I've had the career affirming task of talking teachers off the ledge who found themselves unpopular with their students. Personally, I’ve had some unpopular moments. My students knew I didn’t care if I was popular or not – I told them so. I told them that my responsibility was to prepare them to be comfortable in their skin; to progress in a world that discounted them, discredited them and sought their demise. Some might argue that seems a bit much, but coming from where my kids were coming from and looking the way they looked, it was important for them to be ready for the world awaiting them. What I had going for me was that my kids identified with me because of the skin I was in and because I came from where they came from. Also had going for me the fact that my students knew that I loved them, and they grew to love me back. When you have love for someone, you trust them and my kids would often trust me with all of their thoughts about everyone, including other teachers who were my colleagues. Students love to vent to a teacher they like about teachers they don’t like. There was one instance where a group of students vented to me about a teacher and later in the day the same teacher came to me looking for answers on how to get in the good graces of the students. I did my best in the moment to advise the teacher and for a few weeks it seemed like my advice worked. But things got from bad to worse. I am not sure what happened, but I am sure that teacher didn’t consistently do what I advised. Needless to say, that teacher didn’t last the school year.
What you must never confuse is the following axiom: good teachers make good students, but students make or break teachers… period. Students have the power to make or break a teacher more than any parent or administrator. I have seen teachers drop everything, yell at a classroom and leave the building to never come back. One time this happened and the students and I had a good laugh about it as I explained to them how the education industry isn’t made for everyone and that sometimes, the industry sets people up to fail. The truth is, everyone is not made to be a teacher. It is not a cushy job with a cushy salary and benefits. You’ll never get paid your true value as a classroom teacher. You’ll work overtime and never get paid for it. Another truth is that you may go into teaching with the best intentions, however, the people in charge (or the college or alternate route program you’ve attended) may not prepare you for day one. If you’re a teacher and your students don’t like you, it is not the most fun time. However, you can right the ship. Here are some things that you can do:
- Run with it. If students don't like you, so the hell what? I mean that in a way that doesn't absolve you from loving them. Continue to do what you do (with a few alterations) in love and consistency and as time goes on, if you really care, you will have opportunities to show it and the students will have opportunities to see it.
- Love your students anyway. How students feel about you should not and must not impact how you feel about them because regardless, you have a job to do – teach. And you cannot teach if you do not love. Love them unconditionally or leave the classroom… Agape.
- Don't take no mess. Whether students like you or not, don't take any crap from them. Hold your students to high standards, expect the world of them, demand good behavior – but use your discretion. Be fair. Command your classroom and let the students know you don't give a damn if they don't like you – but that they will respect you.
- Don't bribe them. Bribing kids never works because you've set an expectation; a precedent that you simply want to buy them off and not really invest in them. This will set you up for having to continue bribing and that will cost you money and credibility. It isn't worth it. You can't afford to expend any unnecessary educational capital.
- Win over the classroom leader(s). I am not talking about the kid who you think is the leader or who you'd like to believe is the leader, but who the students understand the leader to be. It could be one or more students, but if you get these kids on your side, all others will follow.
- Have a "come to Jesus meeting" with your class. Actually talk to your students about any tension or anxiety in your relationship with them. Give the license to be open and honest (while respectful) about how they feel about you and the class. Listen… really listen and take the info and modify.
- Reflect and apologize… really, reflect and apologize. Your students may need to hear that from you. You may have said or done something that bothered or hurt a child. We often reflect on our practice but rarely on how we treated our students. If you said something that appeared hurtful or if there was something you said that wasn't meant to be hurtful, apologize to the offended student(s). Reflection and apology can go a long way.
- Have an administrator do a classroom reset. Sometimes you may need someone to help facilitate a change in the classroom culture. This is okay. It may be what's best. As the administrator sets the expectation for classroom culture, make sure that you don't stay silent. The classroom reset should involve you co-facilitating a conversation so that students see you as an authority in addition to the administrator.
It is never fun to know that any of your students dislike you, or even that a whole class doesn't like you. But things do not have to remain that way. You are the leader of your classroom. So lead. Don't wait for your students to come around – lead them where you want them to be by modeling the behavior you seek from them. Remember, students are kids and they need leadership and structure from an adult. But students are also human beings and they need love, respect and affirmation from an adult. Do all things in love.
Let's continue to press towards the mark!