
    It can be hard to be the adult and keep back a cutting remark…especially when a student seems to have no problem being out-of-line themselves. Again, thanks for being so open and my condolances when you have to read some of these aggressively nasty replies. Keep keeping on. You help me stay sane and you shore me up when I am emotionally fried. Thanks, M

    • Hi Melissa,
      Thanks for writing. I’m so glad this resonated with you; it’s the exact reason I chose to share these stories, so people don’t feel like they are the only ones. Your comment motivates me to keep sharing, so thank you again.
      JG

  16. Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you so much for sharing your foibles with us. I am new to your site and I am SOOOO glad I found it! I love your humor, your insight, your directness, your choice of vocabulary and descriptiveness and also your honesty. It takes a strong and confident person to admit and share her mistakes. I apologize for others in this thread whose responses were accusatory and negative. I recognize and acknowledge your intended purpose for this post. Thank you so much for this reminder to be more reflective and cautious in our classrooms. I appreciate you! Keep the wisdom coming!
    CA

    • Chiquita, thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment here, and to know that you understood the point of this piece. Have a great night.

    • I agree. The whole point is that she shared her vulnerability and following FERPA and whatever else is difficult every moment of every day. She realized that announcing someone’s grade was wrong, she doesn’t need anyone to point it out.

  17. Thank you, Jennifer.

    I ached a little at this one. The other side of ego protection is that desire to keep from exposing hurts and mistakes and look weak. Brave for you to share, and relieving to know it’s not just me.

    • Thanks, Bill. Yeah, these aren’t stories I’m proud of, but if someone else had share similar stories with me before I’d gone into teaching, I probably wouldn’t have made these mistakes. I hope this does the same for someone else. I’m glad to know this piece resonated with you.

  18. The podcast episode was very difficult to listen to from the perspective that it’s hard to be vulnerable in front of a group of students and then to “blow it” with several of them that stick out hurts us deeply inside. You said it when you wrote that the more you love your students the easier it is to hurt you. The opposite is also true. We can hurt our students just as easily.

    Not knowing laws and rules regarding possibly abusive relationships also makes us as teachers question ourselves at times. It was evident listening to the end of your podcast that you were struggling with the comments that were made and how cutting they were. Thank you for sharing your 3 stories, as I have an even greater count of students who probably hated me. Reflecting on these stories is sometimes difficult, but helps us in our teaching journeys into the future.

  19. Thank you so much for your wonderfully authentic story. Only a teacher knows how much courage it takes to speak about these conflicts. I would LOVE to have you as a teacher because of your honesty and personality!!!

  20. Thank you so much for writing this post. I’m only in my third year teaching, yet I still want to believe that I’m improving. At the same time, I can’t help but feel I’m making the same mistakes–let alone having at least 1 antagonistic relationship with a student each year. Granted, each of these students had rotten relationships with all or most of their teachers, but it really is hard to not take things like that personally. Your reflection about egos definitely resonated with me, particularly with the expectation of teacher-student relationships being almost like a power-play. Because teachers shouldn’t tolerate profanity or rude comments, they should get the last word and issue consequences to the student. However, that almost always escalates into an untamable argument. So to be honest, I can completely relate to everything you talked about in this post, but I’m still wondering about concrete strategies. What would you do with a student who has been hostile with you from the start? Even after trying to speak with him/her one-on-one and contacting parents and other staff?

  21. As a substitute teacher, I have encountered just about every form of student hate there is. From having pencils thrown at my head to being lied about to the principal as causing some sort of problem just to make trouble for me. As a sub, it goes with the territory.
    But, it also comes with some wonderful moments with terrific students who make my day and make me smile. Guess it’s all part of the job!

