One Trick for Not Being a Jerk to Students

I admit that I am sometimes a jerk to my students. I try not to be. I really do. I know the damage it causes, both to the kid and the classroom culture. I know that one bad experience with me can ruin twenty previous good ones.  I know that being a jerk makes me feel bad about myself. It does no one any good.

And yet.

I could trot out a litany of excuses, but that’s just what they would be. There really is no excuse. Doctors pledge to “First, do no harm.” Teachers should pledge to, “First, don’t be an asshole.”

Although I occasionally fail this basic expectation of human decency, I am better than I used to be. I realize the importance of being consistently nice, and I’ve developed a few mental tricks to use over the years. Today, I’ll share one. You can read about two others in my upcoming book, Happy Teacher, available on Amazon at the end of the month (fingers crossed).

Trick #1: Don’t Say Things to Students I Wouldn’t Want My Principal to Say To Me During a Staff Meeting

When I have a one-on-one meeting with my principal, I don’t worry too much about how I phrase things. If asked for my honest opinion, I give it. If I think my principal is wrong about something, I will say so.

I expect my principal to do the same with me. In a one-on-one meeting, I want honesty from my principal. If he thinks I’m doing something wrong or could be doing something better, he should tell me. If he thinks I have a weakness that needs improving, he has an obligation as my boss to inform me and give me pointers or direct me to resources that will help me improve. My rationale is that we’re both adults, we’re both professionals, we both are trying our best, but we’re both human and will, on occasion, fall short or screw up. I’m a big boy, and I can take the criticism. He’s the boss, so he better be able to take some too.

A staff meeting is a totally different animal because it is public. I rarely challenge or even disagree with my principal in a staff meeting. If I do, I choose my words very carefully and usually try to give my principal an out, such as, “I know this isn’t coming from you, but have your supervisors considered…”

There are a number of reasons you should not challenge your principal in front of the entire staff, but for the purposes of this post, I don’t do it because I don’t want him to do it to me.

A Brief Digression into Basketball

I played high school basketball, and in preparation of one game the coach had us practice a triangle-and-two defense, which is basically a three-man zone with the other two defenders guarding their men one-on-one. The defense worked perfectly in the first half of the game and we had a big lead. Our coach switched to a straight man-to-man defense in the second half, and we squandered much of our advantage before winning by a handful of points.

Afterward, Coach criticized our second half performance. I felt the need to stand up for myself and my teammates. I shot back, “But you changed the game plan!”

He lit into me in a very public and somewhat personal way, ripping my lack of defensive effort in the second half. He basically blamed me for letting our rival back in the game. It made me feel about this big:

I learned two lessons that day: First, don’t second guess your coach in front of the team, and second, people, no matter who they are and how old they may be, get very defensive when publicly called out. Some get downright pissed off.

End of Digression

When your principal criticizes you publicly, you feel attacked. You feel ashamed and you become defensive. You body triggers its fight-or-flight response because the brain is shouting DANGER! DANGER! You either sit there and take it, fuming on the inside and plotting elaborate revenge schemes, or you defend yourself vigorously and say something you’ll soon regret. Either way, you’ll feel resentment toward your principal. You won’t be doing that jerk any favors anytime soon! The next time you disagree with him, maybe you won’t be so respectful; he certainly didn’t show you the same courtesy! You might even seek to undermine him at the next opportunity.

Students are humans too. They feel the same things you do. When you embarrass them in front of their peers by publicly scolding them, it’s no different than your principal doing the same to you. In fact, students likely feel shame and resentment even more acutely than you do because they’re at an age when friendships matter more than just about anything. They care more about their classmates’ opinion of them then you care about your colleagues’ opinion of you. Good luck getting that student back on your side anytime soon. 

In fact, of all the things you’ve done for that student over the course of the year–all the lessons you’ve taught and guidance you’ve provided–they may, when they think of you 24 years later, return to that single moment in time when you made them feel like nothing in front of their peers. And it won’t matter to them if they deserved it or not.



I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

3 Replies to “One Trick for Not Being a Jerk to Students”

  1. This holds true no matter how old your students are. I teach 5 and 6 year olds and they feel the same. When one of them gets in trouble in front of the class, the class (some of them) makes fun of them or tells them later on that they are “bad”. I have found that most of the time with kids this age it works better to praise the ones who are doing good to get the attention of the one who is doing wrong because they also want to be praised as well. When that doesn’t work then you have to pull them aside and talk to them one-on-one.

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