When Students Say, “You don’t like me”

adult education, authority, classroom management, pedagogy

Last week, one of my students, when confronted with a bad grade, asked me why I don’t like him. In 8 years of teaching college writing, I have had several students ask some version of the question, “Why don’t you like me?” They have asked with genuine confusion, hurt, and disappointment, either about a bad grade or my refusal to excuse a late paper.

I have genuinely liked all of these students, and many ended up acing my class. But the question from last week and semesters previous has me wondering: what does my students’ perception of my liking or disliking them have to do with their grades, meeting expectations, my role as a teacher?

I am trying to piece all these things together: 

  • Often when my students get a good grade, they say joyfully, “Oh, I’m so glad you liked my paper.” Or, “I went to the writing center to clean it up so that you would like it”; “I like this paper and I hope you like it, too.” 
  • When my students move onto English 101, sometimes they come back and ask for help with a difficult paper. Sometimes they ask what they can do to make their paper “right.” More often they also ask me to help the write “what the teacher will like.” Rhetorically speaking, it’s good that they’re thinking about their audience. But there’s still something underlying students’ perceptions of their teachers, not as guides, or even judges of writing criteria, but as givers/with-holders of “like” and “dislike.” 
  • Once, a student told me in office hours, “I liked your class, even though you were mean to me and didn’t like me.” He said it with a smile, and he was a great student, so I asked what he meant. “Like when you tell me to turn off my phone, you get mad and don’t like me. I want you to know I still liked your class.” 
  • Education, and writing education especially, is fraught with desire, fear, identity changes, embarrassment, insecurity, psychological pain, and emotional risk. 
  • Students’ experience academic, emotional, and social resistance can be an indication of all of the aforementioned complexities. 

On her other blog, Michelle recently wrote about the dangers of the consumer mentality in higher education. It can lead students to believe that we are here to serve, placate, or make them happy. The reverse consumer mentality is that our students believe they are here to work for us, to please, placate, and make us happy. Both are counter-productive.

Teaching novice learners has changed my classroom authority. In addition to writing instruction, I am here to encourage them: stay in school; persevere; use us as resources; yes, you are smart enough to graduate; no, your other teachers were wrong when they said you couldn’t write. An important part of my job is to teach students some of what it means to be a successful student, which means hearing a lot about their personal lives. That relationship we cultivate can blur my authority in good and bad ways. I’m honored that my students care enough to want me to like their papers. It feels hollow to tell them that a grade not personal when their writing and our mutual trust—that allows them to write so openly—is personal.

Along these lines, a more dicey problem came for me when students who failed to turn in an assignment on time asked me if I was refusing to accept their late papers because I didn’t like them. It seemed to them that I was unwilling to give them a chance, unwilling to understand their life circumstances that sometimes keep them from coming to school or finishing their work on time. It’s hard to convince them that it is precisely because I like and respect them that I hold them to a standard.

The nature of our writing assignments can also play into this like/dislike dynamic. Sometimes, my students are truly devastated with a low grade—they’ve poured their hearts into their assignment, and to receive a low grade feels like their life is being judged, and then rejected. Developmental writing teachers often mine students’ own experiences as our course content. We ask them to write to find their voice, to believe that they truly have something important to say. In the end, we must still evaluate and grade that deeply personal writing.

Sometimes, I still carry around the idea of a current traditional teacher who bestows knowledge and inspires fear. I get caught up in the worry that students who worry about my liking them aren’t sufficiently afraid of my Awesome Authority. I’ve pretty much accepted that I will never be Vivian Bearing. (Skip to 2:40) In the end, what’s worked for me is to assure a student that, in fact, I do like him/her—because it’s true and there’s no pedagogical reason for denying it. I think we can like our students and work with them. We can like them and hold them accountable and demand their best work. Stephen Colbert urges students to “Yes And.” We teachers should do the same.

How do your students reveal to you their views of authority in the classroom? How do their views affect your pedagogy?

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