George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Strategies to Help Build Understanding Between Students and Teachers

When tension rises between high school students and their teachers, students may take it personally. These exercises help them understand their teachers’ point of view.

June 23, 2022
High school student and teacher walk and talk in school hallway
Ridofranz / iStock

This scenario will be familiar to most support class teachers: You ask a student about a course in which they’re struggling. Instead of discussing their missed work or trouble with the content, they sigh, “My teacher hates me.” As evidence, they add, “She was so rude!” or “He gave me a dirty look.” In my early years of teaching, this perception surprised me, as I’d rarely met a teacher who hated a student.

Since then, I’ve come to understand that, developmentally, teenagers tend to be hypersensitive to rejection. I’ve also read studies that found that teenagers, especially those who have experienced traumas such as abuse, often have neurological changes that make them hyper-attuned to others’ emotions and vigilant in scanning for signs of danger, which can cause them to misread even neutral faces as angry.

Of course, as leaders, teachers must take the initiative to communicate care, build connection, and bridge communication gaps. However, as a study skills teacher tasked with helping students succeed in their core academic classes, I also wanted to develop tools to help students better understand, and more accurately interpret, their teachers’ behaviors—and take teachers’ responses to them less personally.

Let Students Teach and Reflect on the Experience

Sometimes, teachers speak sharply, not because they dislike a student, but because they dislike behaviors. The following lesson allows students to experience, firsthand, what it feels like to be a teacher.

  1. First, we brainstorm student behaviors that annoy teachers: being on a phone, chatting with a neighbor, treating the trash can like a basketball hoop, asking to go to the bathroom at the most important point in a lecture, etc. I write each behavior on a different card.
  2. Each student creates a simple talk, only a few minutes long, about their life—or any topic they care about. The talk does not need to be polished; it just needs to have some value to the students—to echo the way teachers care about their lessons.
  3. Then I train the group to be a model class: give eye contact, sit attentively, have a positive expression, ask respectful questions, etc. This can be amusing, as I coach the students and tell them what messages they are—and aren’t—communicating with their body language.
  4. Each student gives their talk twice. The first time, I hand out the cards, and the class performs the annoying behaviors. Then the student gives the talk again, this time with the model audience.
  5. Afterward, we debrief. The student-teacher shares how each talk felt and which student behaviors were most distracting or annoying. (Students are often surprised that the most annoying behaviors are different for each student-teacher, which helps them better understand the variability in teacher rules.)

This activity helps students understand the challenge of monitoring a group, how student behaviors disrupt or support the flow of the lesson, and how vulnerable a teacher can feel presenting about a topic they value.

Explore Emotions and Assumptions

This lesson is less visceral but still an effective way to help students understand teachers’ emotional life.

  1. I open with this accessible topic: how teachers misinterpret student behaviors. As a class, we create a chart on the board with these categories: student behavior; the teacher’s emotional response; how the teacher might interpret the cause of behavior; and possible other causes of the behavior.
  2. We usually begin with this behavior: A student is sleeping in class. The teacher might feel disrespected, or insecure because they fear their class is dull. The teacher might assume the student is bored or doesn’t care about the class. Then we list other reasons why a student might be sleeping: they work a late shift, they were awake in the night with their baby sibling, or they aren’t feeling well. Then we discuss the value of communicating with teachers so that they don’t make incorrect assumptions.
  3. Next, we create the same chart with teacher behaviors. We begin with this familiar one: A student asks a question during a passing period, and the teacher answers impatiently. The student probably feels dismissed and discouraged. They might assume the teacher is angry or doesn’t care about them. Then we brainstorm other reasons for the teacher’s tone: They had a fight with their partner, they have a headache, etc. Students often need help getting to the most likely reason: passing periods are short, and teachers are often attending to several requests while trying to prepare for the next class.

This lesson helps students understand that teachers have lives outside of the classroom that shape their mood—and much of the time their gruffness is caused only by the challenge of monitoring many demands simultaneously.

Help Students Understand Grading Systems

Here is another common situation: A student, eager to improve a low grade, turns in a pile of make-up homework. When their grade improves by just a few percentage points, they come to the only conclusion that seems reasonable to them: Their teacher must hate them. They don’t realize that their homework is worth only 10 percent of their grade and they are still missing a major project.

This misunderstanding can happen even when a teacher has a clear syllabus, explains their grading systems in class, and provides class time for students to check grades. These students—who might have reading difficulties, auditory processing or attention issues, or avoidance caused by grade anxiety—require someone to individually explain the math and prioritize their make-up work. When their grade is demystified and depersonalized, we give students back their sense of agency.

Empower Students to Advocate for Themselves

Unfortunately, some teachers do have unfair practices—or are unskilled in managing their emotions. In these situations, we can help students develop their advocacy skills. Together, you can brainstorm solutions and coach students how to gracefully, and assertively, navigate your particular system. This might include setting up a meeting with that teacher (perhaps with another trusted adult in attendance), involving parents or guardians, or reporting to the administration. Of course, sometimes we must take immediate action to stop an egregious problem, but in most circumstances, we can encourage students, with our support, to take steps to ensure that they are treated justly.

Students who believe that a teacher dislikes them are in danger of disengaging or disrupting. If we want students to be successful, in addition to academic skills, it’s important to teach them how to process their emotions, check their assumptions, and expand their empathy and perspective—and to advocate for themselves.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Communication Skills
  • 9-12 High School

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George Lucas Educational Foundation