Why do we take it so personally?

Scene: While walking in the hallway of the school where I work and am approached by the mother of a former student of mine. He was my student for 3 semesters in a period of 3 years.

Mother: Cecilia! It’s great to run into you! I’ve been meaning to tell you something. My son took the TOEFL to apply for a university abroad and he got the score he needed. Thank you!

Me: That’s great! But it’s all his merit. He’s always been such a great student!

Does this ring a bell with you? (image by Daeveb - Flickr)

The scene I described above didn’t happen, not this one exactly. But similar scenes have happened to me more than I could possibly count. Situations where I learn about a student’s achievement thanks to his/her English skills. I’m not saying I am a great teacher – we all have been through these situations. that’s not the intention of the anecdote.

Well, recently I had the opposite experience – and not for the first time of course – I could clearly see that one of my groups is not doing as well as expected. As a whole. And that realization crushed me…

Why do we see our students’ failure as our fault, and on the other hand their success as something they’ve achieved all on their own rather than something we’ve helped them achieve? I ask myself that at the same time I do that…

Why do we take it so personally – and only on a negative side for us??

Well, I can only think and reflect about my own experience, my own practice. I truly believe myself to be a committed teacher. I work hard, I plan my classes. I assess each student individually, I give them personal feedback. I care about them. I make every effort to adapt my classes to the students’ needs, to their individualities. I spend countless hours researching, preparing, crafting, worrying… So why do I feel it’s my fault? Why do I feel a student’s failure to learn is a result of MY shortcomings??

Who is responsible for your students' learning: you or them? (image from #eltpics - students)

The worst thing is, the more I think and reflect about it, the more I contradict myself. When I consider the students’ progress and development in the language I feel they’re the ones who are responsible for their own learning because I see my role in the classroom the one of a facilitator. I am someone with more knowledge as far as English is concerned, who is there to help them, pointing them in the right direction, guiding them by the hand when needed, cheering them forward when their motivation runs low. I am there to find ways that associate things they like, things that are more effective in getting them to learn. That’s how I see it.


When I think about students not learning as they are supposed to I see my role in the classroom differently. I am the teacher, I am the one who decides how to present things, how they should practice the language being taught to better learn it. Therefore, who else if there to blame if the way I choose to teach doesn’t work?

When it comes to your students’ learning – or lack of – who’s responsible?

Can anyone help me figure this out? Please? Pretty please?

57 comments on “Why do we take it so personally?

  1. Darren says:

    I think it’s a bit of both. Ultimately, learners who don’t put in the effort or who don’t want to learn will probably fail. But we teachers have to help them find how and why to study – it’s actually harder than teaching language. I still think that there are learners who are too damaged by previous experience, alienated by foreign languages, or just at the wrong time in their lives…. and we probably can’t reach them. But the majority can succeed if we can find the right ‘pressure point’.

    • Hi Darren,

      Thanks for your take on it… I agree with you that the vast majority of times it’s only a matter of finding the right button to push – and the right way to do it as well, because it changes from student to student, we all know that. The challenge is in finding time to work on it and discover those buttons eh? And I believe even those damaged students you mention in your comment can be helped… call me an optmist!

      And you’re so right when you say helping them is harder than teaching a language. It involves empathy, insight, sensibility… And yet, this key ability for a teacher is not really included in teacher training and courses, is it?

  2. seburnt says:

    Certainly a reflective post, Ceci! I think we often take lack of achievement personally because we put so much time and energy into facilitate student learning that if they don’t do as well as a previous class, we think we’re the ones responsible. And in some cases, we could be (at least partially): if we hadn’t done things the right way or taken the right amount of time or differentiated appropriately.

    Where I don’t follow your assessment is placing all the credit to the learner when they do achieve high goals. I acknowledge that in this case too, we are partially to “blame”. What it seems in perhaps your case is accepting that compliment might not feel comfortable. Am I close?

    There are varying degrees to which I believe we contribute to student learning, but ultimately, neither is solely our fault or achievement.

    • Dangerously close Ty ๐Ÿ™‚ But then again, you know me too well…

      I like how you put your view on the matter… how both achievement and failure in learning are shared responsibilities by teachers and students. I think in a way that’s how I truly believe about it, but when it comes to real life and the situation presents itself, I forget that…

      Now, a question that came to mind… How do you think the students see this issue?

