Teaching With Self-Esteem: Not Necessarily a Contradiction in Terms

Teaching With Self-Esteem: Not Necessarily a Contradiction in Terms

Most teachers would agree that self-esteem is essential to every student’s success, so we put a lot of time and thought into fostering a learning environment in which kids feel good about themselves. In time, we hope our students will mature into kind, sensitive adults who will help nurture the self-esteem of the next generation. In the meantime, however, we are faced with hordes of brutally blunt children, brimming with such confidence and self-esteem that they feel free to express their opinions, however obnoxious, heedless of our battered little teacher egos.

Loss of self-esteem may be one of the biggest occupational hazards of the teaching profession. I believe it is the leading cause of teacher burn-out. Where, but in the field of teaching, is one punished for perfect attendance: “You’re here again? Don’t you ever get sick?” In the event that you do get sick and go through the tremendously time-consuming task of preparing a substitute lesson-plan, you are apt to be greeted by the following remark upon your return: “We had the best sub! He taught us more in one day than you have all year!” Don’t bother informing students that subs need only a pulse and no criminal record in order to be hired. Taking credit for the brilliant lesson you spent hours preparing will only erode your credibility. The students, after all, were there, you weren’t. They know good teaching when they see it.

They might not mean to be cruel, but it hurts nonetheless. However, there are steps we can take to defend ourselves against what feels like a frontal assault upon our self-esteem, or at least to fortify ourselves in order to minimize the damage.


  • Beware of any student compliment beginning with the word “nice.” Wait for the punch-line before you let down your guard: “Nice tie. Is that an actual artifact or a recent reproduction?” Or “Nice shirt. Get that at a flea market?” Or maybe “Nice boots. Win a bet with the Marlboro man?”
    I was teaching high school when I was pregnant for my first son. Since I was about the size of the average American living room, I had trouble finding nice clothes that fit. I made myself a lovely jumper of blue and white striped cotton and went to work feeling better about the way I looked than I had in months. Until my students came in. “Nice dress,” one of them said. “You look like an awning.”
  • If you must label objects that belong in your classroom, do so discreetly lest your students take it as an invitation to comment on your character:  “Ms. Chase is a _______”.
    Labeled classroom items are also at risk of becoming surrogates for the teacher to whom they belong. I have a wooden doorstop upon which I wrote my name in bold letters to keep unscrupulous colleagues from stealing it. That doorstop disappears on a daily basis, and I invariably find it at the other end of the school. One day after class I discovered why: one of my students was kicking me, in effigy, all the way down the hall.
  • Avoid situations that provide grist for the student rumor mill. The same individuals who don’t hear you the one-hundred and eighty-seven times you tell them they have a test on Friday are guaranteed to know any detail you wish to keep private. I can illustrate with a particularly embarrassing event from my own life. When I was teaching in Morrisville, Vermont, I was once stopped in Stowe by a state trooper who courteously issued me a speeding ticket. Upon my arrival at school twenty minutes later, I discovered that the entire student body and staff knew about my infraction. I owed my infamy to a boy named Jim, who had a habit of listening to a ham radio while he showered. “People still listen to ham radios?” I asked my students. “Only Jim,” they informed me. “And only because he lives in Wolcott.”
    On the other hand, if you manage to keep personal information private, be aware that students are incredibly resourceful. If you withhold real information from them, they will simply make it up: “Ms. Chase, I heard that the reason you always wear your hair in a bun is because you’ve got a big old bald spot back there. Can I see it?”
  • Choose carefully how you clean off your over-head transparencies. Teacher behavior around over-head projectors is the stuff of urban legends. It’s messy, no matter how you do it, but trust me when I say that you don’t want to be known as one of those teachers who spits on transparencies or licks a tissue to wipe them off. I once heard of an unusually sweaty teacher who wiped the perspiration from his brow and then used his handkerchief to wipe the transparency.
  • If you are determined to wear what you like and be who you are despite student opinion, be ready for the consequences. Forewarned is forearmed. If, for example, (speaking of arms) your name is Mrs. Armstrong and you do not believe in shaving your underarms even in warm weather, understand that you will be known as Mrs. Armpit. If you decide to get a different haircut, do not expect your students to express their admiration for your new style. They are much more likely to ask, “What’d you do to your hair? Sleep on it funny?”

In the end, your ego will be stronger for having withstood years of uncompromising student candor. Who wants false compliments, anyway? If I look like an awning, I’d just as soon know about it. I have in fact come to prefer the ruthless honesty of my students to the polite pretense of adults. And then, occasionally, I am rewarded by one of those priceless, left-handed compliments that make it all worthwhile:

Dear Ms. Chase,

I learned a lot of things this year. I just didn’t show it in class. You were my sixth favorite teacher this year. Have a good summer.

Your student,


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