Hopefully, most teachers these days know not to greet the siblings of former students with, “I hope you’ll be as smart as [or better-behaved than] your sister/brother.” But however much we value objectivity and fair treatment, everyone finds certain characteristics easy to like or dislike. Picture yourself, on the first day of a new class, scanning your students and noticing someone who

  • is wearing a T-shirt that describes your favorite sport as a game for idiots;
  • has the same brown cowlick and lopsided freckle pattern as the bully who made your life miserable in fifth grade; or
  • sits with that annoying slouch you associate with your laziest acquaintances.

Can you resolve to put aside all negative gut reactions, remember the “innocent until proven guilty” principle, and regard every student as an individual worth expecting good contributions from?

Not all negative reactions to students are the result of personal prejudices. It may be something another teacher says to you (“I heard So-and-So will be in your class this year; don’t expect anything above D-level work”). It may be annoyance transferred to a student with a meddling “helicopter parent.” Or a student may actually seem determined to be disliked: constantly picking fights with other kids, talking back, or showing up with no completed assignment and a “so what are you gonna do about it?” glare.

Effectiveness as a teacher faces its biggest challenge when you find yourself struggling to think of anything positive to say—let alone expect—regarding a particular student. Yet everyone has some potential, and secretly longs to hear someone in authority appreciate it. The child who is hard to like is usually the one who believes herself “stupid” or “a troublemaker” precisely because adults have been telling her that, explicitly or implicitly, all her life.

To help yourself exhibit sincere positive expectations for every student:

  • Practice greeting everyone, regardless of first impression, with a warm smile and eye contact. And practice gauging their reactions for clues on how to treat them as they’d like to be treated.
  • Be careful not to develop the habit of calling on the same few students all the time; give everyone a chance to contribute. If you have a shy soul who seems intent on being as invisible as possible—or a would-be comedian who likes to do “teacher talking” imitations—don’t pay attention to these “faults,” but watch the student for moments of genuine interest and take that opportunity to invite them to share their thoughts.
  • Give your full attention to everyone who wants to speak. Listen with patience and respect, even when they prove difficult to follow. Affirm whatever you agree with or find interesting.
  • Offer sincere compliments on a regular basis—and make sure they’re equally distributed.
  • Whenever you have opportunity to talk to a student casually, find out about his personal interests. You may get some new ideas to try out in the classroom—and then find that student suddenly exceeding the most positive of expectations!
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