Weekly Reflection: Being someone’s worst teacher

A few weeks ago the New Zealand government launched an online campaign called inspiredbyu. The idea is that New Zealanders would write a virtual postcard to teachers that helped shaped them into the person they are today.

On the surface the initiative seems great. Genuine words of thanks are the most powerful bonus any teacher can receive. Yet I find myself wondering if in celebrating the best means we don’t take time to learn from our failures.

I’ve been critical of the superhero narrative creeping into our national conversation of education that there’s a special breed of teachers out there that will be all things to all kids all the time.

However the reality is that no one teacher is a perfect fit for every student.

Education is such a personalised process. Each learner brings with them their own personality and so do our teachers. The things that make a teacher great in the eyes of one student are often part of their personality.

My propensity towards messy projects,  quirkiness and obsession with technology  is so much of who I am as a person that it extends right down to my choice of footwear.

What is awesome to me might be awful to someone else.
What is fantabulous to me is awful to someone else.

However just like shoes what might make someone an awesome teacher for one student might be down right awful for another.

At the end of last year I received some lovely cards and some words of thanks from both students and parents. I also received a phone call from one parent that will stick with me for a very long time.

A child in my class had hated being in my class so much that they were refusing to come to school.

While feeling the sting of criticism can be tough, mostly I felt bad for the kid that they felt so poor in my class for the entire year. The words still hang in the air.

I was this child’s worst teacher.

There wasn’t any malicious intent from either me or the child – just a break down in communication. I knew something was up but I wasn’t able to put together the missing pieces. In that respect I was a failure.

Did I learn from the experience?

Yes?

Have I changed my classroom management as a result of the experience?

Absolutely.

While classroom success should be celebrated failure isn’t something that should be stuffed away. In fact the first thing I did after the phone call was let my principal at the time know about the situation. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do but it was the right one.

At some point in their career every teacher is going to have a moment when they are someone’s worst teacher.

Having this title doesn’t make a teacher bad it’s what we do with it afterwards that counts.

At a time when teaching in the media is increasingly being polarised between the incompetent and brilliant it’s worth reminding that all teachers have bad days and also kids in their classes that they weren’t able to develop that learning relationship.

Most days I’m good for most kids, great for some and working really hard to make adequate with a few.

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14 thoughts on “Weekly Reflection: Being someone’s worst teacher

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  1. Wonderful post! Great admiration for your ability to take some “negative” but honest feedback and use it to guide new thinking and approaches in your own methods.

    Usually our first brush (and even subsequent ones) with being someones “worst teacher” is very confronting and hidden away – if we share strategies and provide support for reflection then we can use the feedback in a powerful way.

    Sharing widely – all teachers should be so brave and honest.

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    1. Hi
      I think teachers realise that you can be fantastic one day and have a bad one the next. Also with kids I know that in the very same class some kids will love me and some think I am their worst teacher.

      Stephanie

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  2. Thanks for the candid and important post.
    I’ve been teaching for longer than you have been alive (maybe!) and can vouch for the fact that one size does not fit all and, while we do our best to give every single child what they need, there will be times when the match doesn’t work as well. My stomach still turns when I think about a bad experience with the son of a colleague several years ago. Not only did I fail to get the best out of him (it was only a year later as his PYP exhibition mentor that we really connected and I redeemed myself) but I said some ill considered things in a meeting with his parents and inadvertently upset them. (I’ve been forgiven). Teachers are human too 🙂

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    1. Hi Edna
      Yes teachers are human too though sometimes we don’t like to admit it to anyone let alone least of all ourselves. Sometimes we are lucky that we might get a chance to redeem ourselves.

      Stephanie

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  3. The wonderful thing about being humans is that we are all individuals. You are so right when you explain what a teacher is to the different students in their class. Im lucky to still be in touch with some students through various means, and those that want that contact want it because you’ve made a connection with them that they value. We will always be gutted about the one or two in the class that we don’t bond with, but as you said we do learn from the rocky relationships and treasure the fruitful ones.

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  4. What a refreshing, honest reflection. Thank you so much for sharing. Heaven knows that I’ve often felt like a complete failure for not being everything to every student/parent many times… It is comforting to read that someone else I have a lot of respect for has felt the same.

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  5. Hi Stephanie,

    What a beautiful, deep reflection. Thanks for sharing!

    I think about the teacher-student relationship as a dialogue, because lots of learning happens in interactions, yet sometimes it happens that the student chooses not to engage in it – for a variety of reasons. The student may interpret teacher’s words and actions in a way they were never meant to be understood, or just have an internal image of student’s role (instilled by parents?) that doesn’t fit the teacher’s instructional and classroom management practices… resulting that teacher’s and student’s worlds don’t meet. A simplistic Venn diagram representation would be the circle of the teacher and the circle of the student not even touching each other, while in a a situation of deeper dialogue (and better relationship?) the circles overlap more or less.

    While I am working on my research about student’s agency in their own learning, I am also looking into the fact that there are students who decide not to engage in their own learning, even if they were provided with choices – and that makes it really, really hard to be a “good teacher” for these students! Thank you for documenting your professional growth!

    ~ Nina

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