One of the hardest lessons I had to learn as a teacher is this: perception is everything
This blog continues “‘Dead Poets Society’: 10 rules to follow in order to achieve long-term success (Pt. 2).”
I DON’T KNOW what caused me to speak so bluntly that day. The last thing my middle-school students wanted to hear was that their teacher didn’t like them. Especially at a small, independent girls school in Brentwood, Los Angeles — where their parents were paying about $40,000 per year for a top-flight education.
They had the right to be liked, they believed.
When I saw their expectations for me as their new teacher, I found it disturbing. I thought I needed to clarify things. I decided they needed a quick lesson in the way relationships work.
“It’s not possible for students and teachers to be friends,” I said.
I was trying to explain reality, that you cannot be friends with someone who has power over you. I was the teacher, and they were my students. I controlled their grade.
Ipso-facto — I could not be their friend.
“But we like you,” one girl said. “You’re my favorite teacher. You’re our friend.”
I shook my head.
“I’m friendly,” I said. “But I’m not your friend. I’m your teacher.” I saw heads begin to shake. They weren’t buying it. So I refined my dissipating, definitional argument.
“I’m not here to be your friend,” I continued. “I’m here to challenge you, to make you think, to teach you skills.”
They gaped at me.
I stopped. But inside my head, I kept explaining.
If they failed to achieve, I was ethically required to give them a grade that would bring them great unhappiness. They expected good grades. After all, parents would pay over a quarter million — by the time they finished their education at Archer.
And that was just a high school diploma.
I caught the eye of one of my students, Maddy. She was a warm-hearted girl everyone loved. She had often told me how much she loved my teaching.
Now there were tears in Maddy’s eyes. My words had wounded her.
Too late, I tried to adjust.
“It’s not that I don’t like you — you’re one of my favorite classes.” They were, kind of, I told myself. No need to mention that all of my classes were by necessity my favorites. One shouldn’t play favorites.
My logic was lost on Maddy, and the rest of my students. More girls were starting to cry. I hadn’t yet learned that in a girls school, tears are contagious.
I looked around helplessly, feeling what every male feels when confronted with a group of upset females. Especially since this entire conversation hadn’t been strictly necessary. It wasn’t even in the lesson plan I had created for the day.
Now, there was nothing I could do. Except maybe lie and tell them they were right.
Of course, teachers could be friends with students. I was just kidding. Bad teacher joke. You’re all my friends.
IT WAS A hard lesson to learn — perception is based on the choices you make.
I had treated my seventh-grade students like adults, expecting them to understand the fine points of friendship that even some adults don’t understand.
I should have never bothered with that explanation.
Here’s what my students really wanted to know: I care about you, I desperately want you to succeed in my class, and I will do everything in my power to help you.
Telling them I couldn’t be their friend was technically correct — but the words I chose had translated into something that frightened them.
They thought I didn’t like them.
Perception matters. That’s the lesson underlined by the remaining five rules. The first five rules — which I explained in-depth within Part 2 — focus on the impact you have in the classroom. These last five rules deal with the impact you make on your community.
So, on to rule number six.
6. YOUR STUDENTS ARE not your friends. As my opening shows, you may not want to tell your students this, but you need to realize this reality.
You have power over them— and any true friendship is based on equality.
Never underestimate the importance of knowing the role you play in your students’ lives. You are not a parent, not a friend — but a teacher. Knowing how to maintain appropriate boundaries will foster positive relationships in the classroom.
It is also crucial to your long-term success.
I’ve had to learn the hard way. When you work with students closely — whether it’s on a journalism staff, in a theatrical production, or within a student store — it’s easy to forget that they are still teens.
And if you’re a good teacher, students will want you to be their friend. It is to their advantage to believe this. Friends watch out for you. They share secrets with you. They are vulnerable with you. Having a teacher like that — what’s not to like?
So it is up to you to maintain appropriate boundaries. This means keeping a rail of reserve between the students’ lives and yours.
