Tuesday, July 02 2019

No one is immune to mean students. However, new instructors are more vulnerable to class bullies and much more likely to get their feelings hurt. Cruel comments destroy confidence and undermine an instructor’s feelings of self-worth. In 2004, I wrote the article, Mean Students, as an anthem to aquatic fitness instructors who must show courage and perseverance in the presence of toxic students.

Longer read – but a fun one. Enjoy!



2004 (Edited in 2015)

“A student said something so insulting to me today that I seriously considered pitching the wireless microphone into the pool, running into the locker room, and never returning to the aquatic activities that I love so much.”
Cathy Rotch, Aquatic Instructor, Virginia Beach, VA

Fitness instructors do their best to educate and motivate, hoping to make a difference and wanting to be liked. Unfortunately, performing in the spotlight can sometimes be an invitation to unkind comments and even outright cruelty. At best, encounters with mean students are shrugged off and provide entertaining stories for friends and peers. At worst, personal attacks can cut deep into the heart and diminish an instructor’s joy for teaching.

Following is a collection of stories from the battlefield, dedicated to all instructors who have stood tall in the face of mean students, those little darlings who specialize in sucking the wind out of your sails and erasing the smile from your face.


There is nothing more dreaded than subbing a class, especially if the students are rabidly devoted to their instructor/guru. Just ask Donna Reynolds, an aquatic instructor in Syracuse, NY. About 20 minutes into subbing a class, a class bully started started loudly complaining, making it clear that she was not happy. Stunned, Reynolds asked the class what their regular instructor did? Based on their reply, she abandoned her program in favor of a simpler free-style approach. At this point, the lead heckler and two others thugs started making fun of her. “They were mocking my counts, and saying if this program was so great, how come it didn’t work for me, that kind of thing, “ says Reynolds. Valiantly finishing out the hour, Reynolds approached the woman and said she was sorry she didn’t like the class. Not done spewing her venom, the mean student replied, “I didn’t have any fun at all! If you want to make it in THIS club, you had better step it up.” Yikes! Thankfully, some of the henchwoman’s classmates waited around to tell Reynolds how sorry they were and that they appreciated her tenacity.


Sometimes subbing assaults are pre-emptive in nature and occur before the class even starts. Upon arriving to sub a class, Cathy Rotch, an aquatic instructor in Virginia Beach, VA, was asked the whereabouts of the regular instructor. After being told, a toxic student snarled, “Ugghh. I wouldn’t have come if I had known that.” Taken aback, Rotch politely asked the student if she had done anything to offend her? Without blinking, the little darling replied, “No. It’s just that I have observed that you are not as good as the other instructors. Your timing is awkward and you model poorly. I guess I’ll stick around and see if you have improved any.” As nausea churned into stomach acid, Rotch says she petitioned a silent prayer and somehow made it through the class. As expected, ‘The Destroyer’ left class early. The other students thanked Rotch for a good workout, but naturally she focused on the one sour puss.

Are several good comments enough to outweigh the wrath of one Destroyer? Can a Destroyer be neutralized before demolishing an instructor’s psyche? When subbing, Cindy Patterson, an aquatic instructor and former presenter, comes prepared with a stock speech. “I go in with a ‘bad news/good news/bad news’ message to warm-up a potentially hostile crowd,” says Patterson. “First I tell them the bad news that their instructor couldn’t make it. Then I tell them the good news that there will still be class. Then I offer bad news, by asking if anyone would like to volunteer to teach, and of course no one does. So then, I tell them that I will teach for them just this once, but since no one else volunteered to do so, I expect ‘not a peep’ out of them.”

The speech delivered by Patterson is an example of taking control. Over the years, seasoned instructors simply learn from experience. Personally, I have found that the less I try to solicit approval when subbing, the better. Some people dislike my teaching style and choose an early exit. Fine. I used to suffer severe rejection issues when people walked out of my classes, but now I consider it a badge of honor. As a teacher, I come prepared to deliver a well-planned routine, sticking to it despite the occasional unhappy student who goes out of their way to pout and roll their eyes. My favorite is when the eye rolling pouter starts whispering to others around them, hoping to instigate a mutiny, only to be ignored - forcing the floating nag to swim off into silent exile.


