What If Your Students Don’t Like You?

Fawn Johnson, at National Journal/Education Experts blog, asked guest bloggers to respond to an intriguing post that ended with these questions:

What are the best ways to foster honest student-teacher relationships? How do teachers mask dislike for students? How should they deal with their own problems while teaching? How important is the passion in teaching? Are there practices that can help compensate for a not-passionate teacher? How can schools encourage professional camaraderie among teachers? Do students really need to like their teachers in order to learn?

Here’s what I shared:

When students say they don’t like a teacher, it most often means they don’t like how the teacher is treating them as persons. Those who do not work with young people may be surprised to learn students also do not like teachers who don’t respect them enough to actually teach them. As I often counsel newer teachers, we should not confuse students “liking” us with their respecting us. Part of my teaching philosophy from the start of my career has been: “I am my students’ friend, not their peer.” It tickles me to overhear my students talking about me to each other. Hey, I’m an English teacher; many of my students tolerate or even despise me in the short-run. Oh, but how many have come or written back later, grateful that I neither gave up on them nor gave in to them. Too many teachers have wrecked young lives and their careers by stepping over the line of appropriate teacher-student relationships.

I appreciate what NYC teacher-blogger Ariel Sacks wrote about teachers seeking approval from their students:

The lesson here, though, is that I should be making meaning of student responses so that I can determine next steps for their learning. Not to tell me whether I’m a good teacher or not. That’s an egocentric response on my part.

We need to have compassion for ourselves as teachers, so we can, in turn, give this to our students as they make their way through learning. Their response to us is often determined by whether they think we like them and believe in them. It’s egocentric of them, but they are the children! They are allowed this!

I would argue that the teacher-student relationship is a powerful aspect of formal language arts instruction. For over ten years, I conducted classroom level research on the issues surrounding teaching and learning Standard English with my African American high school students here in the Mississippi Delta. That research yielded much information that is still being used by me and by teacher educators around the country. One critical finding came from interviews with many groups of parents and students who repeatedly insisted that the most important quality in a teacher was whether s/he “cared about the students.” Not what last year’s test scores were, not her alma mater, or his college grade point average, but does this teacher see my child as a unique and worthy human being? That was the question on my mind, and often on my lips when I met with my own children’s teachers at the start of each school year: “Will you do for my child what you want done for your own?”

That wasn’t just a rhetorical question for me either. The first two years I taught, I had one of my own children as a student. Both earned a failing grade for the first grading period (one did it on purpose; the other actually thought she was exempt from classroom requirements because Mama was her teacher). Both had to sit through a parent-teacher conference with me and their father. Those experiences taught us all some valuable lessons, not to mention establishing my reputation at the high school.

Most people who enter education do so because they have a love of children and/or a love for a particular subject that they want to share. The best teacher preparation programs and mentors wisely emphasize that passion alone is not enough. As the Bible warns, zeal without knowledge can be dangerous. A well-intentioned person can be passionate about wanting students to succeed, but inept at dealing with their social immaturity or disrespectful of their families and cultures. Likewise, another candidate could be passionate about building up children’s self-esteem or helping them with social issues, yet be totally incompetent at teaching subject matter.

It is no coincidence that great teachers tend to be passionate about their responsibility to their students, about learning, and about the profession. That’s one reason National Board Certification for teachers was created—to set standards for highly accomplished teaching that recognize the critical dual qualities of passion and excellence to which every career teacher should aspire. Passionate, highly accomplished teachers should be advocates for the educational needs of their students, particularly for those who might be especially vulnerable.

As my Teacher Leader Network colleagues and I have pointed out many times, whether working with students via digital tools or in face-to-face settings, human relationships are still at the core of the learning experience. If we believe, as I do, that “public education is fundamental to a democratic, civil, prosperous society” (Forum for Education and Democracy), then all the relationships within public education are part of creating and advancing that society. Students learn much from their relationships with their teachers. What few have acknowledged is how much students learn from watching how their teachers interact with others. Children learn what they live at school, too.

