How to Tell If Your Teacher Is a Narcissist
Narcissists like being in positions where all eyes are upon them. They like being seen as “special” among a group of people. They like to believe themselves to be the smartest one in the room. They like to put themselves in positions to be admired.
Teaching is a profession that checks all of those boxes.
In this article, we’ll examine the signs you should watch for to determine if your teacher is a possible narcissist. If you just can’t shake the feeling that they might be, we’ll take a look at whether you should file a complaint. We will also look at what you need to do to be effective if you complain.
Signs to watch for
When you’re a student, you’re there to grow your skills, your abilities, and your understanding. Furthermore, you’re there to build confidence in being able to use what you learn.
A great teacher will have that confidence themselves, and through rapport will develop that confidence in you. You walk away from a class or a session with a great teacher feeling empowered.
With a narcissistic teacher, though, you will walk away with a different feeling. You’ll have a sense that your primary job as a student is to reinforce to the teacher how great they are. You’ll feel like the teacher craves that validation every day, and that they walk away feeling empty, unfulfilled, and maybe a bit angry if they don’t get it.
Remember — you’re the one who paid to take the class. It should be all about you, and your learning. If it feels like it’s all about the teacher, rather than the students, you may have a narcissist standing in front of the classroom.
Another tell-tale sign occurs when a student makes a request of a teacher that’s unexpected and maybe a slightly negative critique of their methods.
For example, imagine you’re taking a math class and a student comments to the teacher, “I’m not learning anything from watching you do problems. I think we’d learn more if we came up to the board and did problems, and you coached us when we got stuck.”
Now, even a good teacher might be slightly flustered, if that would represent a big deviation from the lesson plan they had drawn up. However, they’ll come back with a positive response like
I hadn’t planned to have students do problems on the board. Let me ask the rest of the class — would that help? If we devoted the entire class session Friday to that, would you see that as a good use of your time?
Since we only have 55 minutes per class session, there just isn’t time for me to walk you through problems in front of the class. But here are my office hours. If you’ll come to visit me during those times, I’ll walk you through as many problems as you need.
A narcissistic teacher, on the other hand, will feel attacked. Although their response will vary, you will be able to feel the rage directed at the student who asked. You may sense it in their choice of words, in the tone of voice they use to respond, or in their body language — but you will just know.
A few words of caution…
You need to see — or feel or sense — these signs on multiple class days before you begin to suspect a narcissistic streak in your teacher.
Everyone has a bad day now and then. As I drove to work one day when I was a college teacher, I saw a cat run into oncoming traffic and get hit by a car. It managed to drag itself to the safety of a ditch with its three still-functioning legs. I can’t remember if I snapped at any of my students that day, but if I did I hope they would understand.
Everybody has a bad year now and then. Give your teacher the benefit of the doubt. They could be going through a painful divorce. Their mother or father could be in the hospital with a debilitating disease. Their child could be having a difficult year in school. Look for every reason to empathize.
Especially cut new teachers some slack. If they’re in their first or second year, they’re still figuring out their style of teaching. They’re learning what works and what doesn’t.
Also, if it’s their first time teaching that particular course, they’ll still be figuring out the nuances of how to teach it. I know it worked that way for me — the second time around, I was a lot more on autopilot and was a lot less flustered by the unexpected.
If, however, you make allowances for all these conditions, and constantly get a vibe from your teacher of, It’s all about me, tell me how great I am, tell me I’m the best teacher you ever had, and whatever you do, don’t challenge me, don’t challenge my view of myself as perfect — well, then, you may be dealing with a narcissistic teacher.
What to do if you suspect your teacher is a narcissist
Whether you need to do anything at all depends upon a few factors.
Does this teacher have authority over you?
- If they give you a grade at the end of the term, your best bet is probably to keep your opinions to yourself and get through the end of the term without making waves. Otherwise, you might jeopardize the grade you hope to get. Only if their behavior is completely egregious would you want to speak up while they still have grading power over you.
- If this is a class you have to take for your job, would there be any repercussions of complaining? Would the teacher give a negative report about you to your boss? Is your Human Resources team the kind that would listen and help you, or would they simply take the teacher’s side?
