The Teacher Your Students Want

[BTW: Hm. A bit of a reach here with this one. Which is to say, I’ve been overly prescriptive. Surely there are as many good ways to interact with students as there are students.]

I’ll receive kids in a week, which means it’s time to figure this out.

With more experience I have become more intimidated by the first day of school. I know what it implies, and it implies far worse than “no second chance to make a first impression,” a maxim best applied to amiable strangers.

Because your kids are not amiable strangers. The older they are, the more you must account for the carelessness of their past teachers. By high school, many students are only curious if you’re one of the teachers who likes them or one who hates themThe same goes for parents of students, to a lesser extent.. They aren’t inclined to consider the shades of gray between the two extremes or that, for many teachers, liking or hating students simply isn’t part of the equation.

Worse, many would prefer to find out you hate them. It is easier for these students to spend a year sparring with an antagonist than confronting the vastness of What They Don’t Know with an ally. These students will assess any curt correction or brusque manner as antagonism.

Clearly, you must construct your initial teaching profile carefully.

The Ideal Teacher Profile

In two sentences, here is the teacher profile that will do you the most good with the most students. Your students want:

a teacher who is capable of unkindness but who chooses instead to be kind, a teacher who is capable of severity but who chooses levity instead.

They don’t want a cruel teacher, obviously, but neither do students appreciate a teacher made of soft edges and kittens, someone wholly unfamiliar with the unkindness they must endure on a day-to-day basis.

Similarly, few students appreciate a morose bore, but neither do they appreciate a chuckling clown, someone who never quite graduated from a desk yet somehow made it to the lectern. They want someone who understands both masks.

You Have Three Seconds To Stop Hiccuping

The best way to find that median is to treat subjective silliness with as much dour objectivity as you possibly can, for as long as you possibly can, without cracking. Take it easy on the heavy stuff and go hard on the light stuff. Keep a loose grip on your rules but angle severe eyebrows at anyone who’d suggest The Jonas Brothers aren’t the best summer band of all time, etc.

This makes you slippery, like Teflon to kids who’d like to pin you down as a hater. It buys you time to show them you c*re. Whatever credibility four years teaching has endowed me, I’ll invest it in this: this is the ideal way to start the school year.

It isn’t a bad way to do the rest of the year either.

[BTW: I got one today. A kid came in clowning hard, looking to assert real fast what he was about, looking to find out what I was about. He has obviously rattled other teachers in the past.

I’m not saying I know how this is going to end but I know how I wasn’t going to let it begin. Out of twenty-four students in class, his was the only name I knew. Yet when I was running down the roster taking role, I asked his name just like any other. I wasn’t going to give him any celebrity. I wasn’t going to let him know his circus-act even registered.]

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I love your tip on being slippery, like Teflon. Imagining this it seems like it would set a tone that would create a great environment.

    This part, however, depresses me: “These students will assess any curt correction or brusque manner as antagonism.” Clearly that is a major difference between elementary and high school. At elementary the kids tend to adore their teachers no matter how awful or how mean they are. It never ceases to amaze me.

  2. Excellent advice, Bill. Unless, of course, kids find you repellant, in which case some self-reflection and -transformation might not be so bad.

  3. Dan, have you thought about your students reading about your plan here? That might make your Teflon strategy not so effective… So have a backup plan that you keep private. :)

  4. hi dan, long time no talk. and long time no lurk either, gave myself a proper holiday this summer & left the “education” feeds unread.

    i want to second what jenny says. developmentally the brain just doesn’t seem to have a space for “bad adults” for quite some time (obviously this is speaking generally). in the private schools i’ve worked in, a general antagonism towards adults becomes quite visible and widespread around grade 7/8.

    so what does that mean for the first day / the impression you want to make? in my two years with the middle schoolers, i think it means you can’t be so loose on the rules. order and equality are extremely important for that level. they’re so much in their lives that is Going Crazy (hormones?!) that they need school to be a place with as many Routines as possible.

    but yeah, on the whole what you have written here feels right. glad to know that you’re still on your game, dan.

  5. Hi Dan,

    Even with 10 years of teaching experience, the first day of school still gives me a bewildering amount of nervous energy infused with a sense of major insecurity. Impressions are everything, conclusions already made based on a 10 minute introductory speech. As you said it yourself, we must carefully craft our “teacher” personalities within the first few minutes those kids arrive in our classrooms. Difficult as this may be (I teach 7th and 8th grade mathematics), I try to remain confident and relaxed in such a way that I “appear” enthusiastic yet in control. I even give the kids a letter and policy of my expectations just to set the “tone” in class. Middle school students often have the notorious reputation for being antagonistic towards adults. They crave independence and structure, yet at the same time, ask for our endearing affections. I embrace these temperamental personalities all in the name of humor. The three F’s (Firm, Fair, and Friendly) is part of my teaching kit that keeps me relatively attached to the ground. My mother, also a teacher, gave me this sage advice when I started the profession.

  6. This is an awesome post and right on time for me.

    My kids and I have been back in the swing of things for 7 days now and I finally feel as though I have the hang on being the kind of teacher they want/deserve/need.

    I’m swift to correct those behaviors that need correction, lenient with those students who need room to err, and simultaneously jovial and stoic…depending on the situation.

    They’re having a tough time figuring me out this year because they can’t paint me into a corner.

    The results: Classroom management is at an all time best for me, kids come to school eager to learn and will let me know if they didn’t learn anything that day ( this is a rare occurrence but it happened to me yesterday ), and my students and I have already developed the easy going rapport that generally takes until April to develop.

  7. Interesting stuff,
    I think I am all the things you mention ……I think it would be totally unrealistic of me to say I am this kind of teacher or that kind of teacher… any given point I am a human being responding to a situation….tempered by the fact that I am also an educator.
    I come into contact with various age groups, my preferred is key stage 1 or elementary if we have to say it your way…why?..because this is where teachers can make the biggest difference….not because children are so accepting but because these children are more likely to be living in the moment and allow you to help them fix things. As kids grow the walls come up..and sometimes it takes a really, really special teacher to break them down1

  8. Good advice Dan, with most of us getting back in the swing of things.

    My piece of advice that I can throw in is just to be genuine with the students. Of course you will have to be the heavy some times, and of course you will joke sometimes (I love that quote about the Jonas brothers…I’m “borrowing” that for sure). But as soon as the students see that you are genuinely interested about them and about the subject matter, things will go your way much more easily.

  9. @ Bill: it works for the Transformers. (more than meets the eye, right?)

    @ Dan: In agreement, except on the Jonas Brothers. In my school, i-pod are a big issue. Kids in the hall wearing them. Teachers pointing, tapping, raising their voices. Confrontation. A lot of eye rolling. A real Michael Scott ‘lose, lose, lose’.

    So, to avoid ‘conflict’, I’ve gone the route of saying, ‘hey, you listening to Celine Dion? If so, you can keep it on.’ I’ve never had a conflict, talk back, brush off.

    Not a one listening to Celine!

    Alas, my heart will go on.

    On another note, how do you determine your blogroll?

  10. People I still owe money from an edublogger canasta tournament.

    I like your confrontation example. You’ve got the sweet and the sour all in one. Nice work.