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Why Are Some Students So Mean to Teachers They Like?

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Adolescents are funny creatures. They aren’t all alike, but many of them share features. Knowing those shared features can help teachers to do their jobs better. Adolescents, and even young adults (up to 23 or so), are in a process of forming their bodies, their minds/brains, and their identities. As a result, they are filled with hormones, unpredictable and perhaps illogical thoughts, and they are trying out different versions of who they are. 

Adolescents and young adults are a bit like someone shopping for clothes, trying to decide what style they want to wear, but they aren’t just buying clothes, they are making them. And the materials they can use are only what is available to them. Further, every choice they make has consequences (positive and/or negative), and they react to those consequences more dramatically than most young children or older adults would. In many ways, adolescents feel emotional pain more strongly that the rest of us do. That emotion causes them to react in ways you might not expect.

As you can imagine, young adults are in constant states of flux. They learn more from each experience than most others do, and they feel those experiences more deeply that most others do. In such turbulent waters, students will look for something to stabilize themselves, like a drowning person clings to wreckage or to a rock face, as the waves and currents swirl and crash around them. Often, teachers find themselves the rock that the students cling to. But it doesn’t always feel like students are clinging. Sometimes it feels like students are slamming themselves up against it. But that’s the turbulence–the swells, the rip tides of young adulthood. They cling to the rockface, even as violence swirls around them, occasionally pushing them in directions they can’t control.

When Students Trust Teachers

Young adults need as many stabilizing forces as they can grab a hold of. One of the most available is a likable, trustable teacher. When you are that teacher–and the more you truly care about students the more times you will BE that teacher–it can feel like someone is slamming against you, rather than hugging you close. That’s why it feels like students are mean. They don’t want to be, but they are not able to completely control it.

Students act out against teachers they trust and like. This is a fact. There are many reasons why this happens:

  • The student dislikes themself, which makes them uncomfortable with people who like them. They know–deep down–that they are not likeable, so they passionately distrust people who appear to like them. The only ones they show this anger and resentment to is the teacher they trust. After all, if they can prove that you really dislike them, that will confirm their own feelings that they are not likable. It’s better to feel correct than to have to accept something you can’t bring yourself to accept.
  • The student is testing out their own power. For so many years they have felt powerless. They want to see how much power they really have. So they wield it to see what will happen. They might yell at a teacher, embarrass them in front of other students. Or make a cutting remark–no one can cut someone deeper and faster than a willful young adult. They choose to do this to a teacher they like because they know–deep down–that this teacher will eventually forgive them.
  • The student is in real pain. They can’t show this to the world because they will be torn to shreds by the young adults around them, who in many ways are using the other young adults around them to test and define their own power. So they act out toward someone they trust, in hopes that person will recognize their pain and maybe even help them with it.
  • The student feels betrayed by the teacher they trust. Once you’ve earned the trust of a young adult, they will cling to you loyally. (This is why predatory adults are attracted to teaching jobs.) If the student believes you have betrayed that trust–even unintentionally, even without even realizing it–they may act out powerfully from the hurt it has caused them. Because they are constantly bombarded with such betrayals by their peers–who are in their own turbulent waters, clinging to their own wreckage–they have little tolerance for betrayal. Even what the rest of us might consider a minor slight can feel devastating to a young adult.

All the situations above give teachers an unfair burden. That’s the job.

What Can A Teacher Do?

It’s a lot to take on the baggage of young adults–especially when you interact with 100-125 or more of them each day. And many new teachers are not entirely out of this situation themselves, as they can be as young as 20. I had this issue myself as a first-year teacher when I dealt horribly with a very nice student who had a little crush on me.

There are things teachers can do to keep themselves grounded in these emotional rip tides:

  • Don’t take things personally. These situations are almost never really about you. They are about the student and their perceptions. Try not to react with your own emotions–other than true care for your students. Instead, see the situation from their perspective. 
  • Be firm, but fair. When students cross lines–and they will as a natural consequence of the stages of life they are living–deal with it kindly and without anger. Be the adult. Explain why the student’s behavior is unacceptable and make it clear you will not tolerate it. Explain with kindness. Say things like, “I understand you may feel . . ., but here is what must happen in our classroom. . .”
  • Don’t hold grudges. Students make lots of mistakes and they need to understand that trustworthy people will still like them after they make mistakes. Even bad mistakes.
  • Before anything else, ask the student, “Are you OK? Often, a student’s behavior is intended to get your attention because they need something: advice, comforting, clarification, protection. The student may not even know this. But you should.
  • Have your own stabilizers. Make sure you are not using your students as your rockface in the wreckage. You need other adults, especially some who are also teachers or who work well with young people. Your students cannot be your rock, even though you can be theirs.
  • Ask for help. When you feel out of your depth, get advice and help from professionals you trust. Choose a mentor, contact a former teacher you trust; read more blogs, articles, and books on positive relationships between students and teachers. 

Students Are Resilient and So Are You

Yes, there are times when students may dislike you or may distrust you, even when it’s not your fault. Here are some of the experiences like this that I’ve had. But when students do trust you, it can be painful, too. However, students are resilient, as you are. When each wave passes, there is usually at least a brief lull before the next one. Most students are quick to recover from emotional slights. Bigger problems require bigger solutions, of course, but most of the problems will not be very big. They will fade. 

Make your class a space of calm waters in a wildly violent sea. More than anything, that’s what students need in order to learn effectively, which is your job. The payoff for you comes in knowing you are helping your students to become strong, empowered adults who can make their way in a world that is not always good to them.

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