Confrontations in the Classroom

Nobody likes confrontation, but confrontations happen.

Anytime that someone feels like they aren’t being heard, are being misunderstood or mistreated, or are feeling anger (righteous or otherwise) they may end up having words.   Students get stressed out from time to time, and will act out.   It doesn’t make it right, but it can be expected from time to time.

That much is understandable.

And…  confrontations can suck beyond the telling of it.  I’m a fairly together guy.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have triggers, and last quarter a student pulled one of mine.  The sad thing is he wasn’t even my student, he just kept barging into my class while we were still in session.   Trying to verbally denigrate me in front of my class doesn’t sit well.   I have had students escalate violently before.  Yes, I have been assaulted in my classroom (during a final exam, no less).

My adrenaline gland is a big jerk.   It reacts much faster than my conscious mind can act.

Which means that (in this instance) I got to teach my next class while trying to manage an anxiety attack.   Not my best teaching experience ever.

Intellectually, it is easy to remember how to deal with confrontations:   stay calm,  listen,  and try appealing to reason (or even emotion) before resorting to authority.   That being said, when your brain starts reacting, you need to give yourself a moment to assess the situation and recognize your own state before proceeding.   Don’t ignore your instincts, because they have kept the species alive!   But those instincts don’t care about false positives (most classroom arguments are not, thankfully, life threatening).

There are also people like to work in the world confrontationally.   They come off as aggressive, but they don’t mean to be assholes.  Believe it or not, these people can be some of your best students – if you can handle them right.   Here is what can work:   (1) Do NOT meet them head on, this will only make them blow up and it gets uncomfortable in a hurry.   If you move closer and turn down your personal volume, they are forced to lower their own in response, and spend a bit more effort in listening.  (2)  Once they are done with a diatribe, use Socratic questions.   They are unlikely to respond to information or reason from outside themselves.  So ask them questions that will lead their thinking into challenging themselves.  And finally (3) these folks are rarely “all attack, all the time” so you may want to have a chat with them about how to behave in a classroom,  or how to choose their language more carefully.

These students will often come back and apologize when they realize they have been disrespectful or disruptive.    Some things are harder to teach than others, as much as I hope that people will learn to be thoughtful and reasonable.

I just can’t fix stupid.

(But I will make fun of it)

Time to warp minds!

I have learned a great deal about teaching over the past few years.  From how to put together a good test to how to time a lecture without people going to sleep.     There is a world of difference between subject matter experts and teachers.    There is a lot of difference between just saying coherent things about a subject, and being able to engage students in a meaningful way,  help them learn new concepts and processes, and then evaluate them on their performance.

As time goes on I continue to refine my list of things that it takes to be a good teacher,  rather than a subject matter expert with a classroom.

  • Entertainment.    At least half of teaching is grabbing students attention and keeping it.
  • Patience.   Students will learn at their own pace, not always at yours.
  • Planning.    Your students will have a plan for your class time.   You won’t like theirs.
  • Self-Care.   Any teacher who doesn’t take time for themselves will soon become useless to everyone.
  • Alternatives.    No single explanation will work for all of your students, so be ready to help the outliers.
  • Empathy.   Listen to your students, they will tell you (and show you) what they need.
  • Communication.   Because you can’t really go wrong when you talk to your colleagues and your students.

One of the things that you can’t really fake:   enthusiasm.     Being excited about the subject matter, and feeling good about showing it to others is something that students appreciate.   Plus it helps that coming to work does not feel like work.

Also, a sense of humor can help you keep sane.

Now… it is time to warp some minds.

Worry

Being a good teacher means a lot of things.   Good teachers have a couple of traits in common, passion for the subject matter as well as caring for students’ lives.   It goes beyond just a job, it is personal.   There are a myriad of things that will trigger concern for your students.   Failing grades, absences or unexpected lateness, or changing personalities.

Remember the expression about the road to hell?

Pressure

You can’t help everyone.

