Thoughts

On Teaching “Those Students”

Today I came across this post on LinkedIn with a good number of “likes” and only assenting comments.

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While I appreciate the underlying sentiment here, I do think it’s a little  dishonest. And to be clear, I don’t mean that I disbelieve that the original poster truly feels this way. But people get a lot of praise for writing things like this about teachers and education, and I think it’s propagating a bit of an unfair untruth.

As a career teacher, let me be perhaps the first to say in public, that occasionally I have days and yes students that I don’t particularly enjoy. It seems that saying that as a teacher is dangerous and apparently means that I must be a terrible teacher. But let’s just take a moment to be honest with ourselves: There is no other profession where we expect the professionals to love every work day, every job, every colleague and every client/customer/patient they have and will judge them both morally and qualitatively if they say otherwise.

Go on, take a moment. You can’t think of one, I bet. We know that lawyers often feel disgust about the work they have to do and the clients they have to represent. We might counsel them to make better life choices if they are constantly unhappy, but we wouldn’t call them bad lawyers for disliking the odd client.

We value doctors and firefighters as some of the most important and virtuous members of our society, but we wouldn’t think it at all unreasonable to hear that a doctor doesn’t like all of his patients or a firefighter doesn’t relish running into every burning building she encounters every day. Pick any other profession, and I almost guarantee that you wouldn’t feel right judging an individual for saying that he or she has preferences amongst clients or colleagues.

I accept that there is something different about teaching from many professions. I have made this claim myself before, and I stick by it now. Passion, for example, is more important in teaching than it is in office administration, for example. But even passion cannot be expected to function at peak levels 100% of the time, day in and day out. And again, doctors, firefighters, police officers; we’d expect passion to play a fairly important role there too, but we’re completely understanding of those professionals having perfectly human feelings about their work.

And again, the sentiment that goes with the original post, namely that a teacher must teach whatever students she finds in the classroom, I completely endorse. What makes a teacher a good teacher is not that she equally enjoys teaching every one of her students, but that she treats them all fairy and gives them all maximum opportunities despite whatever personal preferences she may have. The admonishment to never complain seems to conflate emotion with practice in a rather unfair way.

I worry that posts like this one have a negative potential. The quote in question, “Ugh! I have ‘those’ students in my class this year”, is clearly something said from one teacher to another. It’s not “Ugh! I don’t like teaching you”, said directly to students. That I would take issue with. But two teachers speaking in the relative privacy of the staffroom, sharing their burdens, challenges and struggles? Not only do I think it’s acceptable; I believe it is necessary that teachers be allowed to and feel comfortable doing this. The staff room should be a space where professionals feel free and comfortable to confer with their colleagues.

Posts like this one potentially shame any teacher who might feel this way. If you’re a teacher and you have students you don’t like, or you don’t completely love your job and all of your students every single day, then you’re a bad teacher, and if you share these thoughts aloud, we will look down upon you. That backdrop is very dangerous. It means that teachers who are struggling with certain students are less likely to talk about it, and as such less likely to collaborate with other teachers and receive helpful advice on how to adapt their approach and improve the classroom dynamic.

Furthermore, if a teacher feels this way but doesn’t feel like he can talk about it, then he might keep it quiet and struggle privately with the challenge until it eventually just becomes too much and he quits with feelings of failure and shame. It could be that actually great teachers are leaving the profession because they are told, however indirectly through social media posts, that they must be terrible teachers for the feelings they secretly harbour.

I don’t want to put words into the mouth of any individual, so I will accept wholeheartedly that the person who posted this genuinely does like each and every one of her students equally and utterly. However, a few individuals aside, I feel quite confident in saying that most teachers have days they don’t feel fully up to the challenge and students that they find difficult, frustrating and ultimately less enjoyable to teach than others. I know I do, and I think of myself as a pretty good teacher.

If you’re a teacher and you sometimes feel this way, don’t be ashamed. Don’t allow yourself to be looked down upon for perfectly natural, human feelings. Do not accept any suggestions that this makes you a bad teacher. Just resolve to do your very best to offer a valuable education to every student, whether you personally enjoy being in their presence or not. Failing that is what makes a teacher bad. Allowing your moods, emotions and preferences to interfere with your professional obligation is unacceptable. But I believe it’s far more likely to happen if a teacher feels that he cannot talk to anybody about his problems.

So, if you’re a teacher and you hear one of your colleagues complaining about some students that she’s struggling with, please try not to judge her, please try not to consign her to the waste pile for terrible teachers; instead, speak to her, listen to her difficulties and try offering some suggestions and support. And if you’re a teacher having trouble with some students you don’t particularly like for one reason or another, and you feel that you cannot talk to any of your colleagues about it for fear of judgement, then please feel free to send me a message and have a chat.

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