Teachers Share The Harshest Truths Their Students Taught Them

"The wise person is one who admits they know nothing." It's the job of teachers to share knowledge, but it goes without saying that the best teachers are the ones who are willing to learn from their students as well, even (and especially) if it means changing the way they teach, and the way they look at the world.

These teachers responded to the Quora thread, "As a teacher, what is the harshest truth a student has taught you." There are some amazing lessons to be learned from these stories!

[Sources listed at the end of the article.]

"While handing out the literature list for the upcoming year of high school, I casually asked the students in my class what they thought about it. One girl raised her hand and said: 'Are you at all surprised we don't read but watch tv instead when teachers hand out these kinds of reading lists?'

The list was full of English literature they couldn't possibly understand regarding their proficiency levels and I suddenly remembered being discouraged myself when I had to read books like these while in high school.

I made an appointment with the head teacher, took this student with me, and tried to persuade him to get rid of the obligatory reading lists.

During the next week's lesson, I told the classes they could choose three of their own books. They did great during the oral exams."

Vicky van der Zee

"I was trying to rush through an explanation of a complicated physics concept before the bell rang, and the top student in my class raised his hand and said, 'You know, just because you're up there teaching, doesn't mean we're learning.'

I'm sure many students have thought something like this in millions of classes around the world, but they don't say anything, because it would almost always be terribly impolite.  The only reason this student said it, and got away with it, is that he was my 16-year-old son."

John Krehbiel

"My students taught me the lesson that you never know how people see you until you ask. Without realizing it, I was coming off to my students as being intimidating and pushy.

I learned this from my first student evaluations at the end of the semester. I was shocked. I thought I was kind, gentle, friendly… Intimidating? I knew I could not be the teacher I wanted to be if students felt that way.

Incidentally, the department chair wasnt concerned at all. I actually ranked very high in the reviews, despite that comment. Maybe most professors got comments like that. But I didnt like it.

It was a long trial and error process, one in which I worked to try to understand better the students' point of view, not just about the subject, but about interactions with the professor. I think I made substantial progress, since for the last two decades there have been no mentions on the year-end evaluations of me being intimidating."

Richard Muller

(1/2) "One student in particular taught me that I am not the unbiased person I thought I was.

Let's call him Bubba. He was in a required freshman year experience class that all faculty rotated through teaching. I normally teach statistics and research methods.

Students are required to write a paper, on the topic of their choosing, which we use to gauge their knowledge of things like APA style, sentence structure, and punctuation. This assignment allows us to intervene early with students who simply cannot write and refer them for tutoring in their first semester.

Bubba sat in the back of the room, cowboy hat tipped down, boots on the chair in front of him, chewing tobacco. Never said a word.

The title of his paper was something like 'The Use of Allegory and Metaphor in the Works of John Steinbeck.' It was impeccably written.

I assumed he had copied or paid for it. There was no way this kid wrote it. I consulted a senior professor about what to do and she said, 'Invite him to your office to discuss it. If he wrote it, he'll be flattered. If he didn't, he'll be busted.'"


AnnMaria De Mars

(2/2) "So, I did. Bubba tips back his hat, looks me in the eye and says:

'Well, ma'am, when I was on the rodeo circuit, my partner gave me this book, The Red Pony, because I had to do a school book report. Since it was about a horse, me and him figured it would be good. When I read it, though, it was about a lot more than a horse ....'

Bubba went on at great length about all of Steinbeck's books that he had read and what they meant to him personally.

I was SO glad I had followed the advice to ask him about his paper instead of accusing him of cheating, and boy did I ever feel like a fool!"

AnnMaria De Mars

(1/2) "I learnt a very harsh truth in a very harsh way! I was teaching French to a bunch of school kids. This was my first-ever experience working in a school.

The moment I entered and addressed the students, one of them immediately asked me, 'Why should we listen to you?'

Point blank. Straight. I was stumped.

My first internal reaction was a tad bit of anger at his audacity to ask a teacher something so rudely. I swallowed it.

My next reaction was a point blank answer that came to my mind: 'You listen to me because I am your teacher.'

I swallowed that as well. It didn't make sense to me. I was employed to teach them but that didn't make me their teacher or mean that they should listen to me.

I smiled because I realized I had been asked a fundamentally brilliant question!"