That care for students can cut both ways.  Caring for students gives a sincerity and a fire that they will recognize and appreciate.  Students will try more for someone who will try for them.   Caring also can be a ticket to neuroses and burnout, if you start to feel ineffective.    The downside of things can be worry, and while it is useful to identify what/who needs your attention it is also good to have boundaries.

It would seem that “not caring” would be a solution, but then you lose a valuable tool.   But this is one of the paths to burnout…   you don’t always get a choice in what you feel, and trying to divorce yourself from care isn’t really an option.   Giving up on the students just reinforces the underlying feelings of ineffectiveness.

So how do you solve the conundrum of caring for students?  The only way out, is through!   Caring is only the first step on the road.     Communication and action are the next steps… which empowers both the teacher and the student.   Working on solving the problems (above and beyond how to “solve for x”) is good.

You don’t have to have all the answers.  Who does?   Well, being a good teacher also means being a good researcher.   And someone who can interpret and guide people to the appropriate resources.   If the student has some ideas already in mind, even better.   A lot of the time students have ideas but no idea how to follow through.   Whether it is support or accountability, teachers can provide.

And I like getting thank you letters from students who got into the schools they wanted, or passed their class even when they lost their house, or ….  whatever.

You can’t help everyone, but you can help a few.   And being able to reach out to those few will relieve the worry.   You aren’t powerless.

Teachers are always in the fight.

Working Hard vs. Working Smart

I like teaching the occasional gifted student, but who I really value in class are students who are willing to work.   Those who are willing to put in the time and effort, and who go over the subject matter is a wonderful thing to have in any class.   There is a big difference between hard work and smart work however.

brain games

With regard to learning mathematics, rote works.   Repeating basic facts and methods is one of the things that cannot be replaced in teaching.   Familiarity helps students get comfortable with specific processes in math, but it has a limited utility.   After a certain point repeated practice is tedious, doesn’t help to convey greater understanding of underlying concepts or help in refining technique.   At times I see students who try to learn every single possible variation of an equation.    Grinding through question after question trying to memorize patterns isn’t the goal.   Students need to apply some critical thinking, and learn broader scopes of methods.

There are some crucial differences between simply working hard, and working smart.   The easiest difference to spot is knowing what steps to skip… and this is where there can be a hand-off between rote work and critical work.   Getting familiar with the basics is one thing, but showing every little detail is just busy-work.   Memorization is a good foundation.  After a certain point critical thinking needs to take over.

The bigger difference between memorization and critical work is play.   When students start noticing differences on their own without prompting, then they start to play with variations.   Curiosity more than need drives students to go off script and expands (or deepens) their understanding of the topic.

Minds at work only examine what is in distinct categories, but minds at play will color outside the lines.

No student is going to perfectly follow a teacher’s script to learning.   That is as it should be!   If a student finds a path by themselves, they will remember it better.   One of the hard things for a teacher to do is to stress the need for discipline to get work done, but also leave enough flexibility so students can grow on their own.   Even in classes with prescribed online work, this is possible.   I like to emphasize looking at off site resources and time spent over working on specific objectives.

Getting into learning mode is one thing – this is one of the hidden uses of rote work.   Starting work with some simple practice, then move on to some simple process questions.   As strange as it sounds, boredom can be helpful.   It is really satisfying to see students start looking for more interesting or more challenging questions.

Discipline and curiosity are not at odds, they are the hallmarks of the best students.   Hard work and play really need to go together.

Why I Teach

“It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.”  e e cummings

I love to teach. *

I love it because I enjoy learning, and I love it because I can pass on what I’ve learned as well as my passion for learning.

Being a teacher is a lot more than being a subject matter expert. You not only need to understand your subject, you need to understand how your students view that subject. You also need to be able to influence their views of it. I find that the barriers that most people have with mathematics aren’t from lack of ability. Most people can grasp math concepts. Instead, people struggle with social or psychological barriers that keep them from learning and enjoying math. My job is to teach math concepts while helping my students get more comfortable with learning. Here is how I typically teach my classes: engage the students, present them with concepts and skills to practice, and reinforce their new skills with feedback and support.