  22. I’ve taught college on and off for 7 years, and I’ve made some of the same mistakes. One thing you should be aware of about grades is that telling people about someone’s grade is a violation of a US Federal Law, FERPA – Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. In college, you can only talk to a student about their grade, not their parent, if they are over 18, unless you have written permission from the student. You’re not even supposed to email their grade or talk to them over the phone unless you recognize their voice, because those are not “secure” methods of communication. (This info came from my dean.) I had one really bad class my first year of teaching, and being new, I didn’t think twice about leaving out exams for students to pick up. Well this is a violation of FERPA because other people could see a grade while they are looking for theirs. This makes giving back papers to a class of 100 or even 50 really difficult and time consuming.

    • I don’t think exam scores qualify as an educational record per a 2010 Supreme Court ruling”

      “The court’s decision in Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo, No. 00-1073, was its first ruling on the 1974 law, which is usually known as the Buckley Amendment. Although it definitively resolved the precise issue, the court sidestepped other questions raised by the law, including the definition of education records — all the court held today is that a student-graded paper is not one — and whether individuals can sue under the law in the first place.”

      The court did not decide whether grades on individual papers, once turned in to the teacher, were records, or whether the teacher’s own grade book could be a record. Justice Kennedy said there was a suggestion in the law that the word ”records” applied to those kept in a centralized filing cabinet or ”on a permanent secure database, perhaps even after the student is no longer enrolled.”

      So records is still up in the air, but this might help your distribution dilemma.

  23. Hi Jennifer, I thought this article was great. I’m in my mid 20s and I work with at-risk youth (though in a residential environment). One of my constant struggles is taking it personally when a kid doesn’t like me or “turns” on me. I also struggle with not being one of the staff members in our facility who all of the kids just “love so much”. It makes me ask myself, on almost a daily basis, if it reflects something wrong with me personally. It helps to read that this is a common experience and also probably one that, in all reality, I’ll most likely struggle with throughout my career. I suppose the hope is that we get better at dealing with it.

  24. Just to mirror what so many others have said already I’m so appreciative of your honesty Jennifer. I shudder to think about how many situations I’ve mishandled as a teacher in my twelve years so to see you be so transparent is encouraging. Most teachers don’t deserved to be demonized or canonized, just humanized and that’s what this piece does. I hope this gives all of us permission to own our mistakes.

  25. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for writing your stories and your honesty. I just learned so much in your post. I teach middle school and I will remember everything, EVERYTHING you said. I needed to read this. Your stories will stick with me through out my teaching career.

    • Hey Jennifer! I am so far behind in my comment replies, but I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write. I’m so glad this post resonated with you. Be well.

  26. I’m so glad I found this blog. I am a new substitute teacher and made my first sharp-tongue comment last week. Your blog is helping me let go of my mistake and help me move forward and able to teach these students again in the near future. Thank you so very, very much.

  27. Thank you very much for sharing these stories. I learnt from the mistakes that you are so brave to share and learn how not to hurt my students’ feeling. I hope you can write and share more to help teacher become better

  28. I can’t imagine how hard it is to write a post like this. Thank you for taking time to put yourself out there like this. We can all learn from our mistakes! I’m student teaching now, have subbed in the past, and have felt my own insecurities and ego flare up in the face of conflict. Pausing and reflecting on our actions and when

    • Thank you, Christa. I appreciate you taking the time to write. Student teaching is a prime time for these kinds of ego-driven missteps. I hope you learn a lot this semester. Good luck!

  29. I commend you for your courage to share about these encounters. I have gone through years of similar incidents and to this day have believed it was just me. Working with young ones is a challenge most adults do not care to take on. I see many young faces in ministry and in the schools and I know we are still growing. To hear that you faced these challenges since your early 20s speaks to me and in turn, serves like a relief! I think we can continue to grow and improve our skills to tend to these learning minds and hearts, and hope that for every one child we may have not done our best, we may still have influenced many more. I really believe these are life lessons for those on both ends-I pray that these dark memories may drive those we have hurt to try and avoid those mistakes, as we continue to work on our mistakes and give our best next time. Thank you for your honesty.

