You’re a new teacher starting right out of college and you may not look much older (or taller) than your own students. This was certainly the case for me, switching to teaching high school after a couple years in the workforce, 25 years old, a below-average male height of 5′-5″, fresh-faced, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (okay, other than the age, that still describes me). With many new teachers concerned about classroom management and worried about earning their students’ respect, one can’t help but think “What if my students don’t respect me because I look really young?”
… should… should I grow a beard?? (I always jokingly advise this to anyone who asks, regardless of gender.)
Or for those who start teaching at an age when you don’t get carded anymore, you might wonder “What if my students can tell I’m new?”
Good news and bad news. Don’t waste your time stressing over your appearance because after the first few minutes (if not seconds) of interaction with your students, it is your actions – not your looks – that determine how your students treat you and think of you.
Your looks may give students the first impression that you’re new, but these first impressions last several minutes, if not seconds. After this period, that factor is outweighed by how you carry yourself, how you treat your students, and how you conduct your classroom that determines the amount of respect your students give you. Case in point if you can think of any teachers who despite looking old and/or experienced, are still pushovers who get eaten alive by their students.
What this means is if your student disrespects you, it’s not because he thinks you’re young or new. It’s because you haven’t earned enough skill and experience yet as a teacher to know how to handle or prevent that situation. At some point, regardless of how old or intimidating you look, a student will test the boundaries, break a rule, or just make a mistake. It is how you handle (or better yet, prevent) these situations that tells students how your classroom is run.
Rather than worrying about your appearance, work on improving your classroom management with good ol’ fashioned tried-and-true practices such as being assertive and creating clear policies and enforcing them consistently (easier said than done). Yes, that sounds totally unsexy, but oftentimes tricks and hacks are no substitute for good teaching.
What not to do
Some teachers are hyper aware of coming off as a young pushover, so they overcompensate by being a total hardass. I advise against this, but we could sit here all day arguing if it’s better to err on the side of being too hard or too soft. My point is don’t do overkill. It’s not even about “nice” vs “mean”. Assertive – good! Aggressive – bad!
Where young looks play a role
Now, I’m not saying your fresh youthful looks have no effect on your job. In my experience and based on what other newbies have shared, youthful looks have a much larger influence in getting you confused for a student on campus (when someone walks into your room looking for the teacher and their eyes sweep right past you, or other teachers/admin seeing you in hallways and telling you to get to class). If you want to pick those battles, be my guest and grow a beard and hobble around campus with a walker (don’t forget the tennis balls on the feet). Kidding aside, dressing professionally does help distinguish you from the students. It’s why I don’t walk the hallways in my backpack and hoodie.
On a wider scope, there are many other complex factors in addition to age that students may use to make snap judgments about us – say height, gender, and race. While there are cases that may have legitimate arguments, I would say 80% of the time (totally a number I pulled out of thin air) the rapport built by the teacher outweighs these surface factors. Some teachers think they’d get more respect only if they were more [insert characteristic here], but the grass always seems greener on the other side. A young teacher says he doesn’t have the advantage of looking old. An old teachers say she doesn’t have the advantage of being a hip young teacher. A female teachers says her students respect male figures more. A male teacher says he doesn’t have the advantage of having a “nurturing” relationship to his students. While these may or may not be true, stereotypes or not, these are all things I’ve heard in conversations with colleagues. There likely will be cases when a student treats you a certain way based solely on factors you have no control over. Don’t fixate on what you don’t have control over. Even though as humans, first impressions may put you at a certain starting point with your students, you make choices and take actions that direct the path of that relationship.
Wait… so what should I do?
… should I grow a beard???
There are things you do you have control over, and you should focus on those things.
For the long term, do your best at improving your classroom management, establishing rapport, getting to know your students better, unconditionally treating them with respect, listening to their (sometimes ill-dispensed) input. Ultimately, this is within your control.
For the short term, you might as well dress professionally (for reasons in addition to distinguishing yourself from your students), and if you want, tune your looks, but know your time and effort is better spent in many other places. Set your expectations. Expect to fight and lose many classroom management battles. Reflect on and learn from every experience. Read books (ex: Fred Jones’ Tools for Teaching) and blogs (Michael Linsin’s Smart Classroom Management blog). Learn to speak assertively. Ask for advice from other (not-too-jaded) teachers. Do these things to learn better classroom management and to become a better teacher.
When I started teaching at 25, I didn’t voluntarily share information about my age and experience to students, but if a student asked, I openly shared the truth. I’m comfortable with being a learner with my students. I’m proud to model to them that we are all learning at different stages in life. I believe sharing my own struggles is a step in building a positive rapport with my students. As opposed to hiding or fronting. This worked well for my environment. It could work for or against you, depending on other aspects of your relationship with students. I would suggest doing this if you are comfortable with yourself not being an expert, not knowing it all, and willing to model a growth mindset for your students.
Are you a new teacher? What are your thoughts and concerns on this topic? Experienced teacher? What’s your personal experienced on this topic? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
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