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.

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§ 7 Responses to From the Other Side of the Desk: r-e-s-p-e-c-t and today’s entitled teen

  • Amen to all of the above. Good God, what an ass that kid must be!

    I ultimately used humor in those kinds of situations. I don’t know if it was the most effective approach, but it worked for me. Problem–when your pissed, you don’t feel like joking. I don’t know how to get over that one.

    Sometimes I thought of my job, not so much as one that demanded respect, but as one that required me to entertain–that is if it’s going to work with kids these days. Think how effect the Colbert Report is in communicating information. Not that you can be that hysterical. Of course, I NEVER came close.

    But in a situation like the one with that kid, I might have joked about what I needed to do to get his attention. “Now you really don’t want me to sing. You’d be sorry if you required that.” So the joke seemed like it was on me, but was indirectly on him.

    I don’t know if this helps. There are lots of teaching styles that work. I would be curious to hear how others might handle it.

    Hang in there, my friend!


  • Tim says:

    It always seemed that 1xxx and 2xxx classes had the highest ratio of grade-grubbers of any class I took, as well as the highest ratio of honey badgers (you know, because they don’t give a shit) when it came to the teacher. Invariably, the complaints stemmed from a sense of entitlement rather than any shortcoming of the specific teacher.

    A lot of my 1000-level peers complained to me ceaselessly about classes, assignments, and teachers that I absolutely adored, really across the board.

    I remember my first world history prof at NGCSU being described to me as an evil, sadistic bitch. I took her class and loved the hell out of it because I DID THE WORK.

    I remember just waiting around outside Dr. Williams’ office to say “Hi” while another classmate was bitching and moaning about his/her grade. Dr. Williams was my 1101 instructor, and I took every one of her comments to heart, fixing the flaws in my writing and emerging from her class a much better writer than when I entered.

    I remember watching some random chick come up and start screaming at Dr. McNeer about a grade in the Dunlap commons area. Dr. McNeer taught my intro to Spanish class, and he also taught the last Spanish class I ever took, and I always considered him to be both brilliant and fair.

    I remember hearing a thousand different horror stories about Dr. Link, but I also remember him subbing for Dr. Royal’s 1102 class ONE TIME (during the semester that Royal got fired) and teaching so much better that I had to take his American Lit course. And I remember getting a hard-earned C in his American Lit course and deciding I had to take his Sci-fi lit course and getting an A. And after that, I decided to take his Poetry & Poetics course, and while I only got a High “B,” I was more proud of that grade than I have ever been of any other grade in my life, because I had to work for it to earn it.

    And I also remember taking Physics my freshman year from a man who just wasn’t cut out to be a teacher – he had been a practical physicist his entire life and came on at NGCSU to fill a gap. His head really wasn’t in the class (and that’s understandable for multiple reasons – he wasn’t used to dealing with people, and he had also been diagnosed with a life-ending brain tumor, which I found about a year later), and he didn’t understand how to break down the concepts for people who did not already have a grounding in Physics and Trigonometry, but the course was still pretty darn easy if you had any understanding of scientific mathematics. I breezed through the class and got one of the easiest As of my college career. Despite quite a few of the upper-classmen needing tutoring to grasp the basic concepts he didn’t know to explain, however, I never once heard a complaint about this professor.

    I guess my point is this: it is usually the best teachers who receive the harshest criticisms.

    As for the entitlement and not taking you seriously, even if their parents and/or teachers have not taught them to be entitled, the system HAS given them an expectation of entitlement to a certain degree. EVERYONE has seen someone in a store complaining about how they deserve XYZ because of ABC, and it can implant that seed of, “Hey, if I pay for X and don’t like it, that means I get to complain about it and change it.” They are also young. I have seen very few people as self-entitled or disrespectful as my 18-year-old stepbrother, and I’ve never met a teenager who didn’t love to make fun of their teachers behind their backs – the extra freedom of college may just bring that behind the back mentality to the forefront. I think it may be a natural hazard of working with teenagers.

    I think there’s also the fact that college, for the first time ever, presents students with two very different responsibilities, both of which can lead them to attack anyone who doesn’t grade them the way they want to be graded (and, by extension, run the class in the way they think would get them the grade they want). First, they don’t have to let their parents know what their grades are until the end of the semester, but that also means their parents can’t stay on them to bring up a bad grade. They don’t yet know how to improve themselves, so instead they attack the professor so their parents don’t find out how poorly they did. Second, state-funded scholarships typically depend on a 3.0 or higher GPA. A sufficiently bad grade smacks them in their face, quite possibly for the first time in their life, with what could end up happening to their future career opportunities. Under that stress, you’re GOING to have people (and, unfortunately, a LOT of people) who start looking for ways to weasel out of the consequences instead of fixing the problem.