If you complain and the narcissist finds out, they will see that as a narcissistic injury and they’ll be hell-bent on getting revenge. For that reason, it’s best to wait until any period of authority they have over you expires.
On the other hand, if it’s an ungraded class you’re taking solely for your own personal development, you have considerably more latitude to speak up in the short term.
How long will you be in this teacher’s class?
- If it’s a pay-per-class or per-lesson basis, like a yoga class or a piano lesson, for example, it’s simple — just find another teacher.
- If it’s only for a handful more sessions or weeks, it’s probably best to just wait it out and know the class will be over soon.
- If it’s for a 3- or 4- month semester or term, or a full calendar school year, then you have to question whether you’ll be able to tolerate such a negative, draining vibe for that long.
How big is the class?
- If it’s one-on-one, you’re not going to be able to avoid things becoming personal with your teacher.
- If it’s a small class, say, 3 to 12, you may be able to avoid any negative encounters, although you may witness your classmates having them with the teacher.
- If it’s a large class of 25, or an auditorium class of 90, as I used to have when I taught at a major university, flying under the radar is pretty easy.
Remember, narcissists can’t pick fights with everyone in the room — doing so would cause the mask of their false self to fall off and everyone would see them for the empty, soulless person they really are. Whenever possible, be pleasant, be agreeable, even throw them a compliment if they do something deserving of one. Get out from under their authority, never take a class from them again, and know that they will be their own undoing sooner or later.
If you do decide to complain
Simply getting away from the narcissistic teacher and moving on with your life is usually the path of least resistance. However, if you feel your teacher is so disruptive of the learning experience that you have to stand up and say something, here are a couple of things to keep in mind.
This, by the way, is key advice if there’s a narcissist in any area of your life — not just a teacher. Narcissists build intricate webs of lies stacked one on top of the other. You need documentation to show that the narc’s false reality is not correct.
One advantage of most classroom settings is that you won’t seem out of place bringing a voice recorder in. If the teacher asks, you can say, “You just have such an amazing way with words that I don’t want to miss anything when I go over my notes at home.” Really, what you want to record is your teacher raging at your classmates.
If you can’t use a recorder, make sure to get thorough notes on the dates and times your teacher said things that were inappropriate, and to whom. Come to think of it, even if you can use a recorder, take such notes as a supplement.
There is power in numbers
If one student complains about a teacher, it’s that student’s word against the teacher and nothing more. Unless you have a good deal of proof on your side, management is likely to side with the teacher. Administrations tend to see a lone student complaining as likely a disgruntled student, unhappy that they aren’t going to get their desired grade.
If you show up in a group of three, or five, or ten, then your complaint will carry considerably more weight. If you have daily discussions of “I can’t believe the teacher did that” after every class, you want to enlist those people as your allies when you go in to complain.
Don’t be hasty in pinning the “narcissist” label on your teacher. Look for evidence to the contrary. Could it just be a bad day for them? Could they have some turmoil in their personal life that affects their reactions in class? Could they be a new teacher still finding their footing, or could they be in the process of mastering teaching this particular course material?
On the other hand, if you get a consistent feeling that you’re there to reassure the teacher that they’re great, you may be dealing with a narcissist. Remember, the teacher is there to build your confidence, not the other way around. Also, if your teacher flies into a rage at innocent questions and feedback, that’s another sign.
What do you do if you think your teacher is a narcissist? Often the safest bet is to fly under the radar, be pleasant, and get to a point in time when the teacher no longer has any authority over you. Class size and the duration for which the person will be your teacher will factor into your decision on whether to speak up.
If you do decide to complain to management, make sure you’ve documented what happened in class as extensively as possible. This is important because narcissists will lie like no one you’ve ever encountered before. Also note that a group of classmates who all have the same complaint will more likely get taken seriously than one lone student.
One question I don’t have the answer to — What do you do if your child’s teacher appears to be a narcissist? All of my teaching experience has been with adults. It would make an excellent writing topic for someone with knowledge of both narcissism and childhood education.
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