A big part of engaging the students is personality.  My students love my enthusiasm and clarity in the classroom.  I am acutely aware that I can give students information, but they are the ones responsible for learning it.  I am responsible for making the work palatable and outlining their skills and set of knowledge required to succeed.  It requires clear communication and keeping things entertaining and engaging.  My main goals are:  (1) get the students invested by encouraging their intrinsic curiosity and (2) appealing to their self-interest as a drive to learn.   Once they have these traits, they build the habits of independent and lifelong learning.

Inside the classroom, being a good teacher is about giving accessible information and creating a strong classroom community. I like giving students a forgiving place to try out new skills and ask questions.  Patience is more than a virtue, it is an utter necessity! Organized lectures and class discussions are also a necessity. Planned discussions are good, but I also find that the discussions that come out of student questions are equally beneficial. Some students need more challenging material, while others need to focus on basics. It helps that I am able to judge the class’ demeanor, and teach responsively. Are they interested or bored?  Will alternative techniques help them learn?   How quickly can they grasp the skills/concepts that I am teaching?  What changes will keep the class active without being disruptive?

Outside of the classroom, being a good teacher is about preparation and giving useful feedback.   I go to great lengths to provide helpful and positive feedback for the students.   To learn from their mistakes, students first need to know about them, and they need to have tools they can use in the future. Negative feedback isn’t helpful, and I have found that students need both encouragement and empowerment to be able to succeed. The work I assign and the feedback I give not only reinforces the concepts and skills we go over in class, it also encourages the students to be conscientious and responsible.

I love seeing my students learn.

ity in the classroom.   I am acutely aware that I can give students information, but they are the ones responsible for learning it.   With this in mind my job is to make the work palatable and clarify their needed skills and set of knowledge.  This is also why I believe that a necessary part of teaching is keeping things entertaining and engaging.   There are two main goals to this:  get the students invested by encouraging their intrinsic curiosity, and to engage their self-interest (and hopefully additional drive to learn).   Once they have these traits, they can go about fostering the habits of independent (and lifelong) learning.

Within the classroom, being a good instructor is about being engaging and giving accessible information. The difficulties that most people have in learning isn’t lack of information, it is in the presentation and the classroom community.   I like giving students a forgiving place to try out new skills and ask questions.   Patience is more than a virtue, it is an utter necessity!   Organized lectures and class discussions are also a necessity.   I find that the best (guided) discussions are the ones that appear to be spontaneous (but they don’t need to be!).       It also helps to be able to judge the class’ demeanor.   Are they interested or bored?    Will alternative techniques help them learn?   How quickly can they grasp the skills/concepts that you are teaching?    What changes will keep the class engaged without being disruptive?

Outside of the classroom, being a good teacher is about preparation and giving useful feedback.   I go to great lengths to provide helpful and positive feedback for the students.   People learn from their mistakes, but first they need to know about them, and have a better tool or technique to help them in the future.   Negative feedback isn’t helpful, and I have found that students need both encouragement and empowerment to be able to succeed.    The work I assign and the feedback I give not only reinforces the concepts and skills we go over in class, it also encourages the students to be conscientious and responsible.

I love to teach, because I love to see my students learn.

 

 

*  Note:  for those of you who know, this is my semi-official “teaching philosophy”  statement.   But I thought it was possibly worth sharing.   People who have read my blog for a while will recognize all of the pieces of this, but this is my condensed teaching philosophy.

Now, I go to teach the hell out of my Summer quarter class.

Responsible vs. Entitled Students

While teaching at a community college I get to witness a rare intersection of cultures:   I get a mix of students who are right out of high school (plus some running start students) as well as non-traditional students returning to school after 10 to 30 years.    Because I teach developmental math, I typically get students who are unpracticed at math (or are convinced that they are bad at it) or who are unpracticed at being a good student.    I enjoy teaching students who are (hopefully) mature enough to appreciate learning, and who know who is to blame if they fail.