After taking one of my aquatic kickboxing workshops, Teresa Ruckdeschel, an aquatic instructor in Syracuse, NY, was eager to try out some new moves. While debuting her kickboxing creations, one of the students jogged up to the front and said very loudly, “Teresa! If you took a bungee jumping workshop, does that mean we would have to bungee jump too?” Fortunately, Ruckdeschel replied back with a humorous comment about wanting to try bungee jumping, thus defusing the situation.

Humor can be your best defense in class. Without doubt, I believe that my sarcastic wit acts like a shield in keeping the witches and warlocks at bay. Students can smell fear and hesitation and are more likely to pounce if they perceive an easy target. Humor promotes an aura of confidence and ease.


After obtaining her AEA certification, Betsy Hare, an aquatic instructor in Buffalo, NY, was eager to teach new material. Unfortunately, the group she was teaching was used to “old-style” instruction. Apparently, the previous teacher had done a lot of overhead arm movements, with the idea that it provided a better workout. “Fresh from my certification, I started reminding people to keep their arms in the water, pushing and pulling,” says Hare. Sure enough, one woman loudly decried Hare’s actions as heresy. “She was shouting that it was all a bunch of nonsense and that I didn’t know what I was talking about,” exclaims Hare. The heckler quieted down when Hare calmly stated that she had literature she could read, but that the discussion needed to be tabled until after class. Educating our students is crucial, but that doesn’t mean they will always like the curriculum. Avoid asking students what THEY want to do. You were hired to teach a class. Own the curriculum and teach it. If they don’t like it they can go to another class. If you want feedback, provide your students with a survey or evaluation form. This is a much more appropriate way to gauge your student’s likes and dislikes.


Musical choice and volume control can often lead to incendiary outbursts. While playing some show tunes one day, Valerie Trerise, an aquatic instructor in Rochester, NY, was quite unprepared for the volatile reaction of one of her students. “She started yelling things, but I couldn’t quite hear her,” says Trerise. Determined to have her say, the musically miffed student jogged up front and yelled, “CAN YOU TURN THAT MUSIC OFF? IT STINKS!” Ever so calmly, Trerise asked the other students if they liked the music? Wide-eyed over the tantrum, the other students nodded approval, and Trerise sweetly stated, “I think they like it.” Well, the show went on and the tantrum-tosser made an early exit out of the pool.

When it comes to music, I do a couple of things. First of all, I select a music style that pairs well with the choice of choreography and the demographics of the students. Secondly, I avoid asking my students if the music and the music volume is okay. The volume will never please everyone and nor will the music selection. Trust me, they’ll make it clear if it is not okay.


When reading over evaluations from IAFC 2003, Julie See, President of the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA), came across a poisonous missive aimed directly at her. It read: “Director Julie –very unfriendly and unapproachable. She seemed unwilling to help or assist the delegates – after all – it’s us who are paying large conference fees. Julie needs to do something about her ‘unusual physique’ – looks terrible – she’s so male!” The unknown author went on to state that she would not be attending another IAFC. How lucky for Julie.

Unfortunately, not all instructors are that lucky. Each class, week after week, the troops ready themselves for the spotlight, suited in emotional Kevlar and armed with verbal pesticide, ready to defend themselves. No one wants to be stung, but hopefully the sting will seem more bearable simply knowing that you are not alone in the battlefield. Yes, mean students suck, but to the 99.5% of students who make our job a joy, we salute you!

Now get out there and take charge!

Author: Mark Grevelding is the founder of Fitmotivation. He is also a training specialist and consultant with the Aquatic Exercise Association’s (AEA). Mark has been active in the fitness industry for 22 years as a group fitness instructor, personal trainer, international presenter and a continuing education provider for AEA, AFAA & ACE.