Tejasvita Apte

(2/2) "So I chose another approach. I asked him, did he like French? Had he heard the language? He said no. I asked him, would he like to listen to it? Perhaps a song? I asked him if he would give that song a chance and then decide whether he wanted to listen to me or not?

He was a teenager who was possibly interested in provoking a very young teacher! This was 5 years back and I was just 21 years of age. He totally did not expect a sweet response to his rude question. What's more I offered an entertaining activity to begin with, listening to music.

He said 'OK' meekly. I played the song, which was a French pop song. Then I taught them to sing it with me.

My first class of French was teaching a French pop song when the kids didn't know a word! I just asked them to enjoy the feel of the language on their tongues. It would certainly be alien and fun! They did it. They loved singing something after me without understanding anything.

But I learnt my first extremely important and harsh lesson.

Just because I was paid to teach them, that didn't mean they needed to listen. Every class was my challenge. Every class was my responsibility. And every class meant that I had to engage with my students, and get them to engage with the subject. I had to do everything in my power to make sure that they benefit and learn.

I have tried to do that to the best of my ability."

Tejasvita Apte

(1/2) "Shortly after my divorce, I was teaching reading in 6th grade. I was unhappy but going through the motions of teaching the best that I could. I was tired after school and less than a model parent to my own two children.

One of my 180 students that year, Mark, a quiet and polite student, was only attending my first period class two or three days a week. He rarely did his homework and failed most of his tests. At a conference with his other core teachers, I was not surprised to find out that he was failing his other classes as well. As a teaching team we called a parent-teacher conference. We were hoping to work together with Marks parents in an effort to help Marks attendance and motivation.

The conference was scheduled for 7:15am in the morning before school. Marks father came in, and we immediately realized he was drunk. He was unkempt and carried a stench. His mom had left the family with no notice or word of if shed ever return. Marks father was explosive, miserable and told us he was ready to punish Mark harshly if he didnt improve. Naturally, I was afraid for Mark.

After the conference I asked Mark to come to class just to talk for a minute. After starting the class and assigning a task for the other students, I called Mark to my desk and told him that I was sorry for his situation and hoped things would get better for him. I asked him if he might find more peace at home by doing some of the things his father asked him to do.

Mark responded quickly, 'Why? So I can be more like him?'"


Ruthie Moller

(2/2) "My harsh truth came instantly. For Mark, pleasing his father made no sense, it was just digging himself deeper into a situation he wanted to escape. I looked at my own life: What example was I setting for my own kids? Why would they want to do what I asked if they saw me as a miserable adult? I admitted to Mark that he was right: it wasn't his responsibility to please his father, when his father wasn't setting a good example.

In the following weeks and months, Mark's words motivated me to work on myself and my well-being, and in the process taught me how to be a better parent. 

P.S. Shortly after the conference, Mark and his father moved away from the school area. He didnt stay in touch with me, any of his other teachers or any of the students. Sadly, I dont know what happened to Mark. I wish this was an isolated incident but our schools are full of similar stories, especially in areas with a lower socioeconomic status."

Ruthie Moller

(1/2) "What did my students teach me? That one comment from a teacher can mean the world to a student, good or bad.

I teach in art and design, and unlike many other fields, it involves a certain level of subjectivity and personal vulnerability. At the time, my primary teaching responsibilities were upper-level courses tasked with preparing students to become professionals.

In this instance however, I was asked to teach first-semester freshmen—a rarity for me. The class went relatively well and at the end of the term, each student prepared their work for an exit interview and review.

Normally, these reviews are conducted in faculty teams, but during the review of one particular student, I was alone. No big deal, because this wasnt a problem student. She was a promising individual who showed interest and engagement in the arts. She participated in discussion, regularly attended class, and showed potential in digital work." 


Tom Davie

(2/2) "The review was going fine until we covered the final semester grading—she fell just below an A and was clearly distressed and crushed. So, just as I had done dozens of times before, gave her rationale for the decision, walked her through the individual projects, and told her that learning, developing and ultimately the portfolio itself, were more important than any individual course grade.

It didnt matter. She was broken. Perhaps she had never received a B in her life, maybe I was too direct or too matter-of-fact, or maybe there was something very difficult in her life and instead of talking, I should have sat quietly and gave her a chance to speak. Whatever it was, I will never know, because when she walked out of the room that day, she didnt come back.

