Some students think teachers are out to trick them. Wait, what?
Updated: Jun 21
Fellow teachers, I invite you to try this quick and revealing poll with your students. Ask, “Raise your hand if you believe that at least some teachers intentionally try to trick you.” Then behold in horror as hands shoot for the sky. This may not happen everywhere. But it definitely happens.
If you do see hands go up, you may hear comments such as, “Oh, you have no idea.” The saddest part about this discovery is that too many students have essentially equated instruction with deception. They’ve consigned themselves to actually believing that some form of teacher trickery is part and parcel of the teacher-student exchange.
I’ve done many informal interviews of students who have made this claim, and I can site two explanations for it. From there, I hope to offer fellow teachers and parents the antidote to this scourge, which came not of our making.
Explanation #1: Teachers on power trips. I mean no disrespect, but plainly put, some teachers get their kicks from holding their “goodies” hostage. Highest on the list of goodies is information. One example for how this manifests is when teachers are vague about their expectations, and seem to relish the student confusion it generates.
Sometimes we teachers drop the ball, or miscommunicate, or somehow accidentally omit informing the class about a certain expectation. Should that oversight come to light, a proper teacher simply apologizes and takes steps to rectify the error. On the other hand, if inconsistent expectations are brought to light with ego-driven teachers, they may dig their heels in and become distant, replying dismissively, “you just need to figure it out,” devoid of compassion or any setup for success.
Another goody to hold hostage is supportive feedback. Sometimes there are moments when the entire class is confounded by a certain challenge. Their repeated attempts over a long period of time lead to frustration, and eventually, even despair. A virtuous teacher encourages the students through their irritation. He/she is empathetic to the struggle, and finds ways to purposefully direct students towards productive thoughts and processes. The power-trippy teachers appear to delight in the students’ frustrations.
I’m not talking about mock frustration common amongst adolescents, when they smile and whimper that something is “impossible.” That is endearing and benign. I’m talking about deep and genuine upset. Students can clearly tell whether their teacher takes pleasure in knowing something they do not, versus those teachers who crave for the students to join them in the elated feeling of understanding.
Explanation #2: Students misunderstand teachers. I consider myself a very compassionate person and educator. If someone is sincere about wanting to learn something, then I’ll be there with him for as long as it takes until he “gets it.” Nevertheless, I’ve also been accused of tricking.
For example, in my book I write about the idea of intentionally asking students the wrong question, to challenge them to think deeply and independently about a concept. Once I asked a student, “Ok so how would you factor this equation?” even though it doesn’t factor, hoping she would realize that herself. But upon her realization, she responded matter-of-factly, “oh ok, you were just trying to trick me.” I’ll share my reaction to her below.
The point is: all students come to us with their unique set of experiences and perspectives. Even those instructional gurus who believe they have a riveting, ironclad lesson plan may be falsely cast as deceivers. Such teachers may deem that the beginning of their lesson includes the perfect amount of unknown information, which intends to fuel student intrigue towards finding the solution. Alas, based on the predictably skewed lens of at least some students, this valiant attempt at fomenting wonder may be misconstrued as yet another teacher attempt to throw smoke and mirrors.
The antidote: heart-to-heart dialogues. When my student nonchalantly stated that my question was “just trying to trick her,” I immediately stopped our learning to kindly inquire what she meant by that. She replied, “you know, teachers sometimes try to trick students so that they learn.”
In a noticeably different tone, which was slower, and quietly emphatic, I said, “(Name), I would never do or say anything to try to trick you. Ever.” I went on, “Yes, I did intentionally ask you the wrong question just now. I may do that sometimes, to challenge you to create your own conclusions. Please always know that none of my questions, statements, or even my occasional silence are ever attempts to deceive you. We’re on the same team, and teammates don’t do that to each other.”
Over time, this exchange offered her multiple chances to share (and subsequently release) the sting of having felt tricked by teachers in her past. Our relationship tangibly improved, since we enjoyed an additional layer of trust within the learning dynamic. By consequence, she was able to sit within the discomfort of not knowing for longer periods of time. More than ever before, she immediately leapt into my learning programs without fear of being caught in any traps. Basically, she went with the flow more.
This is why we need to combat this belief in some students that we regularly seek “gotcha!” moments at their expense. If they believe such toxicity, then their guards will remain up. If, however, we reverse this mindset within them, then trust emerges, which leads to vulnerability, which inevitably leads to learning and connective breakthroughs.