No student is tabula rasa (a blank slate), however.  Some students are easier to teach than others.     While intelligence helps, what I really love to see in a student is a student who is conscientious and responsible.   These are the students who will show up, do the work, and who keep working until they have the competencies they need.  Add some intellectual curiosity….  and we have a seriously cool student who adds to the entire class.

Then there are the students who come in and know it all already.   They just need this class as a prerequisite for what they really want.   Then they ask if attendance is necessary, and whether they can test out of the class.  These are the one ones who have lessons other than math to learn.    One phrase that I hear out of some of these students is “I really need to pass this class” as if I were the one who were responsible for making that happen.

Expectations

I’m clear about my expectations for my classes from the get go:   show up, do the work, be respectful of the class, and ask questions!    People will rise (or fall) to the level of expectations put on them.    There have been students who express astonishment at the level of work that I expect (which is actually not that much… 1-2 hours for every hour of class time is pretty standard).   When the class gets going, they realize that I’m not kidding about the amount of work needed to succeed, or even just keep up.

Teaching adults does have it’s drawbacks, because your class won’t be the only responsibilities they have.    The more you can work with these students to help them fit your class into their lives, the more they are willing to work (I have found).*

As for the those who feel that they are above it, failure is always an option.

Consequences and Responsibility

For those who show up and do the work, there is often unexpected consequences (unexpected for them, perhaps).   They often find themselves enjoying math, where they never did before.

And yet every term I find that I have to tell people that I won’t accept late work.   Giving a zero as a grade is often a sobering experience for students who aren’t used to needing to work.   One student, after arguing with me for a while said to me “wow, you really are serious?  Nobody else has cared.”   While I doubt that was actually the case, I’m glad I got through to them.

Showing up (periodically) isn’t enough.   That is a hard lesson for some people to learn.

The Lessons we Teach

Setting the stage (and stacking the deck) for students to be responsible and to learn the concepts and skills they need isn’t always enough.    I am acutely aware of the fact that, no matter how I present the material, they are the ones who need to learn it.   Just as much as that,  they hopefully will learn that failure is an option if they don’t take responsibility.

I’ve been pleased with my classes this quarter.   The students who aren’t doing well have told me that it is because they haven’t put in the necessary time instead of the expectation that I will pass them “because I need to pass this class!”

This is why I love to teach adults.**

 

*  Once upon a time I asked someone whether they would like to have a spectacular career and a mediocre home life or vice-versa?   They blew me away when they said they wouldn’t need to choose – they’d take both.   It was a lesson I took to heart.    Something is wrong when we expect that we need to make sacrifices of the things that are important for us, for no other reason than we think that it is a matter of one thing or another.     It’s all important.

**    That, and I get to have a personality… I’m too weird for corporate America.   But I’m memorable as a teacher.

Excuses du jour

In life, things happen.   There are things that disrupt the flow of our lives.   I’ve had a few of those the past few weeks (some bad, some amazingly good),  which I’m going to blame now for not posting last week.   (Remember:  good stress is still stress…)

This has been a good term, for the most part.   By the middle of most quarters, I usually have a few people who make me want to be an oyster, and just wrap those irritants up tight.   I find myself over halfway through this term and happy with both of my classes.   They work hard, and I’ve only been getting apologies from students who aren’t as far ahead as they want.    Earlier in the quarter, I asked them to do more work… and they listened.

I like my classes this term!

I don’t know if this is true for other instructors, or if this is just a pattern that occurs in my own classes.   Every term seems to have it’s preferred excuses for absences.  Two quarters ago, it was “Sorry, I had a family emergency” or “my kid/husband/wife got sick.”   After the fourth different person told me this, I took note.