      • seburnt says:

        Also being human, I’m sure students see it in a variety of ways, depending on when you asked them. Maturer students will accept their part in either case.

        I like the theme change, Ceci. =)

  3. victoria says:

    Every year when school begins I tell my students that we will both have to give 50% for all of us to learn and have a successful year. If I do 60%, and they do 40% ,things don’t work. It’s a 50%-50% situation where all of us need to take our quota of responsibility and hard work. I do not believe it is just my achievement if they do well or poorly, I believe it’s ours…
    This vision has helped me to understand failures and successes during the years.
    Love from Montevideo,

    • Hi Victoria,

      Thanks for sharing how you deal with showing students their learning is as much their responsibility as their teachers’. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have done this a few times, but maybe I should consider doing it regularly, in all classes. And it didn’t go unnoticed that your comment goes along the same line as Tyson’s… I see how this is the right answer, but what makes some of us teachers understand it (and agree with it!) and yet feel differently?
      Warm hugs from Brazil ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. Ed says:

    Hi there,

    I think it’s brave for you to admit to having ‘issues’ – it is somewhat against the ELT blog grain, no?

    For me having a success / fail classroom is destructive. Right & wrong acts are less constructive than having those that are focused on learning. This is something teachers as well as students should come to realise more.

    A useful practice is to reframe the classroom as a place of learning (yours too) and not as being win / lose and performance based. Reframe learners’ learning as being about learning, and not so much on this performance paradigm. This can avoid feelings of pain / pleasure dependent on feedback.

    Attribution theory talks about how we can make this work for us in our classroom, to increase motivation. Your student with TOEFL score may work harder in the future if you attribute (to his mother) his hard work, rather than an innate ability.

    I did something on attribution theory recently, the download version has audio…http://slidesha.re/eQiA3C

    I’d be interested to hear what you think, and how this might apply to you.


    • Hi Ed,

      Thanks for your comments. I’ve never thought of admiting to having issues as something against the ELT blog grain. Maybe one of the reasons is the blogs I regularly read – most from memebers of my PLN – which not only have no fear of admitting to having issues but it is actually a somewhat common topic. And one of the main reasons I got into blogging was actually to be able to share anything related to my practice with educators from around the world and getting their feedback on it – including insecurities and doubts that arise in our job.

      I enjoyed reading your presentation slides on the attribution theory (though I could not work out the audio) and much of it rings true to me, especially on how it refers to feedback and summative assessment in the classroom. That’s how I see – and do – things with my students.

      I agree that performance should be the core of our teaching and assessment, what we want our students to achieve. However we have to keep in mind that the students (or many of them at least) have specific objectives for the fluency in English they’re trying to acquire. And most of those objectives (unfortunately) involve a win/lose situation. Whether it’s a language proficiency certificate they need to get, a certain score in another test they need, a job interview to be conducted in English… all of these instances there’s a fail / succeed result. Thus, it is hard not to consider it in our practice, in our lessons and groups. Not as a whole class, but individual wins / losses. Hopefully we’ll always see more of the first.

      Thanks for sharing Ed!

  5. sarena jaafar says:

    http://wp.me/p13uEf-3E i hope you have read this post.you are not alone .your challenge resonate with every teacher.I think it is just another way of improving your skill.Every year you”ll face a different group of students with different mindset and a lot of damage control.You will be on your toes everytime.It makes you a better teacher.embrace the challenge.Believe you are making a difference in your students’ life though sometimes it didn”t give you the result you want.Maybe your tenacity and committment in themselves carries a lot of weight and changes the students from within. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Tina Aharoni says:

      hi cecilia. I think as a teacher you can give all you’ve got. If you’ve done that which i’m sure you have then you’re certainly not the one who has failed… However, there are so many kids who just won’t give all they’ve got, and these are the ones who usually don’t make it, no matter how you skillful ly y teach. As a private teacher, I have found that the weakest students of mine, the super motivated ones, make it to the top, despite their ADD or whatever LD they may have. However the stronger students who just have hardly any or no motivation , well it’s just hopeless. I know how frustrating it can be. But i;ve just got to the final conclusion if we have done everything we can to motivate and teach these kids, it they dont have the motivation it just doesnt work. To conclude, this doesn’t mean we are not good teachers and we shouldn’t blame ourselves! (written this so quickly. hope it makes sense. Running off to teach, hopefully some motivated kids!!!). Best regards Tina

