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)

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.

Snark Week

Some weeks I should get an award for self restraint.    If I can keep this up through the next election cycle, I will call it as one of my miracles on my path to sainthood.

…but I so long to sink my fangs into someone or something stupid from time to time.

One of the things that was going well last quarter was I had very few people making excuses.   Somehow, I seem to be making up for lost time this summer.   I didn’t mean my “Student Excuse Bingo” to be predictive.  What the actual fuck?  I shouldn’t score a bingo until at least two weeks go by.

I can deal with student excuses.  That is one reason why I have a syllabus… “Sorry you forgot there was a class, did you check the website to see what was due?   No?   Then I’m afraid you are out of luck.”  I suppose it make sense that I’m feeling put upon this quarter, since last quarter was so exceptionally good.   Honestly, I’ve got good students this quarter… there is just more drama somehow.  One of the few reasons I like teaching is that there people are trying to make themselves smarter and more capable.

What I have been having more trouble with is people outside of school.

People at bus stops.  People on the buses.  People in the store.   People, people, everywhere!  Seriously, who the hell brings a yapping dog on a standing room only bus?   Why is it so hard to drive down the road without texting and running other drivers off the road?   Is it really necessary to block an entire aisle at the store while you browse types of soup?    Or do you expect me to listen to you while you scream at everyone why you think Obama is responsible for SCOTUS (do you understand there are different branches of government)?

*grumble*mumble*Grump!*stupid*

Evil geniuses, it is time to unite and take over the world!  Join the ranks of my minions for adventure and benefits!  Loose the battle drones!  Set up the education camps.  (I say education, because frankly we are just undoing the damage of apathy and inane media misinformation).  Let the smarter ones live.  If nothing else, a culling the population will make traffic easier.

Okay, deep breath.  I haven’t hurt anyone, despite my general attitude of stabbiness.  I don’t even push the big, shiny, personal buttons that people show me.

 

Don’t think you’re safe yet, though.   Stupidity just makes my fangs itch.

Excuse Bingo!

Lets play a game.

Say a student doesn’t show up for class, and you get the email later saying they had a family emergency.   The next class, a student tells you they weren’t able to show up because their childcare cancelled and they weren’t able to get a replacement in time for class.   In your other class, you have a student out for the national guard, and another who is getting surgery.

Congratulations!   You are scoring pieces for Student Excuse Bingo!!!   Scoring a “bingo” means getting an entire line (vertical, horizontal, or diagonal) after receiving those excuses for that term.   Excuses may be either sincere or fake, so long as they are covering for an actual absence or late assignment.   The “Lame Excuses” square can include anything that is almost too bizarre to be real, from “my dog ate my homework,”  “it caught on fire,” or “I got bitten by a radioactive spider”.

I will also say, I have collected some of the more interesting excuses already, but send me more!  Send your excuses to:   excuses@evilleagueofteachers.com.

So lets play.     Download the following PDFs for you and your colleagues.

Student Excuse Bingo 1

Student Excuse Bingo 2

Student Excuse Bingo 3

 Let the games begin.

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.

 

Mental in the Classroom

One of the reasons I love teaching in a community college is that my students want to be there.   The biggest hurdle I think any instructor can face is the indifference of a student.  In order to learn, a person has to want to learn.   Otherwise, there isn’t the motivation to put in the time and effort that is necessary to learn and grow.   People often bring their own obstacles to learning, both inside and outside of the class.   Scheduling, family and work obligations make up a good part of these obstacles, but the subtle problems of mental illness can be more challenging because they are obstacles we can’t directly see.

Accepting mental illness

The first hurdle with dealing with mental illness is bringing it out into the open.   It’s common for a person (not just students) to think that they are stupid, lazy, or incapable of focus when they have a mental illness.  One of the things that I like to emphasize is that brain and body are all one piece, they cannot exist without the other.

Aristotle should have been drowned after proposing mind-body duality.   You aren’t the ghost in the machine, you are the machine.   Get over it.

It makes no sense to tell a person with a broken foot that they “just need to try harder to run” or to call a diabetic lazy for not producing enough insulin.   The brain is a complex organ, and it can malfunction as well.  Our brain creates our sense of self,  so when there is a problem blame can get misplaced on the ‘mind’ rather than on a misfiring brain.   Too often mental illness is a disease that tries to tell you it isn’t a disease.   It is victim blaming at it’s worst, and misunderstanding outsiders will often reenforce that misconception with their own myopic judgements.

To these students:   stop shoulding all over yourself.   It’s messy to experience, and it is awkward to watch.   You can get help.  And to those others who think it is all a matter of willpower, or that they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I would kindly invite you to piss up a rope.   Be supportive, or get out of the way.

Getting help

I know a lot of folks tend to think of treating mental illness as just taking medications.  Taking medications can feel foreign, like an admission of weakness, or a crutch.   Pharmaceuticals may be a step, but they are only part of a treatment.   Counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists use combinations of mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy and a host of other things to help a person overcome or work with their mental illness.

Medication may be part of ongoing treatment.   Just like a diabetic can’t produce enough insulin, there are times when you can’t produce enough (or produce too much) neurotransmitters or other hormones.   No shame is attached.

real courage

Teaching Needs

Again and again, patience isn’t just a virtue it is a necessity.  Remember that people under stress may act out in different ways.

Many students don’t know what they need in order to learn.   Standard scaffolding and reinforcement may not be enough to help students with special needs, but they also won’t hurt either.   Different students will have different needs… it seems self evident, but I find (some) teachers will keep pushing one tactic without exploring others.   Not all of students in a classroom have the same strengths.

