As a teacher of mathematics, I often find myself walking into classes where the emotional temperature of the room is pretty chilly. I teach classes that no one wants to take, and I ask students to do things that they don’t want to do. All teachers face this to some extent, and I think that math teachers in middle schools, high schools, and colleges are hit particularly hard. Personally, I enjoy teaching students who “hate math,” but even so, it is emotionally taxing to deal with the negativity of students. The emotional labor involved in teaching students who hate your subject is generally only discussed in the context of teachers complaining about students, and I would love to open the conversation and have more discussions about what it feels like to teach people who hate your subject, and how teachers handle those emotions.
The hardest thing for me is when a student is perhaps fine with the subject of math as a whole, but dislikes the way that I teach. Of course that’s hard for me. We all want to be liked. Those of us who teach live for the students who say, “This was my best math class ever!” But we also get the students who think we are lousy teachers. This really really sucks. When a student tells me either in person or on an evaluation form that they don’t like my teaching style, it feels like an attack. I typically feel terrible, and a part of my mental and emotional energy is consumed by emotions like anger, sadness, fear, and shame, sometimes for days. I desperately want to defend myself and to bolster my self-image as a good teacher.
But defending myself isn’t my job; teaching students is my job. So I have to find a way to see the “attack” in a different light. I have a few methods of doing this. The first is simply allowing time to pass. I typically look briefly at end-of-semester evaluation forms and then put them away after I see a couple of negative comments. When I start to feel defensive, I take a step back, and typically when I come back to the forms later I feel less defensive. But I generally need more than just time. I also think about the power dynamics in the classroom.
There is an enormous power differential between teachers and students; we control the content and pace of our classes, and we have control of the students’ grades. Students are in a powerless position, and complaining either in person or on evaluation forms are sometimes the only place where they can exercise any power at all. If I shut down those complaints because of my need to defend myself, I’ve robbed students of what little power they have. When a student communicates to me that something about my teaching doesn’t work for them, I remind myself of the importance of that feedback both to my teaching and to my relationship with that student. My knee jerk reaction is to tell myself that the student is wrong — they are wrong to not like my teaching style because my teaching style is good for them. This is a version of “they don’t know what’s good for them” and it is a popular topic of discussion for math teachers like myself. I try to look very critically at this assumption because its patronizing and it may be wrong. In other words, I try to assume the student is right, that my teaching style isn’t working for them, and that I can do something about that if I can get the student to talk to me about what is going on. Obviously this doesn’t work if I’m only hearing about the problem on an end-of-semester evaluation form, and I typically find it harder to make use of that feedback from those evaluation forms, unless the feedback is very specific.
It is terribly difficult to stand in the place in which I am wrong and the student is right and to imagine what that might mean. But every time I try, I learn something from my students. I had an experience this semester with a student that I thought had a “bad attitude” and then I found out that she didn’t like the way I was teaching the course. I really had to wrestle with my own attitude, but when I met with the student I really listened and as a result had a great connection with the student. I don’t see her as having a “bad attitude” anymore because I see who she really is. I understand more about why she didn’t like the way I was teaching, and we’ve found a way to connect. So the work is really worth it. I’d love to hear from other people about how you handle the intense work of making use of student feedback.