From the Other Side of the Desk: r-e-s-p-e-c-t and today’s entitled teen
September 28, 2011 § 7 Comments
After a few months off from teaching, it is time to re-open “From the Other Side of the Desk.” So far, this semester has been fairly routine and uneventful, which isn’t saying much considering school only started a month ago.
Until Monday morning.
I made my glorious return to this classroom after a week of wallowing in strep-throated misery. Despite my lingering cough and painful throat after speaking for longer than three minute stretches, I determined that it was my turn to teach my own class. Robert needed relief after substituting for me.
Having no expectations upon my return, I entered the classroom just generally happy to see that my students were chattering away. Of course, they were disappointed to see me. (You get used to that sort of response when you’re a teacher. Students are always hoping to find that class has been canceled forever. The presence of a teacher is cause for disillusioned depression. Apparently.) I smiled anyway, ignoring their groans and whines, making a point to lay it on thick just how much better I felt, thanks so much for asking.
Halfway through an admittedly boring lecture where we revisited the Writing Process, I noticed two students in the back stage right corner were sleeping away. I asked their classmates directly in front of them to poke them. One of them raised his head with a start and announced a little too loudly, “I wasn’t sleeping!” I smiled and said, “That may be, but I want to see your pretty face.” He proceeded to scowl his way through the remaining thirty minutes of class. All the way through the Effect/Affect lesson, through the grammar quiz, and finally through the assignment of their second essay (due one week from today–I’m not a fan of our deadlines, but it’s the way it works here). It wasn’t until the end of the grammar quiz that this specific sour-puss student affected my mood (and would, actually, have an effect on my mood for the following 48 hours). When it was near time for the quiz to wrap up, I announced, “Go ahead and take a couple more minutes to finish where you are.” Most of my students were staring at me in utter boredom, willing me to end class early because they had finished their quizzes early. I smiled and ignored them.
A few minutes later, I called time and told the students to make sure their names were on the top, and to pass the quizzes forward. Standard procedure. This is not our first quiz. This is not our first in-class assignment. This is fairly normal. I walked to the corner of the room where Pupil Scowlington was still writing feverishly. I told him to put his pen down and turn in the quiz.
“I didn’t know it was timed!” he protested.
I smiled in that way my mom used to smile when I would claim that my hand hit my sister, not me. It was a humorless smile. Meant to humiliate, mock, and ridicule. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. “Student,” I said, “of course the quiz was timed. We have a finite amount of time to be here. And we have more ground to cover before the end of class. Hand it forward now.”
He begrudgingly complied.
As I walked away to collect the rest of the essays, he huffed after me, “Next time, you need to tell us if a quiz is going to be timed.”
With my back to him and my humorless smile plastered on my face, I replied, “I appreciate your attitude. However, it is entirely inappropriate.” And that was that.
Except, my heart rate and blood pressure didn’t believe “that was that.” For the remainder of the class (the last ten or so minutes), as I assigned the second essay, I could feel myself shaking. I hid my hands behind my podium. As I recited what was already printed off on the handout, thousands of retorts that I wished I could have said galloped through my mind. Some of them were less kind and less patient than the one I said aloud.
I awoke this morning, two days later, angry, frustrated, and dreading this class. We’ll be discussing the subject of plagiarism in an hour, and I frankly have no interest in speaking to these people today. (Oh, just because I’m zeroing in on one student, do not believe that the rest of my class is innocent–he may have been the spokesman, but the rest of them agreed and made sounds to that point. They had also already said plenty in regards to when they should expect their first paper grades.) A part of me hopes this outspoken student has the gall to say something else to me today. I would love to dress him down and make sure he understands the inappropriateness of the way he expressed his opinions. I’m practically itching to be able to say the words, “Student, you will stay after class today so that we can have a little chat.”
Here’s the issue, friends.
1. My classroom is run as a benevolent dictatorship, not as a democracy.
Know who gets to determine how things are run? Me. Know who determines how long quizzes will take? Me. Know who decides whether or not to turn in papers by a particular deadline? That’s right. ME. I take into consideration very little about what my students think a composition class should look like. They have no idea what a college-level composition class is; I have been teaching this class since 2004. I’d say I’m an expert compared to them. If I left it up to them, we’d stare at each other for 75 minutes. Composition would see nary a word scribbled onto a scrap of paper. And how do I know this for certain? From experience. In my first couple of years teaching, I tried to run my class like a democracy, weighing their opinions equally with mine. It was a disaster and left me even less respected than I am now.
2. Students are entitled to nothing more than a desk and chair in my classroom.
Because colleges and universities are businesses first and institutions of learning second, students take it upon themselves to wear the mantle of Customer. They believe they are paying for a service, like paying the city for weekly waste pick-up. If my garbage collectors fail to take my garbage one week, I am entitled to some anger and indignation, not to mention some sort of restitution (preferably in the form of sending the truck back out). However, I am not in the service industry. I am not a waitress. Or a sales associate. Or a trash collector. I am a professional. In lieu of a teaching certificate, I have two degrees and will soon have a third. In any other profession, this alone should demand some respect. It seems, to my experience anyway, that the number of degrees, the number of years of expertise, have very little to do with how a student will respect or disrespect a teacher. Respect for the average student hinges almost entirely on evaluation, which brings me to the next point.
3. Grades are not to be the determining factor when respecting a teacher.
So much is tied to those ridiculous evaluative techniques that are drilled into us through years of teacher training. I personally despise the process of grading because of the visceral response I have while doing it. I have had so many aggressive confrontations in the past seven years that the very thought of grading causes my stomach to clench up, my blood pressure to rise. Despite the number of times I remind my students that grades are not up for negotiation, they still feel entitled to try to argue for that A. Because they paid for it. (See point 2.) I am not exaggerating. Each semester, I have no fewer than two students who will make the point that they have paid an exorbitant tuition (I agree with them on this point) and therefore should get an A. The students who rightfully earn A’s tend to be much more respectful toward me, while those who earn grades they don’t like are disrespectful and moody.
I don’t know what the cause of this resolute disrespect and entitlement is–college professors are fond of blaming our secondary-education peers who are fond of blaming parents and arbitrary standards set by ridiculous laws. But I have spoken to a number of high school teachers and parents, and I do not get the clear impression that either sect is responsible. I have heard from both sides that they do not tolerate disrespect, that they take an active role in the education of their students, that their students are taught to accept the grade they earned (because grades are never given, my friends). Because I have trouble locating the source of my students’ disrespect, I am left examining the common denominator in every confrontation.
What have I done as an educator to indicate that I should not be taken seriously?
What is wrong with my teaching methods that my students would not accept their grades willingly?
What is wrong with my classroom management that my students believe they have a say in how things are run?
Where did I go wrong?
I’ll tell you, friends, that I do not have the answer to a single one of those questions.