Even in my memoir classes — in which students agree to keep confidential whatever they hear — I do not assume their promise extends to me. When I share something personal, I ask myself: “Am I comfortable having this tweeted or snapchatted to the world?”
Because it will be.
Boundaries are also important when it comes to time spent with students during extracurricular activities. This can be confusing to young teachers — after all, aren’t the best teachers completely dedicated to their job?
No. Not completely.
Your job is not your life. It needs to be balanced with the rest of your life. If students see a teacher whose life is dedicated entirely to school with no time to recreate, with no time for their family during the academic year, with only adoring students as friends — they will believe that is normal teacher behavior.
And when they become teachers, they will act the same way.
Here’s a clue. If you find yourself virtually living at school — it means your life is wildly out of balance. Eventually, the boundaries begin to blur. It becomes easy to share too much.
For the sake of your students, and for your own sanity, you must find that balance.
During my second job as a yearbook adviser, in the fall of 1994, I began the year by meeting my staff at school for publication labs on Sunday afternoons. My schedule was relatively free — I let them chose the day. I was single, in my 30s, and my staff reflected my dedication to excellence.
To ensure efficiency, I would meet my editor-in-chief at a local restaurant for breakfast. Everyone who was anyone went there. My editor and I would plan out the work schedule for the day, and I would advise her on any staff issues she was facing.
Our meetings were as public as they could be.
During my first evaluation in November of that year, my principal responded to my classroom teaching. He was kind and complimentary. I knew he was a thorough professional who proofread every midterm report and sent them back to careless teachers, so I accepted his praise with gratitude.
But at the end of that conversation, he laid aside his writing pad.
“What I’m about to discuss with you will not go on record,” he said.
My breathing stopped. This could not be good.
“I wanted to have a quiet word with you about the work you are doing with your editor. Her mother tells me you have been meeting for breakfast on Sunday mornings?”
I felt my face flush under his clear gaze.
“Yes, we meet to plan out the workload during yearbook labs, and discuss any staff issues.”
He considered me, thoughtfully.
“I have no doubt your intentions are good. But I’m not sure they are … wise.” He tapped his pencil on the desk. “After all, we want to ensure that your tenure with us is long and successful.”
There was a moment’s silence. I nodded, my stomach roiling.
He stood, offering me a broad smile. It was the only time he ever mentioned his concern.
There were no more planning breakfasts with my editor after that.
7. KEEPING YOUR ROOM tidy is crucial to your students’ success.
This sounds like a petty rule by an OCD principal. But it’s not. It cuts to the heart of your credibility. If you can’t control your classroom, you can’t control your students’ learning.
A tidy room sends a clear signal that you are in control of the learning environment, and that you are thoughtful and intentional about your teaching.
Most importantly, a tidy room makes your students feel secure. It instantly conveys to students that nothing will happen within that room that you do not permit. It eliminates distractions, and allows you to focus on your students.
When students feel secure, they will relax and engage with you as a teacher.
Can anything be more important than that?
In addition, keeping a tidy classroom will also gain you major points with the custodial staff, whom you want on your side.
Several years ago, the head of the custodial staff came to me. After praising the custodian who swept my room, he pointed out that the job would be easier if I just had my students point their chairs into the middle of the table, not out where the ends would catch on his clothes.
I paid attention. From then on, the chairs faced inward. It was an easy thing to do. Too bad he had to remind me.
Keeping a tidy room pays dividends.
8. DON’T RIDICULE THE people around you — your faculty colleagues, your administration, even national leaders who belong to the “wrong” political party.
Using your position to diminish anyone — whether it’s a principal or another faculty member — never ends well. You might create a firestorm that could scorch your career.
The same holds true for remarks about political figures. You never know whose beliefs or feelings you might hurt.
While I was working at The Archer School, my headmistress informed us teachers that our students should not be able to tell what political party we belong to. Our job is not to promote a specific party, she told us. Instead, our role is to help our students process and come to their own conclusions.
