Help! I’m Tired of My Middle School Students Gaslighting Me

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Dear WeAreTeachers,
I’m new to middle school this year, and I’m having a particularly hard time with “I wasn’t ___.” You now have a zero for talking during the test. “I wasn’t talking.” It’s inappropriate to be laughing during this lesson. “I wasn’t laughing.” Bring me your phone, please. “I wasn’t on my phone.” I know that teachers aren’t supposed to engage in power struggles with students, but what am I supposed to do when they try to tell me my reality is wrong? —Gaslighter, You Liar

Dear G.Y.L.,

Oh, really? I’ve never heard of this happening. And it definitely never happened when I was in the classroom. All the teenagers I knew were honest and took responsibility for their mistakes.

LOL.

I’m kidding, of course. Your frustration is valid, and you’re not alone in this gaslighty teenage wilderness.

It can be really hard to not enter a power struggle when a student denies doing something you saw with your own eyes, but remember this: You don’t have to enter it to win it. Do this instead:

  1. Set your boundary.
  2. Hold your boundary.
  3. Offer to hear their side (later).
  4. Repeat if necessary.
  5. Move on (even if the student is still trying to argue).

It looks like this:

Set the expectation: I’m about to hand out your quizzes. Remember that if I see talking, whispering, Morse code, hand signals, anything that even resembles communication—that’s an automatic zero per our school policy. It doesn’t matter if you were asking for a Kleenex or telling your neighbor you have a giant, honking crush on them. And remember: I make the call whether it’s communication or not. We all clear on that?

Hold your boundary: Chase, can I talk to you for a minute? (move to a private area) I just saw you whispering something to your friend. Unfortunately, that invalidates your quiz score.

(Insert “BUT I WASN’T TALKING!”)

Offer to hear their side (later): You’re more than welcome to email me if you think this is unfair.

(Insert “BUT I WASN’T TALKING!”)

Repeat if necessary: You’re more than welcome to email me if you think this is unfair.

Move on: OK! Who’s ready to learn about RATIONAL NUMBERS?

Here’s the thing: You may actually decide after reading Chase’s email that you’re not going to give him the zero. (I would recommend giving him grace the first time as a learning opportunity and to build trust between the two of you.) But following this response, the student doing the gaslighting—as well as the rest of your students—will see a teacher who:

  • Responds to conflict calmly and respectfully
  • Gives the student an opportunity to tell their side of the story (even if it’s not right in that moment)
  • Doesn’t get sucked into a debate on who has the power in the room
  • Isn’t willing to sacrifice other students’ learning time for silly arguments

Dear WeAreTeachers,
I overheard my students saying that their history teacher is having students participate in an online slavery simulation. I asked them for the website to check it out. The program is apparently from a well-known education company, and it guides students through participating in a slave auction. I feel like apart from being highly inappropriate for an educational tool, this is a huge liability for the school. Should I talk to the teacher or go to an admin? —I Hate It Here

Dear I.H.H.,

WHY? Why is this still happening in 2023?

First, as frustrating as it is to see how this could have impacted students, try to first assume positive intent on the teacher’s part. This doesn’t excuse this assignment or excuse the fact that the teacher should have thought about how a student of color would feel participating in a mock slave auction, let alone the myriad of other problems that arise when you ask students to reenact one of our nation’s most disturbing and darkest eras.

Talk to the teacher first to give them an opportunity to recognize and fix a serious, inevitably harmful misstep.

“Hey. I heard some students talking about the online slavery simulation you’re using in class. Do you have time for me to ask some questions? Can you talk me through this website and what it offers our students as a learning tool? Do you think all of our students will have the same experience using this website? Have you thought about what it might be like to ask our students of color to pretend to be slaves, or their captors?”

You’ll be able to determine very quickly whether this teacher is horrified at an angle they never considered or defensive of material they refuse to pull. If it’s the latter, get an admin involved before children have to experience any more of this.

Finally, regardless of the outcome, it sounds like your school could benefit from training on culturally responsive classrooms.

Dear WeAreTeachers,
I get along super well with the parent of one of my students. She was in my chaperone group on a field trip back in September, and since then she’s just been a joy to work with as a classroom parent. We’re the same age, grew up 30 minutes away from each other (four states away!), and have a similar sense of humor. Recently she asked if I ever want to get together to have coffee or wine, and I said, “Sure!” without thinking. But now I’m concerned I may be violating a boundary even though my gut tells me she’s totally safe. What should I do? —Mother May I Have a Friend

Dear M.M.I.H.A.F.,

If you’re in April of your school year, I would go for it.

At worst, if this is a parent with a secret agenda to report you for whatever it is teachers are doing to bring down America this month (which it doesn’t sound like she is), the school year is almost over. At best, you could make a lifelong friend. However, no matter where she falls on the secret agenda–lifelong friend spectrum, I would avoid saying anything about other children in your class, other teachers at school, or anything else you wouldn’t want immediately transcribed and posted on the school’s Facebook group. At least until the school year is over.

Here are some other perspectives from teachers that I thought were insightful too:

“We’re close to the end of the year, so why not write back and say, ‘Can I amend that “Sure!” to include, “once the school year is over”?’ Add that you want to keep personal/professional separate, or you could also just say, truthfully, that the last month of school is busy, and you’d love a coffee date to unwind after the school year is over.”

—Erin A.

“I live in a very small community. Many of my students’ parents went to high school with me. I have made it clear that if we are together in a social situation, I am not Mrs. Castille. I am Sandy. I will not talk about school, parents, or students. The main way to keep out of a sticky situation is to set firm boundaries.”

—Sandra C.

“I think it’s a healthier boundary for the parent, yourself, and your student to wait until the end of the school year when you are no longer assigned as her child’s teacher. It’s unpredictable what could arise from now until the end of the year. So, just start fresh in June! That way you can build a stronger friendship outside of ‘room mom’ and ‘teacher’ duties.”

—Crystal G.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at askweareteachers@weareteachers.com.

Dear WeAreTeachers,
My school district has a policy of always holding a lockdown drill the school day immediately following a school shooting. I understand why they do this on an administrative level, but I feel like they are ignoring how traumatic this is for educators and students in classrooms who are still grieving and processing. I talked to my principal about adjusting the timing, but she says her hands are tied as this is a district decision. Should my teammates and I keep pressing about this at the district level, or let it go as a necessary precaution we have to take? —We Can’t Keep Doing This



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