Guy A. Boysen
Department of Psychology, McKendree University
I knew I was in trouble when the student would not stop emailing me. The emails always came the night before homework was due and felt like one of those classic foot-in-the-door scams that starts with “Do you have time for one question?” and escalates to “How much money would you like to donate?” A typical series of emails went something like this:
Student email #1: “The assignment says give an example of harmful dysfunction. What do you want us to say for that?”
Student email #2: “So the example is in the reading?”
Student email #3: “I’ve read and I can’t find it. Please help me.”
Student email #4: “Would mental illness be an example?”
Student email #5: “Can you give me a page number? I can’t find it.”
With each assignment, I was doing more and more of the student’s work. And with each assignment, I was growing more and more resentful. Then, the student started to criticize my teaching to other professors. I really, really disliked this student.
Intense dislike of students is something that teachers do not talk about. Certainly, griping about students is a popular topic of conversation in academia (tied with griping about the administration and griping about parking), but teachers rarely admit that there are some students they seriously dislike. It seems so unprofessional, so petty, so unteacherly. I wanted to do research on this topic for years but always put it off as too distasteful – who wants to be known as “that professor who hates students”?
Eventually, I overcame my wariness and surveyed college teachers about their experiences with disliked students (Boysen et al., 2020, 2021). As it turned out, I was not alone in disliking the occasional student. In fact, disliking students was common. Although teachers said dislike had many negative consequences on their teaching, they also provided ideas for how to manage it. I summarize these results in the sections that follow.
How Common is Intense Dislike of Students?
Have you ever had a student in a class that you intensely disliked? If you said “yes” to this question, you are like a lot of other college teachers. In fact, across two independent surveys, about 50% of college teachers said that they had intensely disliked a student. This not to say that it occurs frequently. About 80% of faculty who had experienced disliked said that it happened, at most, once every couple of years. Nonetheless, it is typical for college teachers to dislike a student at some point in their careers.
When asked what caused the dislike, teachers cited reasons ranging from the trivial – “Constant talking/whispering during a large lecture class” – to the terrifying – “He found me multiple times per day to intrusively and anxiously ask me questions about grades or assignments in a somewhat angry way.” Although reasons varied widely, the most common ones will sound familiar.
By far, the most common reasons for dislike centered on students’ disrespect for the teacher or the course. For example, one teacher reported dislike for a student who “was rude in class, dismissive of the material, and would challenge everything they got wrong.” Another teacher quoted a student as saying “well, I talked to my biology instructor and he says this class isn't important." Psychology teachers respect themselves and their science, so it is difficult to encounter students who do not share this respect.
Other common reasons for student dislike might be broadly characterized as “bad behavior.” Academic irresponsibility was a frequently reported form of bad behavior. One teacher provided a typical list of student laxities including “lack of motivation; not attending class; not completing assignments, but submitting blank documents to try to get points.” Such poor academic behavior can be infuriating to teachers who have a passion for psychology and helping others learn the topic. Being disruptive is another bad behavior. Acting out in class, playing on electronic devices, having side conversations, and hijacking discussion are just some of the disruptions that teachers said led to dislike.
Finally, teachers reported that some students simply have unlikable personalities. Narcissism, arrogance, smugness, and neediness are annoying personality traits that lead teachers to dislike students. Entitlement is another trait that riles up a lot of teachers. Some students expect special treatment and become upset when teachers do not meet their demands. One teacher said, “I would not grant a delayed grade for the course given the student had not completed anything all semester. The student then sent an email to the Dean full of lies about my alleged unwillingness to work with her.” Teachers like to feel helpful, not used. Ultimately, the complexities of human relationships make some conflict inevitable, and relationships between teachers and students are no exception.
How Does Disliking Students Impact Teachers?
In the previous section, I characterized dislike as infrequent because about 80% of teachers experience dislike only every few years or so – this glosses over the 20% of faculty who dislike students every year, hardly an insubstantial number. I hope these folks are alright because disliking a student can be quite stressful. In my own experience with the student who wanted me to do their homework, just seeing their name in my inbox spiked my blood pressure. This is just one example of dislike’s many stressful consequences.