      • Hi Tina,

        I’ve had similar experiences to you (super weak but highly driven and motivated students who make it to where they needed while stronger, talented students who hardly put any effort and take ages to get anywhere) as well as the opposite (when stronger SS make little effort and still achieve their objectives and weaker, struggling students don’t progress despite their efforts). And like you, when they seem to be stuck, not moving forward, I do some reflection to whether I did everything I could. And realizing I have done so helps, but I still keep thinking if there weren’t other strategies or something I could’ve done to make the outcome different. I guess it’s just something I’ll have to deal with… It doesn’t seem to go away, no matter how much I reason and try to be rational about it.

        Thanks for the supportive comments ๐Ÿ™‚
        Sunny regards,


    • Hi Sarena,

      Thank you for your motivating and inspiring words… Believing that I make a difference in the students’ lives is the essential drive I have for being a teacher and doing what I do. And despite the setbacks, difficulties or not so perfect endings – such as the group I have this semester that motivated this post – if I know for sure that I have made a real difference (for the better of course!) in ONE student’s life (among the hundred I have) it makes the semester worth it. ๐Ÿ™‚


  6. Adam says:

    It’s always good to reflect on such things. It’s equally important to reflect on why things go right. I did so recently in this post…


    We can’t take the blame when things go *wrong* but we also have to accept that all *success* isn’t down to us either. We just maximize the chances for things to work out well.

    By the way, the two students in the picture are Aykut and ErdoฤŸan, great guys!

    • Hi Adam!

      Yes, we have to reflect on what works as much as we do for what doesn’t. I have to admit maybe I haven’t done enough of that lately, and it does hit me especially hard when I get one of the latter.

      Deep down we all know that teaching and learning is a joint effort, thus the outcome – whether positive or negative – and the responsibility for it should also be shared.

      It’s just hard to to remember that when we realize that we just didn’t get it right (or totally right) this time.

      Thanks for the link to your post – I had read when you posted, but it was good reading it again, calmly and under the light and with the feelings the post I wrote brought.

      X Ceci

  7. CoffeeAddict says:

    What I do is this: I test the kids in September when they join my class. It is a very comprehensive diagnostic test. I test them again – using the same test – at the end of the year. I take credit/blame for the difference between the two. That’s all. They don’t (usually) come to us as “blank slates” and they continue learning after they leave us. Why take anything – good or bad – personally other than what you’ve personally had something to do with?!?
    ๐Ÿ™‚ Karin

    • Hi Karin!

      Thanks for sharing how you handle it… I see the validity and reliability of it. But much as Ed mentioned in his comment (and I also did in my reply) my assessment of students i more performance-based. We don’t use standardized tests in my school anymore, because we believe – and I truly do – them to be an unfair tool for assessment. In our setting anyway.

      We all know that there are so many differences between students and teaching settings around the world we have to have different strategies and methods as well.

      I think I have to start giving more of the resposibility to students and work on both them and I realizing it’s a joint effort. And then we can accet our roles in whatever result we have.

      Thanks for sharing Karin!

      x Ceci

  8. acLiLtocLiMB says:

    I agree with Adam in that neither failures nor success are all down to us, but as Darren says, we have to try to find out the reason for students not wanting to study – if this is indeed the reason for failing. It should really be the parents’ responsibility, but, often, the home situation is a contributory factor to the students’ performance. So, in a nutshell, we’d have to investigate the causes, and then seek the remedy. Motivation is probably one of the hardest tasks of a teacher. But, certainly, under no circumstances should you take the blame as long as your conscience is clear, which I’m sure it is! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Hi Chiew,

      Yes, investigating the reasons is key… even from the very beginning of a course, so that you know what each student needs, where they want / need to get and how we think it’s the best way to help them get there.

      What struck me with this one group (and again, in 17 years teaching, it’s not the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last) it’s that it’s generalized. So at the very least I failed in finding what they needed and how to give it to them. I’ll admit most of them are students who had problems adapting / following other groups and were transfered to my group, and I have a couple of students with special needs in this group. But still…

      The blame may not be all mine, but part of it is… I just have to use it as a motivation to do better next time.