Yep, we needed a headshot after she came back as a zombie.

Last quarter, it was “my mom/dad/grandparent has cancer, and I’ve had to help them with [treatment/life].”   I will note, that this only started happening after I revealed to one of my own students that my mother was undergoing treatment for cancer… and I suspect she told others, which generated the wave of sympathy seeking excuses.   Not particularly nice on behalf of those students if that is what they were doing, but that is also why I require doctor’s notes.

This quarter it is “car troubles, and I can’t make it in.”   This would bother me, if it weren’t my best students telling me this (my not so good students don’t show up, but they don’t bother making excuses either).

There are reasons why I keep the attendance policies that I do:   I give some allowances for life, after that, I want real documentation.    The stories that I get told I get told do move me, but I will also say that I stick with my policy.    You may be a good mom/dad/husband/wife/whatever, and that is good.  But I only judge you on how good a student you are… it isn’t anything personal.

So, I will understand if you decide to judge me for not posting last week.   My excuse is still:  stress.   (Good stress and bad stress)    If you want to judge me as a bad blogger… that’s fair.     Otherwise, I’m still a rockstar teacher.

Hungry Minds

Two questions have plagued me for my entire life.  How and why?

Before curiosity kills it, the cat learned more of the world than a hundred uninquisitive dogs.  ~Tom Robbins

There are two things that I always associate with intelligence:   perception and curiosity.   Awareness of the world is a trait that is undervalued, I think.   Beyond that, the desire to know more is what drives people to learn – not just because it means that they will be more skilled, have better job prospects, or whatnot.   Just the desire to know for the sake of knowing.

“I don’t know” isn’t an admission of weakness, it is a first step towards strength… if you choose to.   Curiosity drives exploration.   The thirst for knowledge will drive a person to find new answers.  And along the way, new questions.  Eventually, if you search long enough and hard enough you either find the answers you are looking for, or you can find out that there aren’t answers.  Yet.

 

Curiosity filled the cat

I like questions in my classes.   A class is supposed to be a safe place to learn… and I know that I’ve had a few challenging students who just wanted to know.   I remember those students far more than those who just wanted to get through to get their degree.

Curiosity isn’t just a first step, it is a bonfire, burning in the leather armchair of the soul.   It doesn’t let you get comfortable.    I know how to ask questions better now than I ever did… but eventually I come back to the basics:  How?   Why?   And I want my students to keep asking questions – I know that it is difficult to keep letting them at times.   Admittedly I also know that students in my developmental math classes may not go on to find the secrets of the universe, but I like to think I can help the overcome their fears about asking the questions they’ve wanted to ask.

I want them to keep asking: How?   Why?

And as for myself… I’ll keep searching for answers.

 

Smash Passive

I had a student come up to me last week, just as a test was about to start   I was nice enough not to laugh.

“Do I need to take the test?   I don’t know the material.”

“Okay.”

“Why can’t I be tested on the stuff I already learned?”

“Because this is a subject test.   This is the material we’ve been going over for the last few weeks.”

“I don’t know this stuff.”

“Okay.   How much time have you been putting in?”

“About 5 hours a week.”   (I recommend 8 to 16 hours for most students)

“So I think you should spend some more time working on the material.”

“Fine, I’ll take the test.”

 

One thing that constantly perplexes instructors at every level:   students who want to be passive receptacles for knowledge.   Some students don’t realize that they need to work/study/read/listen in order to know things.  I admit, it makes me sad.   Part of me wants to blame our culture which encourages passive entertainment, and a media which spoon feeds people sound bites to support opinions that they already have.     Or by people who reward minimal effort and actual achievement equally.   We protect people from the consequences of their actions.

How does that work again?But I’m a college professor, and soldier on.   I make my lectures entertaining.   I allow people who are willing to put in effort to keep trying.

Ultimately I come around to this:   students are responsible for their own learning.    I can give them the information and showcase the skills, they are the ones who actually need to apply it.