This is exceptionally difficult, especially if you share a tight bond with your students. Too often, I’ve failed here. It’s easy to believe students are actually interested in your political opinions. But our moral authority makes such sharing unfair.
This rule holds for both high school and college students. My role as an instructor is to teach our students critical frameworks through which they can come to their own opinions.
I remember teaching a university course during the McCain vs. Obama election in 2012. One night, during class, I decided to show the vice-presidential debate.
Granted, it was a last-minute decision.
Also, during previous classes, I had made witty observations about which party was clearly on the right side of history. And during the debate, when a good point was scored, I pointed this out. I was deeply grateful my candidate was so brilliant. Surely, my students could see this.
That evening, my students learned a lot about critical thinking.
The next week, to my surprise, my area chair dropped by to see me before class.
She refused to meet my eyes.
“Several of your students have complained about the last class,” she said. “They felt you used class to advance your own ‘partisan agenda.’”
Her fingers created air quotations.
“But the debate fit the objectives of the class,” I argued. My supervisor shook her head, looking everywhere but at me.
“Yes, you’re probably right. I’m just letting you know.”
As she was leaving, she turned back to me. This time, she looked me full in the face.
“You know there are a lot of conservatives in your class, right?”
I guess I hadn’t.
“Crazy, isn’t it?”
As she left my classroom, I thought about my former headmistress’s words.
It was the last time I used a political debate to “teach critical thinking.”
9. NEVER TAKE ADVANTAGE of your power by criticizing a student or their parents — even when they criticize you.
The parents of your students aren’t interested in knowing how popular you are. They don’t care about your degrees or experience. They only care about how well liked you are by one student — their own child.
And if you’ve made their child feel bad — if their child hates you or has been hurt by you — they will hate you. They will even go after your job.
One of the most difficult roles I ever played as a teacher was that of debate coach. I had no experience, and I was “following God,” as educators say. He had brought the school multiple state championships. He had a devoted following.
And when I took his place, even after working with him for a year, I endured some of the most ruthless, negative criticism I’ve ever received.
After I transferred from debate to journalism, I got an email from the former coach. He asked to come see me. It had been awhile since we had talked, so I agreed. I dreaded what I figured would be bad news, but I wanted to know.
I figured right.
He limped into the room — it had been a hard year for him as well — and sat down on a chair across from me. He paused, choosing his words.
“Are you aware that before you left, one of the parents went to the superintendent? She wanted you fired. And now she believes you were. As does the entire group of parents.”
I felt rage build up in my chest. The words came out in a rush.
“But I haven’t been. I made the choice to move from debate to journalism.”
“I know that,” he said. “That’s not the reason I came to see you.”
He paused for a moment, staring at the floor. I knew he was thinking. Finally, he glanced up.
“This is hard,” he said. “But it might be wise to let people think that. Rather than tell them the truth. As it stands, they got their pound of flesh, and they’ve backed off.”
It was good advice, although it was frustrating, not being able to defend myself.
However, when my team leaders came to me, sympathy in their eyes, I didn’t argue. I let them believe what they wanted.
Today, when I reflect on that situation, I don’t blame the administration. I agreed to take a coaching job for which I was wholly unsuited.
Nor do I blame the students: they wanted a coach with confidence and skill — after working under a legendary debate coach — and I had neither.
Today, almost six years later, I don’t even blame the parents. They were frustrated their children weren’t getting the coach they wanted. They didn’t even want to listen when my retired coach — who has since become one of my closest friends — tried to defend me by reminding them (accurately) that it takes about five years to become a good debate coach.
The parents needed an experienced coach then.
There was no help for it.
I had taken on an unwinnable job, and I just needed to get through it.
Today I look back on that time as a crucible, a time of testing.
I needed to learn how to be patient and kind — not reacting even when one parent thoughtlessly told me how emasculated I must feel.
I needed to learn how to lead even when I received little positive feedback.
I needed to learn how to respond with poise even under extreme pressure.