      Thanks for your comments! ๐Ÿ™‚


  9. Important questions, and well delivered.

    Is it the chicken or the egg ? It’s both, and if we think otherwise we’re missing something. As educators, we are blessed with the beautiful gift of trying to “awaken” intelligence in students. Some become lively w/o effort. Some resist and play out their own stories. Some are just kind of there. And that’s what we gotta play with.

    Either way, we sit at our desks many evenings wondering… how can I do better ? How can I reach them? It’s a pretty awesome job, and I do take it personally, but I also know that I’m only one of the many actors in the learning environment.

    GREAT POST, Ceci !

    • Hey Brad!

      It’s amazing how we never know where a post is going to take us, isn’t it? It was written more as a “venting” post, putting the frustration out there… I was overwhelmed by the response to it. Of course I knew it would hit a nerve with a few teachers who might stumble across my blog, but I truly never believed it would touch so many. I guess deep down we’re all – in spite of our different sizes, shapes, cultures, etc – peas in a pod in a way. We care about our students and how the do.

      But as you said, when we sit at our desks and wonder, and reflect… well, all I can say is that no matter how frustrated it feels, I take it as a challenge to do better, be better. And that’s what pushes us forward, isn’t it?

      Thanks B. ๐Ÿ™‚ Beijo!

      X Ceci

  10. Anna says:

    Hey Ceci

    Thanks for this honest post. Well as you know I’m not best placed to help you with this as I also struggle with yo yo feelings sometimes on a class by class basis. It’s crazy how sometimes you can come out of a session on top of the world and at other times … well you’d struggle to scrape me of the classroom floor.

    I think the post Adam shared on this topic is particularly helpful.

    Whilst I do think there’s a lot more I could do in terms of
    improving my own teaching from the sounds of it you give it a 100% so it definitely does seem like this is more of a perspective issue.

    How about this? Because you care about your students it hurts you when they don’t do as well as you’d hoped for them. That means you care… not that you have got it wrong.

    It’s such an interesting balance after you’ve been teaching for a few years. There’s always the choice to detach a bit from the learners. I’ve taught with very successful teachers who can do this. The students love them and feel cared for but the teacher keeps a bit back of themselves doesn’t care quite as much as they could do.

    You allow yourself to care so perhaps one thing that could help is acknowledging that you are going to feel pain when they don’t do as well as they could regardless of how they & you have responded in the classroom.

    All I can really say is that you are quite clearly an incredible teacher, the sort of one in a million teacher that is remembered for years to come as the source and inspiration of hopes and dreams and belief in oneself.

    But that doesn’t make it any easier. What I can say from my own experience is being honest like you have been here in itself provides a great deal of relief as does the support of others.

    The pain is still there but you can see it from a different point of view, take stock and head back in there a little more refreshed.

    Thank you for sharing it certainly helps me to hear that other teachers struggle with this.

    You’re amazing! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Hi Anna,

      You make a very valid point… yes, I do get attached to students – I obviously care about them, but as you pointed out some people can care and do a fantastic job with their students and still keep an emotional distance. I’m terrible at that. I love, I cry, I laugh… Maybe the excessive latin display of emotions? I’m a real example of that stereotype ๐Ÿ˜‰

      And what you wrote maybe me realize that might be the reason why I take negative results so personally or especially hard. On the other hand it also means I take the positive results extra well, with pure joy and excitement. Maybe it’s not a bad deal after all… As long as there’s more joy than frustration ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thank you so much for you super kind words… I am humbled by them. I’m no different from any committed teacher – which my PLN is full of (present company included!).

      Ceci ๐Ÿ˜€

  11. Simon Ensor says:

    What is success? What is failure? Are tests good at evaluating what has been learnt? Do the learners value what you value? What criteria do you use to evaluate your professional performance? Do you care more about results or the people? Which teachers had the most positive influence on you? Do you remember the relationship or the results? How long does it take to learn the importance of words that at one time had no meaning for you? Do you enjoy doing what you are doing? Do you care about the other learners? Do you want to learn more? Yes? You are doing a great job! Thankfully we fail. It helps us to ask questions. Thanks for sharing yours.

