I have been dealing with many more student difficulties this semester than I had to deal with last semester. There’s been more whining, more entitlement, more blaming me for their poor performance. It’s been more than annoying, it’s been emotionally draining and is really impacting my physical health and well-being. There are a few of them who have created this swirling vortex of negativity and have been pulling others in to keep them company in their seeming hatred for my class.
There are about a million things that I want to say to them. I would love to give an entire lecture on how their attitudes and behaviors are hurting them professionally and how the content of my course is nothing compared to what they will be getting when they leave CSC (most of them want to be doctors, physical therapists, physicians assistants, etc. and yet the first exam had “too much information” about human physiology…honey, this is just the tip of the iceberg). It would be a great lecture full of insights and impactful statements that they’d never really hear anyway. Plus, I don’t have a ton of class time because, you know, heavy content course and all.
With all that I have wanted to say and wondered if I should have said, I have found myself asking Craig Ferguson’s three questions over and over:
- Does this need to be said?
- Does this need to be said by me?
- Does this need to be said now?
I have often fallen more on the side of restraint, relegating my thoughts to things expressed while I’m alone, driving home from work, standing in the shower, or lying in bed trying to fall asleep. Perhaps my answer of “no” to those three questions should be “yes” far more frequently. I’ve fallen into my own vortex of negativity by repressing some of the things that I want to say for the sake of professionalism. Once you’re there, swirling around with all that cynicism, it’s hard to pull yourself out.
But, here we are. No one is going to make this semester better or easier for me, I just have to make the best of it myself. I’ve begun to read articles on ways to deal with difficult students. I’ve started seeking more council from my colleagues, which has made a huge difference. I’m fortunate to have great people in my department with lots of experience to draw upon for making decisions regarding my students. Most importantly, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos that bring me joy in hopes of getting out of this mood rut that I’ve been stuck in lately.
And yet I still come back to those three questions. When do you just need to tell students that their behaviors aren’t professional? When do you actually say, “we are done here”? How do you know if they are hearing it from you or if it would be better for them to hear the exact same thing from someone else because it would be better received? How do I know that the timing isn’t horribly bad for this conversation that someone needs to have with this student?
My friends and I often call those difficult, let’s-sit-down-for-a-chat kinds of conversations “come to Jesus meetings”. I have a few students that I’d like to have a come to Jesus meeting with, but I can’t even get them to come to my office to look at their exams (even with free chocolate available!), so what makes me think that they would even hear a word that I was saying should I ever get the opportunity for a sit-down? The answer is nothing. I have no evidence to support the idea that my words coming from my mouth right now would have any impact at all. And yet, ever the scientist (and occasionally the optimist), I also recognize that I have no data to the contrary either.
I guess we are all there, taking steps each day to do what is right, what is fair, what is in the best interest of our students, even if they disagree on all three fronts. I sometimes think that my students are convinced that I purposefully make quizzes and exams hard because I want to see them fail. Sure, I don’t dumb things down, and I don’t ask the obvious or easy questions, but far from wanting to see them fail, I am trying to challenge them…to prepare them for what lies ahead. Alas, it’s hard to convince students that you want them to succeed when they have you painted as the monster who has it out for them in their minds. Harder still is when the echo chambers of their frustrations with their own performance reverberate among their classmates rather than creating a learning community.
I’m sure many of my colleagues endure similar frustrations. In fact, I know that they do. I know that it’s always easier to blame someone else than it is to take responsibility for your own shortfalls. I know that there will always be those students who feel that you are the sole reason for their inadequacies and there’s little that can be done to change their minds. Undergraduates are not nearly as self-reflective as we seasoned academics are, and if we are being honest, we probably weren’t very good at it ourselves back in our undergraduate days either.
Self-reflection is not an easy process. It is often met with denial and stubbornness borne from a desire to remain comfortable, but you can’t grow if you are comfortable. Being uncomfortable is good for us because it forces us to be better. Exercising isn’t comfortable. Listening to people about what we should and shouldn’t eat isn’t comfortable. Hearing hard truths isn’t comfortable. Learning lots of new information in a short time frame isn’t comfortable. All of these things are important for helping us to live better, healthier lives even if we don’t want to accept the reality of this idea of being uncomfortable.
So here come those questions again. Do I need to tell students that they are going to be uncomfortable? Do they need to hear that they are going to be frustrated and disappointed with themselves just as frequently as they are proud of themselves? Do I need to remind them that they are responsible for their own learning? I think these are all a resounding “yes”. Students do need to hear these things. Repeatedly. Will they really hear it if I am the one to say it? Maybe. Maybe not. Does it need to be said right now? What better time?
I wonder if my reservation, my hesitation, is more a product of my own resistance to the uncomfortable situation of having a student become defensive and combative. I don’t like conflict, but I recognize its utility. Perhaps I need to be more prepared to just say the things that need to be said when I feel like they need to be said and less concerned with how those things are perceived by students. Who knows…maybe they might even learn something from me?