I’m privileged to be the parent of a great teen who’s normally a strong student and capable of pulling A’s when she applies herself. She is a sweet kid, good natured, motivated, and not prone to vitriol. But she is subject to our public school system and though her school ranks in the top 5% nationally and in the top 3% in our state, like all schools it sports its share of teachers who have, shall we say, seemingly lost their zeal for teaching.
Last semester she made the following comments about one of her classes:
I hate my Honors English teacher. Everyone else does, too.
Everyone’s trying to get out of her class (unsuccessfully).
She’s worthless. She’s lazy. All she does is…[insert criticism]. She never…[etc]…
When I ask my teacher a question, she’s so snotty to me.
If I have a question about something, I don’t feel like I can even ask because she’s just going to yell at me.
It’s not fair. My English teacher hates me.
I’m close to my child. I commiserated. We don’t often use the word “hate” in our house so clearly emotions were high. But we’ve all been there. We’ve all been frustrated by school experiences forced on us. And as students, we all blamed the teacher.
A teacher who engages you, whose teaching style you like, makes school more fun. It can make learning effortless. Or at least less tedious. Good teacher/student connections make earning A’s easier.
The converse is also true.
I was saddened by my teen’s statements. English is smack dab in my teen’s wheelhouse. She is an avid reader, well spoken, and a strong creative writer. Earning A’s in English is inarguably within her capability. Actively disliking an English course was a first.
She did poorly in that semester. Capable of getting straight A’s, she barely escaped getting a C in that class. Such GPA hits, unchecked, can become a problem for a student with their heart set on getting into the selective Big Ten University drawing many of her friends and classmates.
In commiserating with my child, being a good listener and leaving it at that, I failed my teen as a parent, as a mentor. I took the bonding opportunity but missed the opening for a teaching point.
I failed to point out that every one of my teen’s observations above were linked.
The great thing about failures is that they can be springboards to learning. Now she’s helping me with my failure and I’m helping her with hers (Yes, in this family, a low B is a failure to manage your future). So we wrote this together, hoping our experience and takeaways help others.
Here are the learning points for teens, by a teen (and her parent).
1) What you broadcast gets reflected.
Humans are social creatures. People in close proximity pick up on others’ vibes. We can tell when someone near us is bothered, sad, or angry. We can often sense honesty or its absence. We can sense respect. We can also sense disrespect or disregard. This is all because (most) humans are, by nature, empathetic.
Teens get this. They sense when someone likes or doesn’t like them, even among strangers and often without any words being spoken. The reason why might remain a puzzle, but the feeling comes through. We’re social. We’re tribal. Like pack animals of a sort. So we’re always broadcasting cues, always receiving them from others. That’s especially true when you’re a teenager in a socially dense environment, like school.
Teenagers are often only beginning to develop the experience, the skill (and for many the inclination) to conceal how they’re feeling. Their feelings and attitudes show in their faces, in their body language, in their eye contact, or lack thereof. It’s broadcast in their attentiveness, or lack thereof.
People choose how they will feel. They adopt an opinion. Then they broadcast. Everything.
That means others can read you, even if they don’t let on. You’re social. So are they. But adults have had the experience of long practice. So if you as a teen think you feel it when someone at school either likes you or not, imagine how well that sense works for someone who’s had longer than you to develop that skill at reading others, at sensing what they’re feeling.
That’s the case with teachers more than almost any other kind of adult.
Adults who spend lots of time with teens can become almost like mind readers, even if they don’t show it. They’ve seen it all. Reading students’ attitudes comes from experience. And even though a teacher may be adept at hiding what they pick up from students’ broadcasts, they’re human. It affects them.
They also have the experience to get that sense from every individual sitting in their class. Just because a student is one of thirty doesn’t mean they’re invisible, that the teacher is oblivious to their broadcasting.
Because they’re human, they are prone to reflect those broadcasts.
When we sense someone doesn’t like us or respect us, we’re likely to reflect that antipathy. It takes conscious effort not to. Teachers aren’t immune to that inclination.
Teen thought experiment: If your roles were reversed, how would you respond when someone came up to you with a question after broadcasting they thought you were worthless, that time listening to you was wasted, that you sucked at your profession? Think about that. Many people don’t, then go through life clueless about how and why others respond to them the way they do.
