“you’re a terrible teacher”

I’ve been called many things in my very short tenure as an educator.  “Bitch” comes to mind, as do “racist”, “weird”, “corny”, and “shiny forehead”.  I’ve learned to take it all in stride and even laugh at most of it, but when I was accused by a student last week of being terrible at my job, my world nearly ended.

It was the beginning of my first class of the day, and my students were instructed to review for their quiz on the four types of economic systems.  He came in as he always does – just as the late bell rang and with no supplies.  When he asked what we were supposed to be doing, I pointed to the instructions on the screen and repeated them to him.  That’s when he lost it.

“What quiz?  We haven’t even learned anything.  You never teach us, you’re a terrible teacher.  I don’t learn anything in here.”

I have never felt so ill in my life.  I could feel the color leave my face, and my arms felt heavy at my side.  I just knew that I was going to either collapse or hit someone.  I slowly walked towards him, increasingly aware of the 17 other sets of eyes now watching me, waiting to hear what I was about to say.

“Maybe if you start bringing your notes to class, you won’t feel so unprepared.”

He scoffed and rolled his eyes.  This was not how I wanted to resolve our altercation.  I tried again.

“What can I do better?  How else can I help you learn?”

No response.  I waited, but still nothing.  At that point I made the decision to re-focus my attention on the other 17 students who were prepared for class that day.  After another class with a failed quiz and general disengagement, I sought out the advice of another teacher, explaining what happened.

I hate learning new information.  I wanted to be mad at him, treat him like the data-producing robot that the government wants.  Now he was human again, and his actions had reasons behind them.  Reasons that I don’t know how to solve.

The next day I went to the girls and boys basketball games to support my students who play, and he happens to be one.  Both of our teams are really good, and I was particularly impressed with his skill.  After the game I spoke to a few parents, complimenting them on their student’s performance, updating them on grades.  He had no family there to support him.

The next day in class he came in quietly and asked for help with the assignment.  I sat with him and walked him through the online budget simulation.  Once he began working, he had no more questions and he finished his assignment.  I helped him highlight the sections that will be on his next quiz.

As class ended, I stopped him at the door.

“Good game,” I said.

He stopped.  He smiled.

“Thank you,” he replied.


12 Comments on ““you’re a terrible teacher””

  1. Puppy Dickens says:

    I teach evening classes for troubled family members several nights a week. I’ve been doing this for a while and I see people in your position all the time. “A Terrible Teacher,” I have to say your experiences sound pretty mild compared to the animals I have to put up with on a weekly basis. To be fair, their parents are at the end of their rope, and that’s why they’ve come to me for help, so I at least have sympathy for them. But in my line of work I cannot afford to show sympathy to my students. Here are some tips that you might find handy in your classroom.

    1) Maintain strong verbal and eye control over your students. You have to be the pack leader. Most wild animals have an innate desire to dominate others, and it is absolutely no different here. This dominating behavior has to be overcome by a strong leader. This you can never forget.

    2) Treats are sometimes effective for reinforcing good behavior. And on the other hand, loud sharp noises can be used to indicate where the student has messed up.

    3) Excessive noise, whining, or fidgety behavior is natural behavior, but it needs to be carefully controlled. Again harsh eye contact, sharp retorts, and even electric collars are all potential solutions that should be considered carefully.

    4) If a student is particularly unruly (and this is something I resort to only rarely), force the student onto the floor on his or her back. Keep solid weight on the student’s chest at all times while staring into their eyes until dominance has been (at least temporarily) established.

    “A Terrible Teacher,” I can sense that your heart is in the right place and are trying. As usual, you will have to adapt your approaches depending on what breeds are in your classroom, but I think with the incorporation of some of my techniques you will have great success going forward.

  2. Matt Wilson says:

    I have to say that I love this conversation. Lets all pause for a moment and realize we are fighting the same fight. I’ve used the “tough love” routine many times with good results – in certain situations. 5th grade teacher brings up an important thing to keep in our minds – if there was a standardized test for playing the system our students would all be in the top 2%. Some kids will tell you a fabricated sob story just to evoke our sympathy – and get away with not doing their homework or being late or whatever. They know this ploy works very well particularly on younger white teachers – they expect us to be gullable, naive and afraid of comming off as racist, They watch Maury too – they know what stereotypes are out there.