  30. Thank you for your openness and honesty! There are so many situations, which are hard to separate yourself from emotionally as a caring teacher and hard to learn how to still be genuine, but disconnect enough to think carefully about your responses. I appreciate your use of the ego perspective on this, because I think it will make me think about my reactions and remember it’s not about me. Students, parents and even colleagues can be critical of teachers like you document in your stories, when you weren’t trying to be mean. I appreciate too the reflection to find the root of why you said those things, as they were not meant to hurt.

  31. Love your honesty and openness. With 16 years experience I have had some similar experiences. One sort of like Amy except that the girl didn’t confrtong me she just quietly and awkwardly stared. I have had the Mark situation before too. But we learn and press on. Thanks for sharing!

  32. This is a poignant piece full of honesty and authentic experiences. As a veteran teacher of 15 years, I appreciate how you willingly shared these stories, and how you learned how to move forward inspiring others. Of this I am certain, there are countless tales of positive experiences to conter these painful memories. Yet, we learn and grow from mistakes. You are not alone!

  33. Thank you so much for posting this. I had run in with students all three of my first years teaching. It’s was exceptionally hard to face it but overall good relationships with the kids and my administration helped. At the same time, you can feel very inadequate when you are going through it.

    Thanks for sharing.

  34. Wow. This was a powerful and uncomfortable story to read. Thank you for sharing. I am new to your blog and devouring it all. I am in my 22nd year teaching 5th grade, and it’s been one of my hardest due to lack of motivation, confidence, and attention issues. I usually have 2-3 students like this every year….but this year it’s 8 kids, and I’m exhausted. I would love to pick your brain or read your thoughts on having students who don’t care enough to literally do ANYTHING in my class. I’m ELA/Social Studies and I teach all social studies objectives with ELA integrated. This story resonates with me bc I have been angrier this year with 10 year olds and I can’t seem to make any progress with this handful of kids. Your defensiveness in the 3rd story resonated with me, bc I feel that way, too. More of why can’t I get these kids motivated. Anyway…a long rambling comment to say thank you for what you put in your blog. I’m finding it inspiring and encouraging to be reflective.

  35. This was awesome! It always stinks when you have 1 or 2 students that don’t like you. It can make teaching the entire class feel awkward. Your analysis of the situations has helped me with understanding my own experiences. Thank you for sharing!

  36. This is exactly what I needed to read as a first year teacher. Thank you so much for your honesty.

  37. This post makes me feel less alone. A few months ago I suffered- what was to me – a devastating blow. I realised that I had lost a lot of students’ respect and since this has been something I’ve always prided myself on, losing it made my soul die a little. It also gave me an identity crisis.

    A bit of background. I’m not a school teacher but a casual class dance teacher with students generally in the 15-30 age range. My students used to adore me (this isn’t speculation it’s from honest 3rd party feedback) and because of this age range a lot of the older ones became my friends. I was the fun and easy going dance teacher that hung out with them. I really prided myself on being that awesome and respectable teacher that got along so well with her students. Almost all my social relationships with people since young have been disasters (I and others generally have trouble connecting) and so I clung onto this newfound feeling of being adored like a life jacket. It was like a miracle to me. I didn’t want the responsibility and the ‘celebrity’ status of a dance teacher though. I wanted them to see me as a friend. I wanted to be myself with them in class and outside. I thought to myself, “It’s just dance not a serious high school environment or something”.

    BIG, BIG, BIG MISTAKE. I first realised something had changed during a performance last year. Usually if I’m on stage and I’m in the middle spot, I get heaps of cheers from my students in the audience. This time however, there were so little it was barely audible. My heart broke and I even went so far as to replay all the videos to try and hear if there were any cheers for me.

    I tried to put it out of my mind but it certainly got me evaluating myself as a teacher and my conduct over the past few years. I realised that the biggest mistake I made was to become friends with my students. In being a friend, I had showed them all of me, which is what you generally do with friends. I showed them my insecurities, my demons, my negativity, my bad moods, my bitchy side etc. My conversations would be tailored to how i would speak to a normal friend and not to a student. I relied on the fact that they adored me and would never leave me. I relied on the premise that as a friend they would forgive me anything. I guess I really thought wrong.