A smart guy named Rajiv Rohan wrote: “The moment we look at ourselves in the mirror and say – ‘I am responsible for my life experience’ – is the moment we grow up.”
We each bear responsibility for the way others respond to us. That is a tough truth.
So when the student approaches a disdained teacher, begrudged because they teach a course the student doesn’t value or for employing a teaching style the student abhors, there should be no wonder when the teacher responds with similar attitude before words are even spoken. It’s no coincidence the teacher acts like they know that student’s thoughts.
2) The attitudes you adopt, embrace, and broadcast affect your grades.
The teacher/student connection, good or bad, is a two-way street. The teacher has an obligation to impart knowledge. The student has an obligation to arrive prepared to absorb it.
But no teacher has an obligation to behave or teach their course exactly the way every student wants. That would be impossible. But every teacher will teach so that those who are willing to earn an A can do so. The proof is that some students invariably do.
The students who decide that knowledge isn’t being conveyed the way they want, expect, or demand, are making a conscious choice. It hurts only them. Students who adopt disdain for a teacher, regardless of whether that might be deserved, throw a barrier in front of their own learning. They make getting that A grade harder, perhaps impossible. That is not only because people tend to tune out things they don’t like or want to hear, but because most classes have subjective components incorporated in the final grade. So a teacher’s personal evaluation of the student comes into play when their grade is assigned.
When the student and teacher work to respect each other, when the student is attentive, engaged, and has made the effort to be interested (sometimes in spite of the teacher’s behavior), that better grade occurs naturally.
Humans are inclined to evaluate more favorably those who pay attention to what they’re saying.
Whether that seems fair does not matter. That’s how humans are. It’s true in school. It will be true when one begins a career. And it will be true for the way you evaluate the performance of those who work for you if you ever become a boss. Respect is the currency that buys productive relationships.
Colleges know this. No college admissions officer, reviewing applications, will know nor care that someone had a hard teacher, perhaps one they didn’t like, in tenth grade. Every student gets such teachers. Students with straight A’s don’t get those grades because they got lucky with easy classes and awesome teachers all the way through high school. And they don’t have them just because they’re smart.
That 3.8 or 4.0 GPA means purely that a student was observant enough to understand their one job as a student was to figure out what the teacher wanted. Then they manufactured the requisite interest, put in the required effort, and delivered it.
It bears repeating: They figured out what the teacher wanted and delivered it. That’s all one has to do.
3) A grade, a cumulative GPA, means either the student did their job or they didn’t. Nothing more.
Students with 4.0+ GPA’s earn them because they put in the work. They made the effort to invest in their own future — even when they didn’t like a course or a teacher. That’s why that GPA is a primary determinant for acceptance at many colleges. And why it’s considered important to many companies when evaluating entry-level job applicants. Not because it indicates intelligence — it doesn’t. But because it means a candidate chose to figure out what was asked, did the work, and overcame adversity instead of accepting excuses.
Conversely, lower GPA’s signal students who decided to let attitude and judgments get in the way of their own learning so often it became a pattern of behavior.
For young teens uncertain what career to pursue, applying oneself to all subjects (like ‘em or not!) is challenging. It’s hard. That’s precisely why evidence of success is valued by colleges and companies. And if you don’t know the direction your life will take — and almost no one does as a teen — you cannot yet say what you don’t need to know. So performing strongly in all subjects is the only way to keep your options open.
The good news is that people can hit reset on poor past choices.
4) Tomorrow is a new day.
Students can hit reset on their approach to classes. They can reset their regard for a teacher. It’s hard, even harder if the best way to do that is sit down with that teacher or, through actions, prove that they’ve managed that reset. But it’s doable. Best of all, it’s in their own interest.
Think ahead. Choose not to become that person who might one day realize at long last where their happiness lies, what their dream is, what they want to do with their life, only to realize they let past choices close off their options. Figure out how to respect your teachers. Try to understand their perspectives, even if you don’t know how to like them. Learning how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is a valuable life skill. But it’s worthwhile.
Your future self will thank you for it. With due respect.