    • Hi Simon,

      So many questions!!!! ๐Ÿ™‚ I guess for me the concept of success and failure depend on the objectives the person has set. Maybe what one person considers to be a success another may consider as failure because they set different standards for themselves. failure for me is when you don’t get where you planned to get – as long as it was feasible, reasonable. I am not sure I have specific criteria to evaluate my professional performance, but on reflection I believe that if I see progress in about 80-90% of my students I think I had a good semester, that I did a good job. The progress may not get all of them to the same level, but still… it’s progress.

      I care about people, but I also care about them getting the expected results because not doing so will frustrate. And that can also be seen on my answer to your “most meaningful teachers” question. They were the teachers thatmotivated me, challenged me, believed in me when I didn’t. So you’re right… I remember the people. And I also think that my students will remember me not only for the language they learned with my help but especially for my genuine interest in them, for caring, motivating, respecting their individualities.

      I don’t enjoy what I do…. I LOVE what I do ๐Ÿ™‚ And yes, I have much more to learn and I want to keep learning until I die.

      And I agree with you that it’s good to fail – we learn much more from our mistakes than from our successes. Mistakes give you drive to overcome them, not make the same again.

      Thank YOU for inspiring such reflection on me!


      • Simon Ensor says:

        Thanks for your reply. I take it personally! I love what I do because I am always learning, trying to learn how personally I can best help all the different other learners best reach their objectives. I think reflection is essential to better define what we are doing and thereby to depersonalise our evaluation of the best actions to take. Taking distance from
        ourselves is essential to progress. Establishing clear criteria to evaluate one’s actions is the objective of reflection. When we care, when we love what we do we progress but depersonalizing judgements gives us a more effective use of our time and makes us realise that we can only take one step at a time. We never get there but we can uncover some exciting paths…,,

  12. David Warr says:

    Hi Ceci, it is a very open post. I agree with Tina, that if they don’t want to learn or take English further then that’s their decision . I watched a programme last night about the real pirates of the Caribbean, the facts about Blackbeard and others. The guy presenting was great, fantastic. But I’m not about to become a student of pirates and take up scuba diving to try and find pieces of Spanish gold.

    • Hi David,

      I know there are some students who just don’t care and don’t want to learn – we can try to show them reasons for wanting to learn, try to find their “button”… but that doesn’t happen all the time.

      My biggest concern is for those students who pay attention, do all the activities (they make mistakes, but they do them!) and still don’t achieve any progress (or almost none)…. And I know it’s not up to me, we cna only do so much, but I can’t shake the feeling…

      X Ceci

  13. Hi Ceci,

    I can feel for you so much – I am always guilt ridden if a learner (or a teacher in my case) is not making the progress I was hoping for.

    In the case of FL learners, this is probably due to my deeply ingrained values – which is good to acknowledge and ‘fess up to… At some cognitive level, I know this, but the gut reaction still stays the same, despite all my training, knowledge and experience.

    So maybe you might want to rethink this – do you feel guilty because you feel anyone’s rise or fall is solely your responsibility? If you do, youโ€™re not along as I have already confessed I feel pretty much the same way.
    I also suspect I am wrong in some ways, so I don’t fret about it that much. A lot of it has to do with my very traditional and teacher-centred, teacher-led educational background. The deep-seated values this gives you are so difficult to uproot, it’s the struggle of a lifetime. But it helps to rationalize this.

    Two things I wanted to share with you:

    One, is the belief that top achievers in our classes are achieving exclusively because of what we do. I do believe that some of their successes may be attributed to our teaching but I also know that there is a small (a tiny) percentage of students who would achieve great results whether I taught them well or not. There is also a similarly small number of students who, by dint or learning issues or habits or background, would never be able to achieve great results and some even might have very little progress despite any high quality instruction they may receive.

    I am OK with those small percentages. No, not OK, really, but you know what I mean.

    It’s the large mass of averages in-between that makes me worry a lot and gives me guilt trips. It’s those students who could have done better, if only….

    Sure. I can rationalize this; I have all the tools and knowledge of research in place – like all our friends above keep telling us.

    Two: somewhere deep within us most of us believe it’s the job of the teacher to create the best possible conditions for their learners so that they can fulfill their potential for learning in the best possible way.

    But, at the same time we need to remember that it is just not possible to create optimal conditions for everyone in our classrooms.