    For one thing, they weren’t even BFF’s. They were just normal friends, the kind that WON’T forgive you everything. Add to that the fact that some were still my students was a recipe for disaster. They had witnessed my darkest moments repeatedly and after awhile, who can truly stand that? And so word got around etc etc etc. I had fallen from my pedestal.

    The one thing that gave me so much pride and joy was destroyed by my hands. I had stained my own reputation and now I have to work hard to rebuild it. However I guess the good thing is that i learnt a big lesson from this big mistake. No matter what kind of teacher you are, you are still a teacher and those under your tutelage will always see you that way. Therefore nothing is more off putting than seeing mud on someone you idolise. People generally dislike you more if the true persona they see differs from what they originally perceived. Yes in some cases it’s good to show a little vulnerability so that they know you’re only human and can connect with you, but it has to be heavily censored and done with the utmost integrity. Yes you can be friends, but distance still has to be kept.

    So here i am still mourning my loss and picking up the pieces. But at least i know now what not to do.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this, Sally. It hurts to read it, but I am so glad you learned from the experience, and I hope others find solace and wisdom in your story as well.

      • Wow Jennifer that was a fast reply! Thank you so much for our comfort. It felt good to finally write it out as I’ve been suffering in silence for a few months now. I know in the grand scheme of things this is such a small matter but it broke me nonetheless.

        Something I forgot to mention. I think what hurts the most is that I genuinely love and care for my students. They know that too but yeah I guess things are tainted now by my short temper and inability to censor myself sometimes. Only thing I can do now is move on and be better with new students and hopefully one day be able to apologise to the old ones.

        • By the way, I wouldn’t beat myself up too much about the Denise fiasco. From what you’ve described it sounds as if Denise is one of those people who have massive chips on their shoulders due to past failures that ultimately turn into a poisonous personality. The kind that love to go on crusades stirring pots. Everything is about them. They can be malicious at times and love the drama. It had nothing to do with her being ‘fragile’.

  38. Wow, these are the moments few teachers will actually talk about, as they are so painful, so it’s great to see someone dedicating an article to it. By doing so, you make it safe to reflect upon these moments and learn from them. I know I have made numerous enemies in my teaching career, and yes, the majority have been caused or aided along by my fragile ego. I really enjoyed this and you seem like you are an amazing teacher! Thank you!!

    • Kelly, thank you so much for taking the time to write. I’m so glad this has given you an opportunity to reflect as well. Teaching is such a challenging job, there are thousands of ways to screw it up. I believe the best teachers are the ones who keep trying to learn, grow and improve. Thanks again.

  39. Hi, I just read your article and I must say I liked the honesty. Sharing our mistakes for everyone to see on the internet is not easy.
    What really bothered me as a woman and homeschooling mother of two girls, is the word “slutty” you used to describe a 12 year old child who probably had no idea what she was doing, and as a way to describe “Lower necklines, thicker mascara, heavier eye liner”. Are you sure you want to contribute to slut shaming women and young girls who like to dress up the way they feel they should, and not according to what men and other women think they must ? Really I found that pretty offensive. Couldn’t you just say she was more interested in make up and sexy clothes than your class ? Wearing low necklines and eyeliner might not be appropriate for a 12 year old, but it sure isn’t slutty.

    • Hey daljaa.

      Thanks for sharing your concern. Since writing this I have become a more frequent listener to Dan Savage’s podcast, so I have become familiar with the term “slut shaming,” which I didn’t know before, and I see your point. I think using that term to refer to a student is unprofessional and part of my overall problem in how I related to this student…it is probably a viewpoint that’s not uncommon among teachers, actually. I am now therefore left with the dilemma of whether to leave the language in and keep this conversation here, for the sake of enlightening other readers and teachers on the use of this word–or revising the original text and making this conversation confusing to anyone who comes across it. I think I will add a footnote to the original text so that people can come down here and read your comment. Thanks again.

