Teachers expect to have some fondness for the students they teach. They enter the field motivated to help students make progress. Their desire to foster success leads them to focus on their students’ most positive attributes. Teachers become cheerleaders for their students. To the great disappointment of many teachers, certain students test that spirit of unwavering support.
Most teachers meet at least a few students they find difficult to like. Expecting to like every student is unrealistic, even for the most idealistic teachers. Special education teachers in particular are likely to work with some students who exhibit behaviors most of society would deem unacceptable. While many special education teachers elect to work with these especially needy students, actually dealing with toxic behaviors day after day can wear at a teacher’s resolve.
Teacher preparation programs tend to leave out some details. Few professors will tell a room full of undergraduates that some of their future students will be unlikeable. Acknowledging this makes starry-eyed teacher candidates uncomfortable. Although this is upsetting to consider, teachers will meet particular students who offer few redeeming or likeable qualities. In place of these qualities will be a host of unsavory attributes that have the potential to lengthen a teacher’s workday and shorten a teacher’s career. Perhaps these students are more pleasant at other times of the day, but teachers have to deal with them during school hours.
Students might be unlikeable for several reasons. Relationships are crucial in education. Sometimes issues might have to do with a mismatch in personality. A student might behave quite differently with one teacher versus another. This doesn’t account for those students with disruptive or antagonistic behaviors that interfere with every relationship they engage. A few students have personalities that bother everyone around them. Often, these students deliberately upset other people for amusement. Others have behaviors that they can’t control resulting from their conditions. They’ll act out by no fault of their own, but this doesn’t make their behaviors any easier to endure.
The larger group consists of students with unlikeable personalities. They have disagreeable, belligerent attitudes. They create problems for others and show little remorse. While some might not understand what they’re doing, some fully understand and revel in it. Teachers can strive to find the good in these students. They can consider how lonely these students might feel. They can try to make a positive difference for them. Occasionally, teachers who reach out in such a way find the students take advantage of them. All sociopaths start somewhere. Society has no shortage of people who make everything around them worse. Classrooms are dotted with budding scam artists, domestic abusers, and assailants. For as much as teachers might wish to turn these students towards more positive pursuits, this fails more often than it succeeds.
Less common are the students who are just as unlikeable, but are unable to control that which makes them so. These students might have conditions that cause them to behave in unorthodox or even violent ways. Behavior modification and medication sometimes help. Sometimes nothing helps. A teacher working with students who have autism or multiple disabilities might face a classroom with two or three students who do little but scream and hit themselves (or others) all day, every day. That teacher might want so badly to help these students, but might not be able to do much beyond keeping them safe, clean, and fed. Feelings of inadequacy are likely, but so is a sense of exhaustion. Some people only can take so much of listening to a student cry and scream to the point of exhaustion, only to repeat when strength returns.
An intriguing dichotomy in special education exists between idealistic acceptance and programmed rejection. A pervading sentiment of acceptance suggests no one should be excluded because of a disability and all differences should be accepted. At the same time, vast amounts of effort go into targeting behaviors caused by disabling conditions and attempting to extinguish these. Advocates for the rights of students with disabilities promote acceptance while practitioners identify unacceptable behaviors to eliminate. The notion of behavior modification suggests that some behaviors are too negative to exist, even if these behaviors are a natural part of who someone is.
Esoteric musing asides, teachers who work with unlikeable students face difficult scenarios. Working with students who exhibit problematic behaviors will accelerate burnout in all but a few teachers. Sadly, some new teachers end up in classes filled with difficult students because no one else wants to teach them. Too often, this forces new teachers out before they get to learn what they’re doing. Veterans can get caught in this as well. Whatever the case, when a teacher dislikes many of his or her students, something has to change. Unlikeable or not, those students are entitled to an education. If a teacher can’t muster the will to help these students despite their behaviors, that teacher might need to get out. Someone else will come along and give it a try. In the meantime, teachers do have to consider their own quality of life, which can take a hit when working with foul-tempered or out-of-control students.
Disliking a few students is human and difficult to avoid. One or two particularly unruly students can ruin a teacher’s day, week, or year. Teachers must seek support when they need it regarding troublesome students. Counselors, administrators, and other team members might be able to offer solace. Focusing on what each student needs is vital for individual teachers and for entire teams. Students found by others to be persistently irritating might be in need of highly nuanced support. Even those who are ungrateful, irrational, or outright sinister deserve a fair opportunity. School officials must remember that this isn’t just a matter of equity (which it is), but it’s a matter of the law.