The Six Types of High School Teachers Who Succeed

SixFailure to launch is way too pervasive in the education field. Among those who succeed as high school teachers, I have worked with six distinct types:

  1. Young and energetic. This persona can appeal to high school students because they can draw a straight line from where they are to where this teacher is. That doesn’t mean they want to be a teacher: it just means this teacher doesn’t have the burnout that often makes kids picture a teacher as a robot that never goes home, but just recharges in the supply closet at night. This is a natural thing for many recent college grads or teachers still in their twenties because they still like the same music as the kids, want to watch the same movies, keep up–at least in passing–with the pop culture dreck that keeps high schoolers’ lives interesting as they feel increasingly trapped in the four walls they inhabit Monday through Friday. Once young energetic teachers realize they’ve got a natural source of rapport with high school students, they’ll make sure they watch an extra five minutes of TMV. This persona has a big risk to it: becoming the cool teacher. Leniency is the high school teacher’s enemy, and it’s so hard to bounce back from. I have found that young teachers who are really passionate about the craft usually avoid this pitfall because they either possess (thanks, Mom and Dad) a high level of self-esteem or they have the emotional intelligence to develop one during the year. Practices designed to help people recognize their intrinsic worth can accomplish this. Mindfulness and talk therapy are two, but there are many more that are effective. Comment below if you’re wondering what they are. The reason self-esteem is so important is that, when this ambitious young teacher is working like a dog, she or he automatically has no life, so regular reminders of awesomeness from the kids, who are really not much younger than the teacher, can start to have an extra special ring to them.
  2. Exacting. Upon reaching the “poetic” stage of cognitive awareness, many adolescents are feeling overwhelmed by problems that feel too big to handle. This type of teacher helps his or her students sharpen the intellectual tools they need. The gentler tools that helped to them to sculpt themselves in clay during childhood do not apply here. Childhood was a time for self-esteem. This is a time for self-discipline. These teachers help them sculpt themselves in stone. High school students respond to this type of teacher because the self-discipline that helps them to rise to the occasion in this teacher’s classroom helps them after school hours to define who they are, and that is why a teacher with extremely exacting academic standards can do well.
  3. Sly. This kind of teacher knows every trick in the book but doesn’t let it show. You can recognize this type of teacher because that southern drawl just doesn’t seem to fit. It’s a put on, a clever mask they wear, to fool naive freshmen early in the year into thinking that they’re clueless. Then, when a kid tries to pull a fast one, they’re already there, usually with a wry comment like, “You’re gonna fail, and I’m gonna let you.” Kids learn quickly that they can’t know how much this kind of teacher knows, and, when the biggest trouble-makers wake up in a cold sweat, it’s this teacher haunting their dreams–they always feel like he or she might be onto them. Teachers I have worked with of this type always seem to enjoy their kids’ exploits and see them as fun-and-games that keep their morale at work high. One reason they are able to feed on the negative energy of misbehavior that often escalates beyond a more uptight teacher’s control is that, because they know every trick in the book so well, they’re confident that they can keep their students from hurting themselves by making a genuinely foolish choice at school. They’re often great at lifting kids’ spirits and have the reputation of being a trusted advisor, since every high schooler avoids the counselor’s office like the plague when they have a problem. Kids feel that a sly teacher understands them, even though s/he is not one of them. This kind of persona cannot be faked, and generally takes years of patient work in the classroom to develop. I get the impression that bullshitting and booze also help.