    I also noticed in my student teaching that most teachers had a set number of points they would take off for grammatical errors – usually enough to drop a letter grade at most, but never enough to fail the paper based purely on grammar, and this seemed to contribute to the entitled culture-shock crybaby syndrome that I saw as a student. I still remember working with a girl in the writing center who got a failing grade on a paper and came in complaining that she had been a straight-A student in high school and that all her English teachers had told her how well she wrote. I know you dealt with them, too, so it goes without saying, but it took some time to get through her “But I’m a good writer” mentality and actually get her writing well.

    And when it comes to your classroom, you have to remember that people who are being trained to teach K-12 are being trained to change things up from the traditional classroom, and are, in some-but-not-all cases, being trained to actually get input from their students to help them find out how their students learn. It’s not necessarily their teachers’ FAULT that they expect to have input into how you run your class, but if they were allowed any input at all previously, they can begin to feel entitled to offer their opinion on how things are run.

    In this particular situation, you didn’t go wrong, but if you want to point to the thing that caused the problem, it was the student deciding to sleep instead of pay attention. You went RIGHT in addressing the problem head-on, but that caused a self-entitled little brat to try to get in your face as a consequence of being one of the first to burst his bubble.

    • Robert says:

      Tim, you are spot on with your post, but I want to offer a little bit of discussion on the “people who are being trained to teach K-12” and how they “are being trained to change things up from them traditional classroom.”

      The k-12 classroom that you, me, and probably anybody else reading this blog is dead and gone, a fossil from a time when learning centered concepts were of paramount concern. Consider that in 2000 we had No Child Left Behind come in and create a more closely forged connection between evaluation and student learning outcomes and school funding. For the last 11 years, the price of failure in assessment has out-striped the gains of education focused classrooms. For our students in college classrooms in 2011, all they know is assessment. Each year students are trained in test-taking strategies, and drilled with information that will be beneficial ONLY in passing the state exam for that year. It is in the teacher’s best interest (because it is in their employer’s–the school districts) to teach to the test, and, as folks living in Georgia saw over the summer, to go to drastic measures to make sure that the data that they report to state educational governing boards is the right data–the data that shows that the school is meeting the unrealistically lofty goal set by a program that could slash a school’s entire budget if those goals aren’t met. Over the next two years, NCLB schools, to keep their money, have to have a 0% fail rate. I don’t know about you your school, but even my high school–which was a pretty academically competitive high school–would never be able to boast a 0% fail rate.

      My point with that digression is that the purpose of institutions of education–higher or otherwise–has drastically changed over the last decade. We had great, student-centered educational theorists (Donal Murray, Peter Elbow, etc.) who pushed for a “student centered” classroom through the 80’s and 90’s. Now, in the 00’s and beyond, that “student centered” classroom that was originally meant to build student confidence and classroom agency (I was certainly trained to let my students have input in coming up with classroom policies–a trick straight out of Elbow), is now being driven by those same students. Teachers live and die on student evaluation and student outcomes. The existence of entire school systems rests entirely on the shoulders of children who, because of “student centered” classroom theories, KNOW how important they are to the system.

      It’s a mess. I’m struggling with how to deal with it, myself. All I know is that I have it easy compared to my colleagues in the k-12 system. I find that it’s an uphill battle to try and teach my students how to learn and be critical of ideas. That used to be what we were trained to do to get ready for college. Now, they’re trained to be evaluated. If I were you, I’d by stock in Tums; with the way that the next few generations of students are getting trained, I’m sure the number of stomach ulcers caused by worrying over assessment is going to greatly increase.

      • Robert says:

        Oh, I forgot one last thing. None of what I just said excuses anyone from being an asshole.

      • Tim says:

        Thanks for the extra insight. I certainly wasn’t trying to blame the teachers, but I appreciate the additional insight into just how badly NCLB screwed classrooms up. I did my student teaching in ’07, but I guess I did it outside of a testing cycle, because we were able to focus on the curriculum pretty heavily. When I recently found out that my 17-year-old sister-in-law (a high-school senior) had not read a single play by Shakespeare in its entirety, nor more than a couple of the Canterbury Tales, I was dumbstruck.

        As to the failure rate in my high-school, I can safely say it was 0%, since I was home-schooled, but wow! Requiring a 0% fail rate isn’t going to improve the quality of education, it’s just going to increase the amount of fudging teachers do on report cards!

  • Tori Nelson says:

    That attitude is ickkkkk. I’m definitely not patient and pleasant enough to work in the classroom 😦

  • jacquelincangro says:

    Hats off to you! I used to teach college literature courses and there was always one (or two or three) who would challenge my authority in the classroom. One that comes to mind was a woman who said that the 20 page story I’d assigned to read over the week was too much. She would only read 5 pages and no more. She had a husband and a child and a full time job. She didn’t have time to read more than 5 pages. I remember asking her if she’d had all of those things before she signed up for my class (the husband, the child and the job, that is).
    Isn’t it odd that in education so many students seem to want to get LESS for their money?

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