No one wants to admit it, but it happens. If you work in education, chances are you’ve had a student or two that you just felt you didn’t like. No matter how hard you try not to let them, some students just get under the skin. Still, the loving and caring teacher you are, you want to know how you can help them anyway and maybe come around to liking them in the process.
If you feel you don’t like a student keep in mind that they may be disrupting your class because they are dealing with internal issues. Write in a journal or find a close colleague you can vent to instead of talking to just anyone and work on strategies to strengthen your relationship with the student. If nothing else, don’t give up.
If you’re struggling with a student and you want some advice on how to deal with them empathetically, you’ve come to the right place. First, we’ll break down the differences between early teachers’ expectations of students and the reality they often end up facing. Then we’ll turn our attention to both things you’ll want to try and avoid to best deal with the situation.
Expectations vs Realizations When it Comes to Liking Students
A lot of first year teachers are jarred by the realization that they don’t like all of their students. In college, they expect that they will be able to reach every single student who walks through the doors.
When they get there, they find that isn’t always the case. The best thing to do is adjust your attitude to address the reality you find yourself in, instead of getting caught up in it not being like you expected. Once you take a more realistic view of the situation you can be more effective.
Watching What You Say Around Your Peers
When dealing with a problem student, it can be tempting to vent about it any chance you get. Still, you need to keep in mind that word travels fast around a school. If someone overhears you, or the person you’re talking to repeats what you’ve said to someone else, then it could get around to the student or their parents. Be very careful who you trust.
Fortunately, the following strategies should help you avoid accidentally oversharing when you need to vent.
Finding Trusted Colleagues and Friends to Confide In
Instead of giving an ear beating to anyone who happens to be in the breakroom at lunch, you should find a few trusted friends and colleagues you can vent to or go to for advice. In a lot of public schools, first year teachers are required to have a mentor teacher. That’s usually a great person to go to if you feel like you don’t know anyone yet.
Just remember not to share any information about the student, which could violate student privacy laws. If it makes you more comfortable you can talk in generalities about what has been happening. Getting it off your chest will make you feel better either way and it’ll give you an opportunity to get an outside perspective on what you should do.
Keeping a Journal To Get Negative Feelings Off Your Chest
If you want to keep things tight, you can simply keep a journal of all the thoughts and feelings you’re having about your students. It’s similar to the idea of writing an angry letter to someone you’re having a conflict with and never sending it. It helps you let go of the negative feelings and feel like you’ve been able to release some built-up pressure
General classroom management is a key to minimizing troublesome relationships with students. There are many techniques that will help create a calm learning environment. This is a disincentive for students who are looking for attention.
I know, I know you can be a classroom management ninja and it’s fruitless with some kids! They can even get you in trouble and result in a poor evaluation.
Carefully Approaching the Student
If it’s true that you need to watch what you say to your peers, then it’s doubly true that you need to watch what you say to the student themselves. Students that act up are usually externalizing some form of internal suffering.
A lot of the time they have problems with their self-image. A teacher who reveals negative feelings for the child will not only negatively affect them but it could make their behavior worse.
I believe (and I’m not a psychologist) that there are some humans who just simply are not nice. They don’t have deep seated psychological issues or trauma; they’re just jerks. The world has jerks. They do not appear suddenly as adults; they’re jerks as teens as well. Be careful, be very very careful. This personality would LOVE for you to say something inappropriate!
Instead of unloading on them, here are a few constructive strategies in approaching a problematic student about their behavior:
- Use neutral terms and describe how their behaviors make you feel, then give them an opportunity to tell you their side of the story.
- Even if they’re sarcastic when they respond, actively listen to let them know you’re taking their issues seriously.
- If they have any issues with your class, see if any compromises are possible.
- Make it clear that you believe in them and you’re here to help.
Most of the time (if not all of the time), a mere conversation will not be enough to change a students behavior. However, developing a relationship with them over a long period has a much higher success rate. That still starts with a single conversation.
Having Empathy for Difficult Students
Frequently when students are acting up, it’s because they’re externalizing some form of internal pain. Knowing this can help you hold onto perspective when you’re dealing with students you don’t like.
In her TED Talk Every Kid Needs a Champion, educator Rita Pierson puts it best when she says that “while you won’t like them all [of your students], the key is, they can never, ever know it” because every kid “deserves a champion.” The difficult students are the ones who need good, caring teachers the most.
Having a Plan for When Difficult Students Get the Better of You
You should have a back up plan for the days when your student or students are being particularly disruptive, and you feel your emotions may get the better of you. In this sort of situation, diffusion is the name of the game. You want to find a reasonable way to get a break from the student without abandoning your classroom.
One excellent method for doing this is to send them on an errand. Particularly one that takes place on the other side of the school. This could be as simple as delivering an attendance sheet to the office to taking the time to establish a job for them, like making copies.
This not only gets them away and gives you a chance to see past what’s happening at the moment, but it also allows them to sense that they can be trusted to handle responsibilities. If it’s done right, both of you should grow from it.
Here’s a trick that has served me well. I reach out to the teacher who is the farthest from my room; this year it’s a science teacher upstairs and on the other side of the building. I tell them at some point I might be sending a student to her with an envelope with both our names on it. That’s her clue that Joan needs a break from this kid.
There’s an empty sheet of paper in the sealed envelope. Science teacher says to the student, “give me 2 minutes, please.” After all she’s teaching. She takes her time opening the letter and “reading” it. Then she can pretend to reply in writing or just give the student a “message” for me. “Thank you; I’ll email her a response.”
I, of course, will do the same for the science teacher. You can’t use this a lot, but it’s a great ace in the hole when you REALLY need it.
Tips to Help You Like the Student a Little More
Most of what we’ve discussed so far has to do with helping the student despite not liking them. That leaves open the question of what you can do to maybe lighten up on the student yourself a bit.
Each of the following tips should make it a little bit easier to see the good in all of your students:
- Find the humor in the situation: Kids can be funny, even when they’re getting on your nerves. If you can find the humor in a situation, it will take away the power the student wields by making you upset and it will help you more clearly envision how to help them.
- Remember things could be worse: Knowing that things could be worse can help give you the confidence you need to deal with your students.
- Keep in mind you only have to hold out for 10 months: Helping a student is rarely–if ever– a solo effort. If you keep in mind that you’ll be passing the baton to the next teacher in 10 months it can give you the strength you need to carry on.
- Be comforted that a lot of your class behaves very well: When you get hyper focused on the most challenging student in the classroom, you can lose sight of the 20 other students who are working just fine and think your job is worse than it is. Counting your blessings can help keep you more level headed.
So Really, What Do I Do if I Don’t Like My Student(s)?
Remember that teaching isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. It can exhaust you until you feel like you’ve got nothing left to give. Still, if you focus on the positive, view helping your students as a process that involves you and many other teachers, and find strategies to maintain your mental health, you can get through to difficult students.
Remember that students aren’t just being difficult because they’ve got nothing better to do. Often they’re merely externalizing internal struggle and pain. If you can develop a relationship with them, you might just be that teacher they look back at 20 years later as being the person who helped them figure out their direction in life.
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