ADD or ADHD and other executive function disorders:  often the instruction of “sit still and listen” is untenable.   One or the other is often the choice for these students.   Having something physical to do is often what is necessary to let them cope in class – this can be anything from chewing gum to tapping their fingers (quietly) against their leg.   Having a class notetaker is also very helpful, because these students especially will have difficulty following a lecture and taking meaningful notes.   If you have a quiet environment for testing, that can be helpful for these students.

Anxiety & Depression:  Combinations of stress, low-self esteem and guilt often send these students into a spiral.  So as much as possible, take the pressure off!   If you can soften deadlines it can remove some time pressure.   Praise is essential for these students.    I like to give them some easy exercises to begin with, to help them get started.   A little bit of forward momentum will really help these students.  Getting students to build their confidence (and over prepare) outside of class can also help during exams.

Dyslexia/Dyscalculia:   Dyslexia is often misunderstood as well as being misdiagnosed.   The classic notion of reversing letters or words isn’t accurate, it simply takes a longer time to process and parse information (and frequently bad behaviors of second guessing themselves is also reenforced).   Trying to take notes and understand what is going on can be incredibly difficult for these students.   If you can, arrange for a note taker, or allow the student to record lectures.     An additional trick is to limit the focus of the student:  too much input can get overwhelming, so while working an expression or equation I will block out all but the current step with a piece of paper.    Finally, where reading and symbolic manipulation may be difficult for students with dyslexia, you may find that they have good kinesthetic or verbal skills so you can show them how to “walk” and “talk” their way through a problem.

Often we see students get frustrated with repeating the same techniques over and over again.   If you have time, talk to them and get them to try different styles of problem solving.   Getting these students to work with their strengths is a win for them, and for the classroom.   It diversifies the problem solving methods that all of your students can use.

Attitude check…

There is a world of difference between the students who need help because of a mental illness and those who are failing because they don’t want to put in the work.   If a student complains that they aren’t getting the material, the first thing I ask is how much time they are putting in per week.   If the student is putting in 15-20 hours per week, then there may be a problem, and the student can get what they need.  Then there are the students who tell me “Oh, I dunno.  I spend an hour or two.”   Then they may complain that they have a learning disability.   ADD, depression and dyslexia can be overcome, but self-indulgent laziness are much harder to  deal with.    My ability to give a fuck is reserved for students who give a fuck about learning.

*grumblemumblelazyentitledgrumble*

So to all of my students:  the ultimate responsibility for learning rests with you.   I will work with you, but you have to be willing to work.

Mental illness is very real, but don’t let that stop you.

Rage is better than coffee

Teaching is one of those professions that will take as much time as you can give it.    Unless you are perfect about managing your time, it is near impossible for teaching not to intrude into other parts of your life…   and the rest of your life will demand attention too.    Grading, making new lessons, answering emails, then scheduling time with family and friends.  *

Sleep isn’t always the top priority, which makes coffee is an important part of my day.   Certain types of problems require coffee to solve.   The real thing that will wake you up though?  Rage.

I made the mistake of typing “feminism” into the search bar of YouTube.  Half of the links were criticizing, lambasting, or parodying feminism.  They ranged from stupid rants laced with contempt and sexism, to slick productions with misleading statistics.   A few of the others (from the feminist perspective) also included some good arguments, but there were catharsis seekers there as well.    If you want rage, try it yourself.   Type in your favorite topic:  vaccines and autism, teaching evolution in schools,  women’s rights… there will be someone there saying horrible things.

Outrage will wake you up.  **

There are other things that will wake you up as well.   Teachers, you know those students who should be classified as an allergen because everything they do is an irritant?   What happens when one of these students makes a statement like “I could teach this class.”

Thinking isn't your strong suit.Set aside the fact that the student may barely pass.   Set aside the classroom disruptions they cause.   What goes through my head: You think you could teach this class?   Let me tell you about what teachers do:   we are subject matter experts.  That means that we know multiple ways to do most types of questions that you know one way to do.   Can you, on the fly, come up with example questions that work, that are progressively more challenging, and lead 30+ people with different backgrounds and understanding to learn?   Can you set aside personal crises, family and personal illnesses, and other worries, in order to teach effectively?   Do you think that you can work a 10 hour day before trying to energize a group of people? Are you capable of disciplining someone your own age or older?  How about remembering 75 student names, what their specific challenges are, and have a sense of what they collectively and individually need to succeed in class (and in the next class)?  Who has child care and work issues that impact their attendance?  Who needs individual attention?  Can you maintain a balance of a fun and functional class while not being overly disciplinary?  How are you cat herding skills?  Do you want to be on call on your days off to answer student questions?  Do you want to work a second part time job to survive while you do this?  Do you have the fucking credentials to teach a discipline like math?

If you can, do, because there aren’t enough of us.   If you can’t, then shut the fuck up about what you think you know.

Grumble grumble entitled ignorant grumble  grumble…  ***

 

* The people I love get the majority of my free time.   I don’t mind this, but it does mean that I rarely get time alone.

** You may also despair for humanity.  The thing that gets me is that people don’t WANT to hear the other side.   If more folks worked on having a dialogue instead of creating a chasm between the two points of view I think we would have a much nicer world.   Not a perfect world, but certainly a nicer one.

*** By the time I have posted this, Spring Break will be here, and I will be much more relaxed.