    It might be possible in a one-to-one setting but in the large cauldron of a classroom situation, there are so many parameters we have to juggle with, itโ€™s impossible not to miss out on some, itโ€™s not feasible to be 100% successful in giving all our learners the exact type of instruction they might respond best to.

    But do keep fretting. Itโ€™s the hallmark of a true educator not to be content with the law of averages and to keep striving for being the best possible educator they can be for all their students.

    Thank you for sharing your feelings and for turning this into an important confessional!!!!


    • My dearest Marisa,

      First let me apologize for taking so long in replying to your comment. The end of the term is very busy – as you know too well – and I like to take my time when replying to comments, especially deep, insightful comments like yours and many others that my post seem to have triggered.

      Your comment couldn’t have have hit closer to my heart if it had been written by me. What you said about realizing things at a cognitive level but having the gut feeling getting in the way… bullseye!

      I do agree that some great students would shine whether they were my students or not – some people just have the talent ( or linguistic intelligence as Howard Gardner would say) as well as other will not succed no matter how much work, effort and dedication I put into it.

      I see no way to stop fretting… It’s just stronger than me, a very real part of me. Whether it makes me weak or a better teacher, who knows.

      No, just as you said, it’s not humanly possible to create optimal conditions for everyone, especially when we are talking of large classrooms (and mine are not even half as large as most people’s) but how to shake the feeling you could have/ should have??? That’s what I struggle with – as do you from what I know of of you and read in your comment.

      I guess we just have to try to deal with it and get some solace from the wonderfully supportive PLN we have.

      You are a very, dear member of mine, One of the most supportive ones and a dear, dear friend.

      Thank you for taking the time to share you views and experience on it here Marisa ๐Ÿ™‚



  14. […] under Day by Day in the Classroom, On Education Cecilia Lemos’s latest blog post “Why do we take it so personally?” really resonates with me. Photo by Gil […]

  15. Your post resonated with me SO strongly that I just had to write a post about it!

    Thank you for dealing with this vital topic!

    • Loved the post Naomi, and am super flattered my reflections served as an inspirations for such great reflections of your own. I strongly advise everyone to check out Naomi’s blog post!


  16. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    A timely post for me, both in the general sense that I’m coming to the end of a school year (only 3 weeks of teaching left!) and reflecting on what went well and could have gone better this year and in light of a seminar I went to last week. It was given by a coursebook author who remarked a number of times “there are no bad students, only bad teachers!” and “it’s not thier problem, it’s your problem!”

    I was sorely tempted to stand up and shout “there are no bad teachers, only bad coursebooks!” but I thought better of it… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    There have been plenty of students I have struggled to connect with, motivate or ‘improve’ over the years and I think it’s one of those constant struggles we are destined to face as long as we are teachers. Each class is different, each learner is different and identifying their collective and individual needs and balancing those with your own teaching style is a tricky task. Sometimes, the right mix appears early on, other times it may never be found.

    The important thing is to reflect on it, as you did with this post and as all these people commenting are now. What prevented that student from progressing? Why was (s)he not motivated? What could I have done better or differently?

    And sometimes, we have to accept that we maybe did all we could. The important thing is that we made the effort and we acknowledged that.

    • seburnt says:

      Interesting! And I likely would have shared that shout (or perhaps a similar, yet more middle-road version) you didn’t make! Obviously now I’m curious… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Hi Dave,

      Can I just say I would have joined both you and Tyson below to shout…. Maybe I wouldn’t go as far as saying “only coursebooks!” but rather “bad circumstances!!!!”

      Balancing everything is not only tricky but also impossible when you talk about big heterogeneous groups – which is outr reality unless you’re talking about a teacher who onlu has 1:1 students, isn’t it? It is impossible to fit the book to everyone’s individualities, to address all of them… or is there?

      I guess my biggest problem is the ever lasting feeling that there’s always something I could’ve done differently, more effectively…

      But as you say , the important thing is the reflection that such groups, such moments trigger… not only to me but to other teachers who eventually read this blog. I guess reflecting and being aware we’re not perfect, we don’t always do what we set out to do… it makes us work harder. It makes us assess our own practices and think of ways we can do things differently next time around and (hopefully) be more effective.

