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Larry Efird: It’s about learning, not being liked

By Larry Efird

For the Salisbury Post

Recently a young man said before class, “I like you. You’re a good teacher.” In the next breath, he said, “But I know someone who doesn’t like you. She told me yesterday. She doesn’t like your class at all.” I wanted to tell him that I knew some people who probably didn’t like her either — but I refrained.

Coming on a Friday morning, the last day of a strenuous week, his remarks pretty much summed up how I felt. I then remembered once again something my omniscient grandmother was fond of quoting when I was growing up: “There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like you.” Because I was a people pleaser, I didn’t really like her saying that, even though I knew she was probably right. She always was.

I had to learn during my first year of teaching a very long time ago that my effectiveness as a teacher did not rise and fall on how many students liked me and how many didn’t. My primary job wasn’t to become their friend; my job was to teach them.

Whenever I hear that a student has a less-than-flattering opinion of me, it doesn’t make me think I’ve chosen the wrong career (unless I’m having an extremely bad day). I’m only human, so, of course, the comment may wound my pride. Oftentimes, it makes me wonder what caused a student to dislike me in the first place. But I have to remember I’m dealing with teenagers, and their moods and worldviews may change as often as the bell rings.

I don’t know of many teachers who wake up in the morning thinking how much fun ruining one more student’s day will be. Teachers don’t stay up late at night plotting how to become more obnoxious or figuring out more effective strategies to frustrate their classes. We’d like to think every day would be productive for everyone, even the hardest-to-reach kids, but we know that’s not reality.

I’ve been playing this game a very long time and I’ve experienced the awkwardness of a misunderstanding, a mistake or a misspoken word on more than one occasion. There’s nothing new or unusual about that dilemma all teachers face at some point or another with a student, parent or even another teacher.

At one point in my career, I tried to reason with an entire class of students, to help them see “my side.” After painfully realizing that approach fails more often than not, I graduated to the philosophy that every student would not like me, no matter how hard I was working to make a class interesting, or how accommodating I tried to be. That was an impossible goal. I then concentrated my efforts on becoming the best teacher I could be, whether or not anyone noticed.

The truth is that I don’t remember thanking many of my own teachers when I was in school, simply because I was wrapped up in myself and my little world, not in theirs. They were merely fulfilling a function to society — and they were getting paid to make me work — so why should I thank them for that? I liked them well enough but I could not fully appreciate how they were impacting my future.

I have also had the sobering, yet enriching, experience of apologizing to a student when I realized I clearly mishandled a situation. I’ve also had students humbly apologize to me. Not long ago, a student apologized because of another student’s disrespect. She didn’t like what she had seen, so she wanted me to know how she felt on my behalf.

Perhaps the strongest trait I see in most teenagers is their ability to move on after a misunderstanding and learn a lesson in the process. A lot of adults could follow their example because I firmly believe adults have a harder time forgiving and moving forward than kids.

Whenever I hear that a student doesn’t like me, I wish I could be gracious and tell him or her that there are times I don’t like myself either, and leave it at that. And though I may not have liked what my grandmother told me when I was a teenager, I do like knowing that she told me the truth.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

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