Have you ever disliked a student? That’s not a feeling most of us want to admit, but we are human and that means not kindly disposed toward everyone. In recent surveys (Boysen et al., 2020, 2021), about 50 percent of faculty in two cohorts, one in psychology and the other drawn from across disciplines, admitted to intense dislike of some students—not many; usually only one such student every two to three years. I suspect many of us commonly experience less intense feelings of dislike for students, although there were faculty in these cohorts who reported never disliking a student.
What causes teachers to dislike students? Among faculty in the cross-disciplinary cohort, dislike resulted from (in descending order) disrespectful attitudes, entitled attitudes, dislikable personality traits (narcissism and smugness, for example), irresponsible academic behavior (missing class and submitting poor quality work, for example), and disruptive behavior. The psychology cohort identified four of those items, and disrespectful attitudes topped both groups’ lists. The causes of negative feelings toward students aren’t all that surprising, but it’s still good to know the triggers.
What negative effects do these feelings of dislike have on teaching? Most of us know how they affect us, but do others respond as we do? The top five effects mentioned in the 2021 study included negative emotions and stress, needing extra time and effort to deal with teaching and the student, poor interactions with the student, being distracted while teaching, and a reduction in the motivation to teach. Most of these effects are more annoying than debilitating. They consume our energy and cultivate general feelings of malaise. The presence of even one difficult student looms larger than all of our positive relationships with students.
Here’s the most important question: What’s the best way to manage negative feelings about a student? Those surveyed (Boysen et al., 2021) said, first off, that teachers should be intentional about maintaining a professional relationship with the student—acting like a mature adult. Every student should be treated fairly and with respect. In other words, personal feelings about students should remain private. That does not mean ignoring disrespectful comments but rather answering them by responding calmly and without undo emotion. Second, the faculty surveyed recommended assertively maintaining decisions and policy. Doing so is much easier if expectations and policies are clearly communicated up front. Then teachers can respond without apology in light of those expectations and policies. Finally, faculty suggested talking to a colleague. It helps to vent. A peer can provide feedback on the chosen response and offer encouragement.
Not every response to a difficult and often disagreeable student is effective. Teachers should not ignore the student or respond by being overly nice and generous. Difficult students usually don’t just go away, even if they are ignored. The same applies to small difficulties. Without attention they often expand into bigger problems. Rarely can these students be won over with kind comments and helpful ways. The best advice: deal with the issues and treat the student as all students deserve to be treated.
The research team makes this interesting point: “Classroom management techniques are unlikely to be effective strategies with these reasons for dislike. To illustrate, although a course policy enforcing equal speaking time for all students could address domineering students, no addition to the syllabus will force entitled students to feel less deserving” (Boysen et al., 2021). Most of us do have policies establishing expectations for respectful behavior. Many of them focus on how students treat and respond to each other. We could revise them to include our commitment to respect and expectation that students will return it in kind.
Respect and the lack of it command attention in courses. Students closely watch teacher responses. If a teacher disrespects a student in the presence of others, in essence the teacher has disrespected all students. Students also note the disrespect and disruptive behavior of classmates, and although few will come to the teacher’s defense, a teacher’s measured response can earn their respect.
Students have teachers they dislike, some intensely so. The reasons are likely the same—teachers disrespecting students, acting entitled by virtue of expertise, behaving irresponsibly (holding students but not themselves to deadlines), and failing to treat students fairly. And just as dislike makes teaching harder, it can do the same for learning.
Actually, the dislike isn’t the problem; it’s how we handle the feeling and respond to the behavior that expresses it. Nothing about dislike precludes treating others with respect, and that’s behavior all teachers can model.
Boysen, G. A., Isaacs, R. A., Chicosky, R. L., & Delmore, E. E. (2020). Intense dislike of students: Frequency, causes, effects, and management among college teachers. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000200
Boysen, G. A., Sampo, B. L., Axtell, E. L. & Kishimoto, A. G. (2021). Disliking students: The experiences and perspectives of college teachers. College Teaching. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2021.1882374