      As you said…acknowledging we did our best is the importantt thing. But the real question is if we can just accept and be ok with it. Sometimes it just seems we can’t. And after reading all the comments I’m not sure this is such a big problem, or just part of the job description.



  17. The contradiction of deflecting praise for the good learners and taking on the failures of our less able learners is something that I’m sure we’re all familiar with, but it’s still good to read and write about it, thanks Ceri.

    We focus on the negative because that’s where the work is, don’t we? Surely the fact of the matter is that, in the same way we like (and sometimes overly focus on) mistakes, we focus on the students who are achieving less since that’s where we are needed more.

    In terms of responsibility, I think the burden of achievement probably shifts throughout a course of lessons. Certainly Victoria’s 50/50 ratio works well and that should be the case from day 1 in terms of effort. However, with regards to more specific things like practice, homework, extra practice, autonomous efforts outside of class – these are all things which might need to be learned before they are the responsibility of the learners. That being the case, the efforts of the teacher near the beginning are probably higher that the ideal 50/50 since we, the teachers, need to show our students how to take responsibility for their own learning and get them comfortable with our role as guide or facilitator. I think this is probably where I tend to feel failure the most.

    I completely agree that we are facilitators but often a lot of effort goes into teaching the learners how to learn because a lot of school systems in the world don’t work towards that but more towards teaching the students how to pass a test. This lecture-type, top-down teaching approach is what a lot of students are used to… And then we come in, try to nurture autonomy and critical thinking (so important for language learning in particular) and the learners are reluctant to go there because it’s outside their comfort zone.

    So we try every trick in the book to make language learning a more comfortable process for them. Why do we take it so personally when it doesn’t work? Probably because one of the approaches, of the plethora we use with failing students, is the personable, humanistic approach. Sometimes it works, and the subsequent language learning starts falling in place. Sometimes it doesn’t work, we look at it from another angle and try something different but at the very end of the day, we’ve probably spent more time considering, planning around and thinking about those failing students. As a result, we feel those failures since they occupied more of our time over the days, weeks and months.

    Thanks for a great post Ceri! I’ll be forwarding it to all my colleagues as it is something which gets to us all at one point or another.

    • Matt Ledding says:

      Gordon, upon reading your reply on the big screen, instead of on my phone, I realized that you said everything I said after, but more profoundly and with far more meat to it.

      Great reply.

      • Matt…. I loved Gordon’s comment, and it certainly ignited some deep reflections for me, but yours were equally meaningful ๐Ÿ™‚ See response below!

    • Hi Gordon,

      The one thing that hit me the closest of your comment was when you said that maybe we teachers focus on the students who are achieving less because that’s where we’re needed the most. Are we conditioned to doing that? Is this something we’re trained to do or something that “natural-born” teachers are innate at? Questions, questions….

      However, (and maybe it’s becaus it’s the end of the semester/term for me) but this is the time I feel failure the hardest.

      I had initially agreed with victoria on her 50/50 ratio but when I read your comment I couldn’t help but agreeing that at least in the beginning we put more than 50% in…we have to empower the students, make them realize they are a very vital part of their own learning, they hold the key to it… But yes, you’re right when you say we have to put a lot of work into changing the students’ framework of learning, because that’s not how they’re taught to learn… strange sentece? Maybe… but true. Nurturing autonomy and critical thinki g feel against the grain for most students, doesn’t it?

      Thanks you for such great feedaback. Super happy you found it worthy of sharing ๐Ÿ™‚



  18. […] Why Do We Take It So Personally by Cecilia Lemos on her blog, Box of Chocolate […]

  19. […] her last blog post, my dear friend Cecรญlia posed a question that may intrigue many teachers out there. Are we indeed […]

  20. Aaron Nelson says:

    Hi Ceci,
    This is a wonderful post. I’d like to share a video that maybe will give you something to think about in finding a solution..or at least helping you walk a little further along on your journey to discovering the answer.

    What do you think? Maybe what made me think of this video for you, was the part where it talks about how the conductor helps his orchestra to tell their own story…

    Anyway, I know how hard and frustrating it can be when you get a student – or many of them – who just don’t seem to want to move forward. (OR who simply cannot.)