Through that experience I learned to choose my words more carefully. I learned that, especially in such a vulnerable field of work, sometimes I should shut my mouth and listen instead of rationalize or justify. I also learned that a students stability and readiness for feedback should not be assumed or taken for granted. I used to think brutal honesty for every student was the most fair approach to teaching, but I was wrong."

Tom Davie

(1/2) "I learnt a lesson very early in my career as a university lecturer that learning need not take place only inside the classroom, and that students can learn the nuances of a subject on their own (despite bunking your classes) when they are suitably challenged to do so.

This dates back to around 1991, when I taught a course on Aircraft Performance to 3rd year undergrad students of my department. As per institute norms in force at that time (which remain pretty much the same even today) an attendance of 80% was necessary to be permitted to write the end-of-semester final examination; and students with less than 80% attendance were deemed to have insufficient exposure to the subject, and hence to be awarded a repeat grade. There were around 5 students in my class of around 25 who had below-par attendance, and one among them was Anand Subramanian, whose attendance was below 50%.

These 5 students pleaded me to overlook the minimum attendance requirement. They gave all sorts of frivolous reasons for missing my classes, and tried to argue why this rule was draconian and should be disregarded. I recall Anand making a statement that what if a student could learn and master the subject on his own, without the need for attending the classes, why should such a student be debarred from writing the final examination? He claimed that he could gain complete understanding of this subject on his own in a weeks time, and was ready for any kind of test. 

He proposed a deal wherein I would waive this rule if I was satisfied with his knowledge of the subject. I took up his challenge."


Rajkumar S. Pant

(2/2)  "After a week, when Anand came and met me, he showed me an expert system for Aircraft Performance that he had developed in AutoLISP programming language. This expert system could estimate any aspect of aircraft performance using the limited data that was available for any given aircraft, and the estimates would become better and better with training as more and more data was provided. For this, the system would scan through all the formulae related to aircraft performance and back-calculate the value of any variable whose value was fuzzy. When Anand demonstrated the working of this algorithm to me, I was amazed at the mastery over the subject that he had developed in just one week of study; he could reel out any formula, any equation, and also seemed to know the numerical values of the data related to a few aircraft for which he had trained this expert system!

When I asked Anand how he could do this in such a short time, he replied that he had learned AutoLISP as part of the problem he tackled in his undergraduate dissertation, and so he could quickly apply what he learned to solve this 'real life' problem. Needless to say, I permitted him to write the end-of-semester examination, and I am sure he must have aced it.

This example opened my eyes to the fact that given the right push, motivation, and an enabling environment, bright and hardworking students can learn many things on their own, without the direct help of a teacher.

Thank you, Anand, for teaching me such a valuable lesson so early in my academic career!

P.S. Anand went on to become the Founder and CEO of his own technology company, which he recently sold to a large American conglomerate. Bright and hardworking indeed!"

Rajkumar S. Pant

(1/2) "Overall I may have learned more from my students over the years than they learned from me.  The last school I taught in had a meaningful slogan: 'We are a community of learners.' That said, most of this learning isn't harsh, or shouldn't be.

There was a time when I learned more than I could have expected from a mistake I made with a student. She had been complaining about the same thing over and over again as class was to begin, and rather than calmly telling her that we could discuss this in private later, I suddenly lost it and loudly and angrily yelled at her.  She slumped to her seat, and I started the lesson in front of a stunned class.

Suddenly I realized that I had grossly overreacted and that no one was going to learn anything about physics that day.  I had to own my mistake."


Robert Reiland

(2/2) "I walked up to the girl, who sat in the middle of the class on my left side and told her that I apologized and that nothing she did justified the way I treated her.

I assumed that I would lose the respect of the class by apologizing in this way, but the exact opposite happened.  They respected me more than ever before, and things were learned about physics that day, but that was the least of what was learned.

I learned that a sincere apology when wrong is an essential part of working well with people and that when this becomes part of a culture, an authentic community is developed. I used to have the idea that, as Special Agent Gibbs would always say on NCIS, apologizing is a sign of weakness, but it's precisely the opposite. Apologizing makes a person stronger."

Robert Reiland

(1/2) "One day a student walked into my class at the beginning of the period and stood in front of my desk. She said, 'I have no idea who you are.'