This brings me to one of the things I’m happy I can do as a college professor.   I fail people.    I think of this as the “other kind of educational experience.”

I have a personal philosophy:   There is no such thing as a right without a corresponding responsibility.      (I should also say, there are MANY responsibilities that don’t grant you special rights.)

Students have a right to be taught, but they have a responsibility to learn.

*sigh*   I can fix ignorance.   I can’t fix stupid.

 

Tipping Points

Things don’t always go as planned in a classroom.   It happens when students miss some key piece of understanding and end up falling farther and farther behind.   The atmosphere in the classroom can become tense:  the instructor tries to keep things on track, but the students who are behind feel bad that they aren’t up to speed and the students who are ahead end up resenting them because the instructors need to slow down.

So how can students get back to a happy medium?

I admit, I like to play games with the way people think.   I experiment with different ways of explaining, and different ways of getting people to behave differently.  I rely a great deal on my understanding (and remembering) emotional cycles when I was a student.

Procrastination, Shame and Blame

The beginning can be something innocent.   A late night, a bad lecture, or missing class for some reason.

Whatever the reason, the student finds themselves with a gap:  their work isn’t done and their understanding isn’t up to the task either.    To fill the gap, it will take an extraordinary effort, and being a little behind doesn’t seem that bad.

The gap in skills starts to affect other work.   The other students seem to get the material, but it doesn’t click for the student.   They feel bad, but it is hard to pinpoint where they lost control or how to get it back.    The instructor is ahead and new material doesn’t make sense.   People who try to help may come off as condescending, or frustrated with their slow progress.   The person blames themselves for the problem, or starts to feel like they aren’t “smart enough.”

As frustration mounts, the person tries to make sense out of the situation.    They rationalize that they must not be smart enough to get the concept, or that the instructor isn’t very good.  They start to feel powerless.  They will blame others for their failures, at the same time that they justify their own insecurities.

When someone feels resentful, hurt, ashamed, or angry, it is easy to put off work in lieu of other distractions.  Which reinforces the skill gaps, which reinforces the negative self-image/sense of inadequacy, which ultimately leads to a sense of futility.

To be clear:  it sucks to watch, it sucks to go through, and its hard to clean up after.   But it is a cycle that can be broken.

Breaking the Cycle

The good news is that people can be brought out of a spiral like this, but there is no easy fix.   The hardest thing to combat is the sense of powerlessness that can accompany falling behind.    As students, it is imperative to recognize that it will take sustained effort.   As instructors, we need to recognize that students don’t always have this self-knowledge.

So here is what I find works as a teacher:   (1) Prioritize skills, and cut lossesEnforce deadlines rather than pile on more work.     This basically comes down to identifying the key things that a student needs to work on rather than the complete past assignments.   Nobody likes to lose grades, but the boundaries helps students break out of looking backward and into looking forward.   (2) Praise and patience.  Acknowledging even the smallest of steps as progress is helpful, and helps relieve the sense of shame.   It also helps to acknowledge that struggle is part of the process, but making mistakes is not failure.    (3) Set out a plan with incremental steps.   The hardest part of breaking out of a procrastination cycle is the sense of being overwhelmed, so having simple (minimal) work is a good way of getting going.   Having a few things to do means that once one thing is done, then the next tier or goal can be reached.   Then the next goal will seem easier to reach.

Finally, momentum can carry the day.

…. and the horse you rode in on!

The funny thing about this is that this applies equally to teachers as it does to students.    Teachers get frustrated and will feel like they have lost touch with their class just as much as students may feel lost in the class.    It is easy for teachers to blame lazy students for not doing their work, but there is shared responsibility:  students need to be encouraged if they are going to get engaged.   It is okay to have a bad day teaching from time to time,  and sometimes you won’t be able to give it everything you want.   Focus on the successes, and it will be easier to be patient.

So:   keep up the good work.

Never give up.

I’ll have to put off procrastinating for another day.