    But who is responsible? Tough question. Teacher’s responsibility is to do his/her best to help students learn. If one approach doesn’t work, learn about others. If you exhaust all your options, and still nothing is happening…I wonder what is happening for your students in their lives outside your class? Perhaps they are under heavy pressure. Trouble at home. Or maybe they are just having a hard time understanding and picking up the language. Some people are totally more open and able to pick up languages than others. That’s something totally out of your control.

    Maybe ask around. Are other teachers who work with these students having issues with them too?

    Good luck Ceci! And no…don’t take it personally. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • What a fantastic inspiring TED talk Aaron! I have shared it on twitter…hope other find it as inspiring as I did! I personally love the first conductor he showed ๐Ÿ™‚

      As you mentioned yourself the key is to learning about others…what if you only realize the nee to learning other too late down the road? I think about what’s ahppening to them outside the classroom (I know lots of school work, tests and so) but could a whole class be going through tough times??? Maybe I’m just being overwhelmingly paranoid… Tricks of the trade?

      thanks for the good luck wishes – I think I’ll need them!
      Cheer Aaron ๐Ÿ™‚


  21. Matt Ledding says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    I am going to go a different route here. I think you blame yourself because you want everyone to succeed.

    That is good: better to aim for the stars and miss, than aim for a pile of crap and hit.

    The success takes care of itself. Problems we DO have to take care of, and problems make us smart.

    However, instead of guilt, which is a thief of time and energy, have a think, take notes on what can be better, and look at the class in general to see your batting average. Write it down, and look for opportunities to try what you have learned.

    You’ll never have a perfect batting average, because you work with people, who are imperfect. But as long as you are improving, and developing, you will find new ways to deal with the idiosyncracies of different people. And in the meantime, we have to remember that we can’t be the “right teacher” for everyone, because everyone is different.

    • Are you kidding Matt??? Of course I want them to succeed!!! Which teacher doesn’t??? (love the starsquote btw)

      IO feel like I’m improving, and I’d like to think my “batting”average is positive so far…but still I keep thinking of those missed homeruns and what I could’ve done to get to them….



  22. Leahn says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    Nothing to add really only to say thanks for the read!


  23. Alan Tait says:

    Hi Cecilia, and thanks for a great honest post. My initial reaction is just like Naomi’s above. – I may have to go away and think about it on paper.

    Just yesterday my class on making presentations in English turned into a moan-fest: How hard it is, how crap we (the learners) are, how good all our international colleagues are, and how the professional community never forgives a poor prezo at a conference.

    I was left speechless and powerless. Is there something I should be doing? Are X and Y not ‘the right kind of people’ to be learning English? Am I pushing them too hard? Not enough. And so on.

    Maybe we need to be spending more time on motivation?

    • Question is whose motication are you talking about Alan: teacher’s or students’??? From your post I’ll take a wild guess and say the students’…. What to do if you think you’ve addressed it?Maybe not as thorougly as intially thought?

      I hope you had a better lesson with the group you mentioned….



  24. Any decent teacher will teach all their students the same. Assuming this is true, then it has to be up to the students how they react to the class and how well or badly they do in it.

    It is simply not true that because one student scores A and the other fails miserable it is the teacher at fault. Blaming onself sounds more an issue of self-confidence in the teacher than anything else.

    • Self-confidence is not a real issue (methinks) but how to think differently when a WHOLE class seems to be failing???

      Tough to stay rational for me ๐Ÿ˜‰
      Thanks for your comment ๐Ÿ™‚


  25. Tara Benwell says:

    Yesterday a student told me she owed me something because she got into the university of her choice. I think it was her way of saying thank you for the support I have offered her over the past few years. Just like you, I told her that she earned her way in through all of her hard work and dedication. Then again, I always use that expression when I want to thank someone who has helped me. As my best friend taught me, sometimes we need to remember to just say thank you. (We can teach our students this too.) Thank you for this great post, Ceci!

  26. […] do you do when your students don’t seem to learn? Why do we take it so personally? Asks some great questions about who is responsible for learning in the classroom. It’s a […]

  27. […] Cecilia Lemos’ post,Why do we take it soย personally?, Cecilia anecdotally explores the idea that as teachers often take little credit for their […]

  28. […] rest of the class too much”…That comment took me back to one of my recent posts “Why do We Take it so Personally?“. Why do we always think it’s our fault, that we […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s