Being Ghosted by My Own Students

Dr. Manuel Rustin
Oct 11, 2018 · 4 min read

Being ghosted — or having all communication with a romantic interest abruptly cut off without explanation — is a hot topic among the millennial and millennial-adjacent crowds. HBO’s Insecure featured a prominent ghosting this season which recently set Twitter ablaze on the topic.

It hurts to be ghosted. And as a teacher of high schoolers, I too have been ghosted. It certainly doesn’t hurt in the same way that a romantic ghosting does, but it still hurts nonetheless.

I teach at a close-knit school with a rich tradition of graduates coming back to visit teachers and speak to students. In my classroom I have a wall of photos of students from years back that I refuse to take down because so many of them return to visit. It’s what we do — relationships at our school simply don’t end at graduation. We are in the Black and Brown corner of a highly segregated city and we’ve always been the underdogs, so we got us because no one else out there does.

But, sometimes the students I’ve built the closest relationships with and most want to stay in touch with ghost me. They graduate, they say they’ll stay in touch, and then nothing. No dropping by to check in, no response to my “how’s life after high school?” messages. Nothing. Over the years I’ve bumped into a few of these students around the city and the reason for their ghosting has become clear — they were worried about disappointing me.

We sell big dreams as teachers. College! Career! Be great…change the world! Although communicating these high expectations is important, we too often fail to communicate both our unconditional love for students and our understanding that everyone has their own individual path to take. Schools preach college and buzz-worthy careers in STEM but these aren’t for everybody. We know this, but to what extent do we communicate it to students?

The double-whammy of teachers expecting you to be great and social media fooling you into believing that everyone else has life figured out can make a young adult feel as if they’re a failure. And when that teacher who did so much to try to prepare you for college comes calling, it can be difficult to respond. Hence, going ghost.

I’ve had a few prominent ghostings in my career. I once came across a student at a local junior college who had gone off to a very prominent university after high school. When he saw me his face froze. Is that you, John? Long time no see! When’d you come back to town? He explained to me he didn’t cut it at that university and he didn’t want me to know that he had to start over at a junior college. My heart was broken — not because this phenomenal student landed back at the local JC — but because he didn’t feel comfortable telling me this. Ouch.

A glaring area of weakness in my teaching practice is effectively communicating the fact that I will love and support my students no matter where they end up after our time together. I know that success can look different for different people. I know that obstacles exist that set some people back. I know that some folks take longer than others to discover who they are and what they want to do in life. I know that other folks never discover what they want to do in life but somehow find a happy fit nonetheless. I also know that many students go off to college straight from high school only to hate it and struggle immensely.

So then why am I still signaling, either directly or indirectly, that I expect my students to fit a particular model of post-secondary success? Lots of former students have hit me with the, “life is going okay, Rustin…I’ma go back to school soon,” as if to apologize for not continuing on in education. This, to me, is unnecessarily apologetic. It’s definitely not their fault that they feel the need to reassure me in this way — it’s mine.

I hate that a student of mine would ghost me on account of feeling like I’d be disappointed in them, or judge them, or lecture them about their life. Clearly I have to revisit my messaging and face my own shortcomings with regards to how I speak to students about their futures and my hopes and dreams for them. I have to be better at communicating that unconditional love.

So, to all the students who have ghosted me — please hit me back sometime. Whatever big dreams I tried to sell you before aren’t what matters now nor are they what I care about. I just want to check up on you and make sure you’re okay, wherever in life you may be.

This is the seventh post in my series celebrating 15 years in the classroom. I explained in this thread and in this video just how rare it is for a teacher to make it to their 15th year. I’m taking this moment as an opportunity to reflect on my years of service and the many experiences that I’ve learned from on the road towards this personal milestone.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Dr. Manuel Rustin

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High school social science teacher & co-host of All of the Above. From the Westside, with love.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system