  40. We have eight weeks left of school, and I feel absolutely feel hated by my last class of the day (sixth grade ELA). I have been trying to earn their trust all year, build personal relationships- all of that. I think the bottom line is they don’t trust me and they don’t respect me. I would love to earn that by the end of the year. It feel so futile, like nothing has worked. Any help from anyone is appreciated!

  41. I just found this blog and I love the chance to hear teachers speak honestly! When I was younger I taught the same grade level as my own kids. I was very popular I guess because I was so tuned in to what was happening at that age. I also had worked in two schools but both for a long time (half day each) so I was “grandfathered in” with a good reputation.
    Then things changed in my district and I was transferred many times. I am way less cool than I was and the years have not been nice to me. I have been called the Wicked witch of the West and Mrs. Trunchbull. I am white and live in the city where my kids grew up and where I teach. The kids look at me as just another white lady that can’t relate to them.
    Most of the time when they get to know me a little bit they get passed my looks and stereotypes and things are good. However, I have had classes that never warmed up to me, mocked my efforts to relate, just outright mean.
    To make matters more difficult I teach FACS (Home and Careers). In my district they have cut out almost everything that made the class fun. We don’t really cook or sew or do crafts. We mainly focus on “soft skills” like personal identity, communication, citizenship, etc. The kids HATE it and therefore hate me.
    So many teachers put up a front and act like they are so wonderful and loved by their students. I truly appreciate this blog for just being honest!!
    Thank you

  42. Hi Jennifer,
    I listened to this podcast episode before coming here, but I needed to comment and say thank you for your candid post! I can think of quite a few mistakes I’ve made; some were as a result of inexperience while others were a result of reacting too quickly or wanting to smooth a situation over instead of dealing with the problem directly. Anyway, it’s nice to know that reputable teachers such as yourself are willing to admit to making mistakes. We are all life-long learners. Thank you!

  43. I wish I had seen this article before. I really appreciate your honesty and I feel sorry that we, as teachers, have to feel and become responsible for our students’ lives when they have parents too. For example, your Amy’s case was typical. Where were her parents in the equation? I understand it’s our job as teachers to spot any abnormality in conduct and awkward activity apparently going on in our students’ lives. However, with so much going on in our own lives too, teaching and outside teaching, that it becomes hard to acknowledge every aspect of their lives, especially what happens outside school. We are always under tremendous pressure to achieve, always being judged, measured against others and the educational standards, assessed and checked upon by admin, educational authorities, students, parents, school governors etc. We also have so much workload to take home that interferes with our private lives. How on earth is for a teacher who cares so much to pay attention and be 100% alert all of the times to all the social problems also involved in their work? Not to mention that not everything is brought to our knowledge. Just not fair! I think it’s great and brave of you to reflect and admit your mistakes. The teaching profession can also be very snobbish and few teachers admit when they are failing. They see their colleagues suffering, offer fake support but are not brave enough to care and admit they may have gone through the same thing.

    When I said first I wish I had seen this before and read all the comments is because, after years teaching, an episode in the classroom led me to give up.
    I am a specialist teacher, so I only come to each class once a week. On reflection, I know what I might have done differently but I felt compelled to leave after a 6th grade student spitefully accused me of assault. I was proven innocent in the end but I realise I had lost control of the class that day and I felt hated because guess what? I was being hated.
    Therefore, instead of stopping all activities and asking what I could have done better to help their learning and behaviour, I simply tried to throw a game to deviate the course of things. It didn’t work, simply because they were not like my other classes which I had control of and I could use this type of strategy. This particular class was ‘ill’ and I didn’t realise they had issues with me. As it is a recent incident, I am still at a loss as to why this all happened and came to this crucial point. It hurts like a toothache!

    So thank you for sharing this post. Although it’s 3 years old, it still resonates with many teachers and it will for years to come.

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