    The thing we have to be extremely careful about though, is if the student actually isn’t just trying to manipulate you the “tough love” routine can effectively end any chance you had of getting through to that child – and you have reinforced the belief the student has about adults not caring. This is why I will always go to it only after trying many other tactics and learning everything I can about the student.

  3. Lori Ramey says:

    Erin, I’m so thankful for your fight to maintain your students’ humanity in the midst of dehumanization (standardized testing, rigid curriculum, narrow-minded definitions of success).

    This paragraph broke my heart and made me applaud: “I hate learning new information. I wanted to be mad at him, treat him like the data-producing robot that the government wants. Now he was human again, and his actions had reasons behind them. Sad reasons that I don’t know how to solve.”

    Thank you for caring about your students and refusing to give up relational teaching. Your students are incredibly blessed.

  4. Ok 5th Grade Teacher Maybe… you need to rethink your position. I was brought up in a miserable home setting. I had to do everything for myself and siblings. Still today I have trouble “asking for help.” Im pleased you had a perfect childhood and are well adjusted. Sounds like this kid didnt have the same opportunities and is still coping with what he was dealt. Your other comments are correct. Kids DO know. Try helping put a few more coping tools in his toolbox. This person is the whole lake … not just the surface. Yes everyone needs to treat everyone with kindness. But much of the world doesnt live in that monastery in Tibet! Be more selective when your continuing Ed. class comes due. Back to summer school for you! Try to find more tools for your toolbox …teacher!

    Amen Matt. Well said. Yes teachers today are under extreme pressures from every direction and they get little support while they’re trying to balance their lives… and god forbid the test scores don’t go up! TEACHERS are special people with a Special calling.

    NOW for you “terrible teacher” well done also. You know every kid at the game noticed that you care enough to be there…. which was more than many of their parents. Everyone is looking and needing love and attention and needing to know that they have worth and they matter. Telling people/children this also matters. A+ for you. Come help us on you huge long summer vacation (ha) and spend a week or two get another perspective that will enhance your skills and benefit your students. You always said you wanted to travel on your summer break!
    Actually, you’re ALL INVITED! check us out at http://www.teachateacher.org and here on WordPress! I now relinquish the soapbox!
    thanks mac

    • I work in a Title 1 urban school and this philosophy is based on my tremenous care for my students. I have been able to turn kids back to education who were previously on the verge of being expelled from the district for violence. Why would you assume I had a perfect childhood? Does this reflect the same kind of assumptions you carry into the classroom? Everyone is a student at some level and deserves respect from a community of educators. Our philosophy can only grow through dialog.

      • ruffled some feathers did I? I apologize. Why would you assume you understand this child’s actions were not due to his natural instincts of survival from a bad situation at home? I very well could be wrong…. I am quite often! Simple law of physics actions and reactions! Again, I apologize. My wife teaches in an inner-city school in DC. I know and understand exactly where you come from. I am still one of those students. I hope to learn more every day. Thanks for your reply! and yes everyone does indeed deserve respect.

  5. I’m in the tough love boat on this one. If his home life is hard he needs to step up his game, and ask for help instead of treating his teacher badly. Kids know when they’re not stepping up and they know that adults sometimes feel guilty and let them slide, or behave badly.

    • Matt Wilson says:

      There’s a big difference between letting a kid slide and trying to understand why they are behaving the way they are so you can find more effective ways to support them.

      • I agree. A tough love strategy requires a trusting relationship, otherwise they could care less about your disappointment in their performance or behavior. As a child who struggled because of a crappy home life, I can say that too few teachers held my feet to the fire. I would have loved them for it, because no one else cared enough to do it.

  6. Matt Wilson says:

    You couldn’t have handled the situation any better. Every time a student sees you in the stands or involved in any way outside of your classroom you make an impact. Many students these days have learned that adults just don’t care about them regardless of what they may say – not unlike the example set by that student’s mother. Words aren’t enough. It is conditioning that can only be undone with understanding, patience and time. And throw in some more patience.

  7. alenidali says:

    This is why I want to be a teacher/professor. Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

  8. Been there. Done that. Don’t beat your self up. We all focus on our lessons more than the kids do. The good teachers do what you just did. Recognize when we forgot we teach kids, not econ or in my case English/Language Arts. I have been doing this 23 years and still make mistakes. I worry for the kids who don’t have a teacher like you.

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