“I Don’t Care If I Am Popular; I Am Not Here To Be Liked”

A sad boy

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A friend mine just couldn’t seem to find a great school, and always lamented how much she hated the popular teachers that made her look bad. Reading her Facebook status updates was interesting kind of like watching a train wreck is interesting. Needless to say, her philosophy was “I don’t care if I am popular! I am not here to be liked!”

Then something changed. She got a new job, which was a much better fit. Suddenly she was the popular teacher, and her whole philosophy changed. Now she takes an interest in the kids and goes to sports games she otherwise would have skipped as “non-academic.” She also finds herself standing up for students when they have problems as opposed to dismissing them. She loves her job now. It’s an amazing change. Now she loves and values her popularity among the students and parents. She is popular and liked (even loved dare I say).

I agree that it is important to be your excellent, detached, and funny self, regardless of whether every student likes you. I get that. I teach to every student I have, which probably means some won’t like me as much as others. Most do as far as I can tell. Nonetheless, I am going to do the best for my students, which sometimes may mean enforcing boundaries they may not want enforced. Teachers have difficult decisions to make at times, and sometimes the right decision is not the popular one. Nonetheless, I do find if I make a difficult decision in the right way (more on this in a future post), with trust, respect and empathy, they still like me afterwards, sometimes even more. So, I am not saying you should always do what a student wants, but I am saying that you should care about being liked.

I think “I am not here to be liked” is a ridiculous philosophy. Would we adults want to work for somebody who doesn’t give any thought to our feelings or concerns? Would we want to go to a conference run by people who don’t care if we like them or not? Do you like it when your spouse or friends express how they don’t care if you like them or not.

Besides, what business would last five minutes if they dismissed their clients in such a way? We gladly criticize companies that make harsh decisions that are unpopular among their clients and employees because they don’t care if they are liked, yet we uncritically take this attitude into the classroom.

Also, most of the time, “I am not here to be liked” is often code for “I am not liked, so I might as well pretend it doesn’t matter to me.” Clearly if someone is always announcing they don’t care about popularity, it probably stands to reason they care quite a bit about it.

The bad news is that an attitude like that is just going to make you liked even less. It will probably make students rebel even more, and “check out” mentally when they enter your classroom. The good news is that there are skills you can learn to become more well-liked, and thus, more relevant to the kids you teach (and more well-liked by parents, which will greatly reduce the likelihood they will attack you). This project, The Popular Teacher, is all about learning these skills.

You Can Always Tell A Former (Bad) Teacher

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I visit the local Tim Hortons and know a lot of the employees. They are good and fun people. On one Sunday afternoon, my brother and I were in there doing some work, and as usual we were talking to some of the employees. It was a busy day and the workers were a bit frazzled. As I was chatting with a few of them (probably holding up the line a little) an older woman storms up and holds out two sandwiches. In a dry and stern voice she asked “are these Panini sandwiches?” The employee was nice about it, but I could tell she didn’t like being scolded for what was an honest mistake. I didn’t ask, but I could tell this woman was a former teacher, and probably a pretty bad one at times.

Nobody likes to be scolded. Children included. Had I gotten a breakfast sandwich instead of a Panini, I would have either joked about it or just mentioned I got the wrong sandwich. There is no need to bring guilt or shame into it. Most students (and people in general) already feel bad when they make a mistake. Adding shame to it doesn’t add anything beneficial to the situation, and doesn’t help people learn.

What is funny is that a few hours later my toddler daughter wandered over to this woman and the woman was very nice. This just shows that sometimes we can slip into unhelpful frames, i.e. mental maps, at times. She was normally a nice person, but for some reason whenever anything related to education came up, she returned to her old frames, i.e. “scold mode.”

Our brains work on “automatic” mode a lot, and this is shaped by our brain wiring. I know people that are fun and dynamic at work, but as soon as they walk in their house they become overbearing jerks. I know people that do the opposite. They are cool at home, but at work they become overbearing. This is likely because our brains are wired to react differently in different environments.

Unfortunately, most teachers have been trained to ignore their positive traits at school. Fun and interesting? Not in the classroom. Independent and innovative? You can’t do that at school! Flexible and understanding? That won’t get kids to college! The problem is that this attitude is depriving our students of the very tools that will make us successful teachers, and them, successful students. And, most education colleges won’t touch interpersonal skills, and focus more on the sin of beginning sentences with “And” (and focus on teaching how ironic this sentence is). Fortunately, this website and (forthcoming) book are designed to help you learn the skills that help you reach students, parents, and faculty.