  4. Funny. A high school teacher is only funny if there is a good dose of sarcasm thrown in. These kids are sick of being handled with kid gloves. From their helicopter parents to the thousands of certificates of participation they were handed as children. The walls of the school are starting to feel suffocating and not a lot of what happens inside feels real to them. Smoking weed starts to sounds pretty great around this point because it seems like a gritty expression of independence, something chancy to do when all the adults around just insist on conformity. And it offers some weird ass buzz, too, and that can’t be so bad. Nevertheless, high school kids will be on their best behavior for a funny teacher because they make sitting for another hour bearable. And, if you make fun of stupid stuff they and their friends do, they’re going to love you because that shows you’re not afraid of authority since you could get reprimanded or piss off parents by doing that. It takes a pretty gutsy teacher to be this kind, I’ve always thought, and you need an ego to boot because, if you come at the kids with a cut down, one of them is going to come back at you, and it is mandatory at this point to make them feel one-inch-tall while never losing your cool, so I’m pretty sure you have to think you’re the shit.
  5. Old. At a good school, and a lot of run-of-the-mill schools, too, there is bound to be a grand old man or woman. They have been teaching forever, but they haven’t over-stayed their welcome. They’re looking retirement square in the eye, but everyone in the building is going to stand in line to give them a teary hug when they go. They are generally very warm and caring because that’s how human beings get when they realize none of the other shit matters. They’re not as fast as they used to be, but they still get the job done, and no one ever expects them to use their interactive whiteboard, but most of them do, and they put the younger teachers to shame with it. The golden years of a teachers career are beautiful years: the administration either loves them–as they should–or leaves them alone, and they remind high school kids so much of their own grandmother or grandfather that they keep each other in line for this teacher. They’ll smack each other in the back of the head and say things like, “Show some respect for Mrs. Tweedle! I love your name, Mrs. Tweedle. We all do.” It’s kind of like teacher heaven—it’ll happen to all good teachers, eventually. If this teacher is too old, though, the kids will be merciless. Get those years in, people, because when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.
  6. Strict as Jesus on Judgment Day. “I am the Terminator” is what the kids hear in their heads when they see this teacher across campus. When s/he approaches, they scatter. Fear is a potent motivator. Some worthless teachers are naturally like this because they are bitter and unhappy, and they should take Brian Regan’s advice and get some Montana brochures and probably get laid. Some really tremendous teachers are like this because they are more old-school-than-old-school. They wheeled in a wagon of bricks to build the old school. However, the important thing is–first year teachers, listen up–this is your emergency plan. Has your year gone to utter doo doo by Halloween? Do you hate the kids and wake up at 3:00 AM afraid of what 1st period will bring? Well, take heart: you can turn it around. This persona can be faked, with a lot of will power, so you’ve got to belly up to the bar and decide, “Do I want to survive the rest of the year?” If so, have a drink, stiffen your spine, and never let a rule bend again. Remember forever and always: the kids do not have to like you. When it comes to bare survival as a teacher, you can be too lenient, but you can’t be too strict. Even a teacher so strict that s/he strikes fear in the heart of every kid in high school can get though a lesson plan and go home without feeling used and abused. They may have used and abused a few students to get there, however. This is the kind of disciplinarian that “makes an example” of people. (Never admit that on a call home, by the way.) But it has worked on mutinous sailors, on soldiers in retreat, and it can and it will work on high school students. Never bend, never waver in enforcing your rules, even to the nicest kid in the class because the bullies will corner him in the bathroom and drag it out of him, and, once they know you withdrew that detention, the jig is up. Fake this persona from the minute you arrive on campus to the minute you open your car door and, in short order, your students will fall in line. The kids will curse your name when they’re hanging out on the weekend, they’ll never do more for you than you ask, but the good kids will secretly be thanking you for giving them back their classroom, and you can come up with a less horrible classroom management system to introduce on the very first day next year.
That’s it. High school teachers that I’ve worked with, demystified. What other types do you know? Clue me in on more of the magic that allows high school teachers to thrive in an environment that normal people fear so badly they would be happier to be ejected into outer space without a suit on.

Autodidacts Unite!
This week, to go along with the idea that only a select few personalities really thrive in the jungle of a public high school classroom, a broader notion: that nine major personality types, leading to infinite admixtures, can reveal a huge amount about interpersonal relations. It’s called the study of the enneagram.
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