Sunday, October 08, 2017

Middle school teacher struggles with students who don't like him

"How come some people don't like me?"

It's a question you hear from children and adults alike. Often it comes accompanied by sheer bafflement, given that so many others do find the questioner likeable. What makes the dis-likers dislike so much? "I teach middle grades mathematics," writes S.M., a reader in Florida. "I assure you, I only want what is best for each and every student."

But S.M. writes that there are "the traditional 5 percent" who seem to think it's them versus him, who want to blame him for their shortcomings as a student, as do some of their parents. I suspect the 5 percent observation is not a precise mathematical calculation.

S.M. is indeed baffled and has never understood why two students could be sitting side-by-side and the one with an A average in class loves him while the one with a D average hates him. "I'm only one person," he writes, "and I have to treat everyone equally."

The closest he writes that he can come to understanding why a student wouldn't like him is that he won't allow him or her to break the rules.

If S.M. is going to continue to teach, he's right to want to try to teach each person equally and to want what is best for each and every student. But he may be off in his assessment of why a small percentage of students each year seem to not like him.

Good teachers work hard at their jobs. Middle school teachers might have an especially challenging task where they are not only trying to work with students to master new material, but also trying to engage their students as they go through challenging developmental stages and wrestle with challenges outside of the classroom including the task of slowly seguing into their teenage years.

S.M. is also right that some students simply may not like to follow his rules and could initially resent him for imposing rules on them at all. Still, his job is to be fair and consistent, but mostly to work his hardest to educate his students.

But if it's the A students who love him and the D students who don't, S.M. might look to those grades as an additional explanation of why some students could be struggling to appreciate him as much as he'd like them too. If a student has a D average in class, he or she would seem to be having a challenge comprehending the material being taught. It is frustrating for anyone to feel like he or she is failing or close to failing in school or on the job. The anger S.M. experiences emanating from these students could be more about their frustration in being able to learn the material he's trying to teach as it is about them not liking him.

The right thing is for S.M. to worry less about his students liking him and more about continuing to try to do what he can to help them comprehend the material he's presenting them. If the students ultimately master the material, but S.M. still perceives that they don't like him all that much, he should focus more on successfully teaching them the math they need to now and less on how much they like him. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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