Most importantly, I needed to learn that life isn’t all about me, that their criticism wasn’t personal — even when it very much felt that way.
In a situation like that, I learned, you don’t win by complaining (I did too much of it!). I learned that the best response to unjust criticism is keeping your mouth shut, putting your head down, and doing the best job you know how to do for your students — even when no one gives you an ounce of credit for trying.
10. MAKE YOUR ACADEMIC classes your first priority — not your coaching or advising. This is a lesson I’ve also had to learn the hard way. And the secret for me has been found in my decision to transform the organizations I lead into student-led teams.
From 1994 – 2001 at Hoover High School in North Canton, OH, I taught three preps each year while advising a yearbook with an annual budget of $90,000. Because I also loved theatre, during my third year, I agreed to become the drama club adviser.
I had a hard time saying no when students needed me.
When deadlines arrived or when crises hit, my classroom preparation and grading suffered. I would tell my students in my academic classes just to … work on their homework for other classes.
I bumped along this way, taking on more and more. Always, it was my classroom work that suffered when my extracurriculars faced trouble. Occasionally, I had complaints, but I dealt with them (I was truly a Christian martyr), and my supervisors all appreciated the strong leadership I provided these groups.
Or so I thought.
After I was hired by The Archer School — before I left North Canton — my English department chair gave me some parting advice. We were in my classroom. It was August, and we had just met with my principal to tell him I was leaving.
“You’re a very good teacher,” she said. “But you might want to make it a goal at Archer to focus on your academic classes. You are hired first of all to teach, not to advise extracurriculars. Your classes need to be your priority.”
I shifted in my seat, uncomfortably. I recognized that she was telling the truth. She had a photographic memory, and she had been teaching with me for over seven years. She knew me well, and had defended me fiercely as my chair.
“That’s good advice,” I told her, stiffly. “Thank you.”
I resented her advice, at first. But at Archer, I experienced a profound shift in my thinking. I finally separated myself from the student organization I led — thanks to the training I received, the research I completed, and the whole ethos encouraged by the school.
At Archer, even parent/teacher conferences were student-led. As I watched my seventh-grade students prepare and lead poised meetings with their parents, I began to appreciate the possibilities that existed in any student-led organization.
It worked well in the student store that I built and advised there. When I moved to Vashon High School, coaching debate, I allowed my students to lead. When I became newspaper adviser, I applied the same leadership paradigm. But as I gave my students more autonomy, I had to face the challenge of establishing clear boundaries.
Was there a point where I was giving students too much power? What aspects of leadership are high school students simply not able to embrace?
What are the boundaries adults need to set?
Recently, after I chose the next year’s editor, one of the parents wrote to me, asking why I didn’t allow seniors to serve on the selection committee (a committee composed of administrators and faculty interviews each editorial applicant). In my response, I clarified that the choice of editor needed to be made by adults. No senior, no matter how wise and experienced, is legally permitted to have access to all the information adults have about each student.
Finding the right boundaries are difficult and also crucial. But because I have found a balance that works when advising extracurriculars, I can focus on my teaching. I support my students, but I don’t micromanage my organization in a way that hurts my teaching.
It has been difficult, letting go. Total control feels better. But my students respect and appreciate the boundaries I’ve set up that allow them to have autonomy.
Be aware that this approach means your students will make more mistakes — at first. Once they realize they really are responsible, they own their organization in an astonishing way. And the work they produce will become more colorful, original, and authentic.
Yes, I struggle with ensuring that I don’t give students too much freedom. I don’t want them to fail. I worry that I’m not connected enough to my staff. But these are healthy concerns. Because whatever the answer, this struggle is a clear indication that the boundaries between my academic classes and my production classes are working.
SO THERE YOU are. Ten rules for success.
Writing this has been incredibly helpful, allowing me to reflect on the craft of teaching. I hope you’ve gotten as much from it as I have.
If you’re a teacher, I’d love to hear about your own classroom experience and philosophy, and the places where you’ve grown across your career.
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