It took me a second to realize she wasnt playing around. She had had a seizure that morning and was still recovering her memory. In spite of this, the student preferred to go to school and participate in her daily routine than stay at home. She got from class to class for the first half of the day with the help of her friends, whom she could recognize, even though she didnt yet remember their names.

At the beginning of the school year, this student had written me a note on her first homework assignment. The note was a response to some kind of rallying cry I had made—I had said something like, 'All of you are capable of getting As in this class, and I hope that all of you will.' This student wrote, 'I just want you to know that Ill try my best, but Im not smart and Im not going to be able to get an A in this class.'"


Stevie Henry

(2/2) "The reason this student made such an impression on me is that she really was bright. She was quite smart. And so I pushed her, I encouraged her, I did everything I could to help her learn and succeed. 

But she just had one of those lives where everything keeps going wrong. A month or so after she had this seizure, her father died suddenly. The student was in and out of school for the rest of the year, and ended up receiving an incomplete in most of her classes—and so she was right. She didnt get an A.

The harsh truth I learned was that even when both the teacher and the student mean well, and pour everything they have into furthering the students education, there is a ton of crap that can get in the way. Sometimes you just have no control. And maybe all the effort, and thought, and positive energy you put into that student will make a dent in their life, but you as the teacher do not get to change the life of every student. Sometimes you do not even get to choose which students you help. There are forces at play that are much, much bigger than you."

Stevie Henry

(1/2) "My 7th grade Spanish teacher Ms. Harrington hated me, but she taught be a valuable lesson: People who dont like you may study you and use what they learn against you.

Ms. Harrington was a 7th grade Spanish teacher. I was 12 when I walked into her classroom. From day one she had it out for me. She would embarrass me in front of other students. She pretended to be my confidante only to try and get me in trouble with the school counselor. She even went as far as changing my grades.

I knew she was manipulating my grades and giving me 0s for assignments I had turned in, but I was a disorganized kid and so I had trouble proving it. Finally, my mother got fed up with my mediocre grades and set up a parentteacher conference. My mom invited me to sit with them. Thats when Ms. Harrington told my mother I had failed the last exam. I think she said I had scored a 42%. I told her thats not true!

'Well if its not true, show me the exam,' she said in a taunting tone.


William Beteet

(2/2) "I opened the chaotic mess that was my binder, and dug through tons of paper. Finally, I found the exam which was clearly marked with a grade of 82%.

She stared at the paper for a few minutes. I only suspect she was trying to change the score with her mind. After a while, she relented and changed my grade.

I didnt realize the lesson in that moment, but I do know it looking back. She studied me. She knew I was disorganized and had been using it against me the entire year.

People who dislike you may study you in order to take advantage of you. All you can do is try to understand why they have chosen to take that path, and try to rise above it.

Ms. Harrington, if youre reading this, Im graduating from law school in three months."

William Beteet

"The harshest truth my students ever taught me is that its impossible to be entirely objective while teaching.

Some students are simply more engaged in class.

Some students are routinely brilliant with their answers.

Some students ask the right questions.

I try my best not to favor such students by giving them more attention and encouragement than others. In fact, I often go the other way, being much stricter on those I feel a bias toward.

I stop myself returning the smile of the straight-A student with an involuntary goofy grin, reserving it for the ones who are left-out in class. I hide the names on answer sheets while grading to prevent myself favoring students whove previously written great answers with a more cursory reading, while at the same time preventing myself being more intense on students whove given me bad answers before. In a hundred little ways, I try not to let my subconscious feelings translate into an outward bias.

I suppose in many ways being 34 years older than my students is tough because I relate to them on so many levels. Preventing this from clouding my judgement is the hardest thing about being a teacher."

Vishak Raman

"On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, my 1st grade students were roaming about the classroom, choosing activities as they saw fit for themselves.

Since the students were busy I took the opportunity to straighten my desk.

About ten minutes in, I noticed Niko was next to me with a pile of crumpled papers. I stopped what I was doing and looked at him. He was still mashing and crumpling papers into balls.

I said, 'Niko, I'm cleaning up my desk. And I think you know where that pile of paper balls goes.' I pointed at the trash can in the corner.

He looked at me with his green eyes wide: 'But Kathy, this isn't trash!'


'No! These are origami rocks. I'm making you a rock garden!' The little guy almost made me break down in tears.

Its all matter of perspective. I no longer see crumpled papers the same way."

Kathy Hsu

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