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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 differently*: 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?”
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. ♦
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.
* In the original version of this post, I used a different word here, but in April of 2016, a reader pointed out that the use of the word 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 urge you to scroll down and read Dallja’s comment.