We also now have much research and field experience to confirm that students learn more when their teachers collaborate. More and more examples prove that the most effective way to “turnaround” a struggling or failing school (or better yet, to prevent a school from becoming one) is for the adults in the building to model being a true learning community. Building successful learning communities is not easy (hint: it takes more than teachers liking one another), but it is possible and essential. Much of the impetus and some of the best resources for how to build productive, collaborative professional relationships among teachers within schools and across boundaries are coming from grassroots work among teachers ourselves. Many of these efforts have been helped by teachers’ increasing use of social media for their own networking and professional development. Here’s a growing list of such networks, courtesy of Steve Hardagon. Effective school leaders are encouraging and participating in these learning communities as well.

I’m really curious what others of you thing about Fawn’s questions. What is your take on the role of relationships in teaching and learning? 

  • marsharatzel

    My responses—what do you think?

    What are the best ways to foster honest student-teacher relationships?

    I think students have to believe that you are passionate about your content area and that you genuinely like teaching.

    How do teachers mask dislike for students?

    I think you have to go in everyday and find something positive about each and every student.  And when those that you don’t prefer do something positive, you have to heap on the reinforcement and try to keep reminding yourself of these good things.  I have never had a student that didn’t have some redeeming qualities.

    How should they deal with their own problems while teaching?

    I don’t know what this means.

    How important is the passion in teaching?

    I think it’s everything.

    Are there practices that can help compensate for a not-passionate teacher?

    I know I’ve been assigned preps that I wasn’t passionate about.  Years ago I was assigned to teach earth science to 6th graders.  Really!!!  Rocks and dirt.  Ugh.  But I knew I couldn’t stay that way or I’d be miserable and the kids would sense it and it would end a horrible mess.   So I found a way to get excited about earth science.  I proceeded to teach it for 7 more years….and now I LOVE earth science.

    Hey if you’re a learner at heart, you can learn to fall in love with anything.

    How can schools encourage professional camaraderie among teachers?

    Don’t set people up to compete with each other.  The administration has to find a way that celebrates the top teachers.  It isn’t fair to ignore their accomplishments in order to make other people feel better.  It’s not a zero-sum game.  just because one teacher is “good” doesn’t mean that everyone else can be “good” too.   Find a way to build on strengths and help everyone see that where I’m weak, I can utilize the epxertise of the strength of someone else.  It’s called a team…and we should help each other.  Heck we’re out-manned most of the time!!!

    Do students really need to like their teachers in order to learn?

    I hate this question.  Like is such a fickle word….especially if you’re teaching middle schoolers who change their minds moment to moment.  I think like is such a manipulated word too….because almost any one can be liked if they give “A”s and “B”s to all their students and if they let them listen to their music during class and if they let them …..and on and on.  You can get kids to like you pretty easily.

    But can you get them to a place where they trust you, respect you and count on you to help them learn.  That’s much more important.  I know when I taught computer tech practically 100% of my students “liked” me.  But they signed up to take my course, it was opened-ended and it was on computers.  What’s not to like?  When I taught sicence, fewer students liked me because they “have to take science” and not everyone likes it from the get-go.  But you can bring them around….and typically everyone ends up liking you.  Now I teach math….loads more students are scared and just don’t like the subject plus it has a ton more HW than either science or computer tech.  The correlation between “like” definiely plunges with teaching something that has nightly HW, tests where it’s harder to get 100% and that parents really monitor.  My “like” factor is considerably lower in math than it was in computers.

    So I don’t like the idea of students “liking” me.

    The perfect world is where you can have students “like” you and respect you.

    • ReneeMoore

      Thanks for the Middle School view

      I appreciate your take on these questions, especially from that ever-changing middle school perspective!  

      The question about problems that you didn’t know what it meant, refers to how should teachers handle our personal and work problems to keep them from affecting our work or our relationships with students. To me, that’s where being a professional really kicks in because there are always other things going on in our own lives, families, jobs that affect us deeply. This is also another area where having a strong network or team can really be important.   

      I agree that “liking” is a fickle, and frankly, immature concept. But as Ariel pointed out in her blog that I referenced, we’re dealing with children, so they are allowed to be childish, until they mature and learn better. But it’s the childishness among the adults in education and policy making that is so much more irritating and obstructive. What type of example is being set for children when our national leaders play: “I don’t like you, so I’m going to block whatever you want to do, just because its you.” 

  • SusanGraham

    Setting Priorities

    What are the best ways to foster honest student-teacher relationships? How do teachers mask dislike for students? How should they deal with their own problems while teaching? How important is the passion in teaching? Are there practices that can help compensate for a not-passionate teacher? How can schools encourage professional camaraderie among teachers? Do students really need to like their teachers in order to learn?