Disliking a student can take an emotional and motivational toll on teachers. In my surveys, teachers said that they worried about interactions with the student inside and outside of class. One teacher stated that “I dreaded running into the student elsewhere on campus. When I did, I would get very anxious and tried to avoid them.” Sometimes teachers started to doubt themselves and their teaching ability. Or, if a student’s behavior was threatening, teachers became fearful. For example, one teacher said that fear of a student’s behavior led them to have “my cell phone out at all times in case I needed to call security.” As can be expected, dislike can cause a decrease in motivation: “It made me dread going to teach that particular class.”
Dread for a course is not the route to teaching effectiveness, and some teachers reported that dislike made them worse teachers. The problems posed by just one student sometimes hurt the class overall. One teacher said, “It put me in a grumpy mood whenever I was heading off to that class, which directly affected how I taught. It took a toll on me and I know other students could feel it.” Some teachers lost their focus: “I became distracted while teaching due to managing my own emotions.” Another teacher said that “it increased the cognitive load on me as I taught and simultaneously needed to stop their misbehavior.” Teaching is hard enough; the added distraction of a disliked student makes it doubly challenging.
Interacting with a disliked student, inside or outside of class, can become a burden. Teachers may hide in their offices, stay off email, and put off interactions with the student. Sometimes, it was too much to take. As one teacher said, “I finally lost it and screamed at the student in a two-minute diatribe that I still regret to this day.” Even in extreme circumstances, teachers should not lose their tempers with students. Thus, it is important to do something about dislike before frustration overcomes pedagogy.
What Can Teachers Do About Disliking Students?
So, student dislike is common and stressful – that sounds pretty bleak, but there is hope. In my survey, I also asked teachers how they dealt with dislike, and they provided many possible solutions. In general, their responses fell into two categories: managing student behaviors that cause dislike and managing reactions to the student. Starting with managing student behaviors, teachers should consider basic classroom management techniques (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011; Wingert & Molitor, 2009). There are well-established tricks for keeping students’ attention, managing classroom discussions, motivating students to do coursework, dealing with excuses, and prevention of cheating. If something is interfering with teaching or learning in the classroom, do something about it.
Teachers do not have to fight classroom-management battles alone. The teachers in my survey asked their colleagues for suggestions. In addition, they occasionally went to administrators for support and intervention when circumstances became dire. Nonetheless, the responsibility for managing students ultimately falls on the teacher, and the most common response to dislike was intentional professionalism. Teachers established rules. They stuck to policy. Hard as it was, they treated disliked students fairly. As one teacher put it, the answer to dislike was “setting clear boundaries, communicating clearly and assertively, [and] not backing down.”
Not all reasons for dislike can be eliminated through classroom management techniques. Students can be innovative rule breakers, noxious personalities tend to persist, and interpersonal dynamics can produce unexpected conflict. For all these reasons and more, teachers must also be prepared to manage their reactions to disliked students. Ultimately, the most important skill is to be professional under all circumstances. Keep calm, think before acting, and treat the disliked student with respect – these are tough but essential rules.
Keeping things professional on the outside does not prevent internal storms of emotion, so teachers also reported using general stress-reduction techniques to deal with their reactions to disliked students. They sought social support from trusted colleagues. They engaged in self-care such as meditation and counseling. Finally, some teachers said that they employed cognitive shifts. They reframed the situation to emphasize that the problem was about the student, not themselves. Or, they tried to empathize with the student, doing things like imagining the situation from their perspective. Sometimes, getting to know a student just a little better is all that is needed to switch them from an enemy to an ally.
So, what happened with the student who kept emailing me for answers to homework? In a professional, constructive way, I explained that my objective was to teach students to read and think critically – as such, I was done giving out answers to homework questions via email. I never let on that I knew about the criticism. The emails stopped. I was less stressed. To be frank, the student still kind of annoyed me. There is no perfect solution to the problem of disliking students. However, teachers should know that it is a common, stressful experience that can be handled professionally. With that knowledge, they can prepare for challenges that lie ahead.
Boysen, G. A., Isaacs, R., 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. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000200
Boysen, G. A., Sampo, B. Axtell, E., & Kishimoto, A. (2021). Dislikable students: The perspective of college teachers. College Teaching. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2021.1882374
Svinicki, M. D., & McKeachie, W. J. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. (13th ed.). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Wingert, D., & Molitor, T. (2009). Best practices: Preventing and managing challenging classroom situations. Currents in Teaching and Learning, 1(2), 4–18.