    Humm…. Well, the honest part is important. So, if we are going to be honest, let’s admit: 

      Liking all students assumes all students are likeable and teachers don’t have personal opinions.  The challenge is not to like all students, but to care about them, to respect them as individuals, and to treat them fairly.  Serious teachers, just like effective parents, know being “liked” is less important than being responsible. A child learns trust and feels truly secure when the adults in her life are still committed to her and her well being even when, at the moment, she is not particularly likable.  Motivation may be easier and learning is certainly more engaging when a student “likes”  his teacher, but respecting the competence and trusting the committment  his teacher probably matters a lot more. I would suggest that to be  known as “Tough but fair” might be the greatest compliment a teacher can receive from students. 

    Passionate teachers burn brightly and beautfiully, but that’s more about the teacher and not so much about the students. Being passionate about what you teach is great, but considerably less important that teaching what might excite passion in your students.  I would argue that a teacher who thoughtfully reflects on her practice and her students may be more likely to impact student learning and less likely to burn out or go down in flames.

    Camaraderie, seems to imply solidarity and friendship among co-workers. There’s a difference between a break room and a teachers’ lounge.   I’d perfer collegiality where there may not always be agreement, but there is  committment respect that allows collegues to work together to reach consensus and solve problems. 

    “Liking” and being “passionate” and ” camaraderie” are the language of  postive feelings. Serious teaching is about committment, persistence, and consistency. It doesn’t always “feel” good, but it does good for students and for society. And in the end, when we do good for others we the good feelings we have are well earned  and lasting and worth the effort.

  • BillIvey

    My Take

    What are the best ways to foster honest student-teacher relationships?

    In my experience (middle and high school, currently focused in middle school, the best ways to foster honest student-teacher relationships are a) listen, b) listen, c) be gentle but honest with them, and d) listen.

    How do teachers mask dislike for students?

    Masking dislike for students? Honestly, I can certainly think of students who periodically annoy me and students with whom I wouldn’t choose to be friends. But dislike? Seriously. They’re kids. They’re my kids. One way or another, I love them all.

    How should they deal with their own problems while teaching?

    I tend to be a “live in the moment” kind of person, so masking any of my problems external to the classroom is not that hard. Example from this week: my father-in-law died on Sunday, and I am pretty much exhausted emotional and physically. Would you have had a clue halfway through my Humanities 7 class today? Nope. Where I struggle more is my own insecurities as a teacher – if I’m having a moment where I’m convinced I’m the worst teacher in history and these poor sweet kids are cursed to be in my classroom, it’s all I can do not to say something. I usually fall back on their faith in me at such points in time – I simply do not permit myself to let them down by getting down on myself in that way (of course, an honest conversation about “I’m sorry. I messed up there, and here’s what I plan to do to fix it…” is another story).

    How important is the passion in teaching? Are there practices that can help compensate for a not-passionate teacher?

    I think that passion in teaching is fundamentally important. With middle schoolers, I think you’re best off if that passion is the kids themselves. And you clearly have to at least like the subject you’re teaching! But people tell me all the time I have a clear passion for working with middle schoolers, and given my other limitations, I am pretty sure that’s what kids are focused on when they tell me I can’t retire yet (for the record, I’m only 53!). I have no idea what you do if you don’t have a passion, one way or another, for teaching, though waiting tables or selling real estate comes to mind.

    How can schools encourage professional camaraderie among teachers?

    I think teachers need to be living and modeling professional camaraderie for themselves and their students to have the best possible experiences. That means reserving time in the school week, affirming what each other does, modeling that gentle honesty I spoke of earlier. In my school, we’re actively working on the notion of zipping in and out of each other’s classes and making that a natural part of the culture.

    Do students really need to like their teachers in order to learn?

    I think the younger kids are, the more they need to like their teachers in order to learn – or at a minimum, the more they need to feel liked by their teachers in order to learn. What goes into liking a teacher probably varies by age, though.



  • Student

    Science Teacher

    My science teacher kept teaching us the wrong things. I like her as a normal person but what she says sometimes are not what the textbook and websites say. Should I point it out to her and mention her mistakes? (I’m in grade 9)