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.

Fish and Porn

I was standing in line chatting with some people when the topic of fish came up.   “You know that they have made the category so broad that either everything can be called a fish, or nothing can.   They’ve stopped using it.”    The thinking was that they were trying to come up with things that unified the idea of ‘fishness’ in order to classify them, but the factors named were either so broad that nearly nothing was excluded or were so narrow that almost everything was.

Something very similar was said about the fuzzy definition of pornography:   I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.

While it sounded plausible at the time, I admit that it seemed a little … ahem… fishy after the fact.   When I went in search of citations, I found some lively debate by many amateurs.   Interestingly enough, there is some ongoing taxonomy debate regarding what can and can’t be regarded as a fish.

This is one of the reasons why I am careful when I use the words “always” and “never” with a student.   It makes their life harder when they have to change their perceptions again.   One of the things I do say frequently is that there are almost always exceptions, but they depend on the context of the situation.    “Hard rules” will change when the situation changes.   And there is almost always more than one way to look at a math problem.    Or aquatic life… or erotic photography for that matter.

Hmmm…. “I know it when I see it” can look like a pretty good definition.    But critical thinking isn’t just about thinking about categories and definitions, it is thinking about broader context.   At its core, critical thinking is thinking about your quality of thoughts.   Which means that you can NEVER settle on a hard definition.   It all depends on context.   Whether it be how to solve an algebra problem, or figure out how to deal with complex numbers, or even what counts as a fish.   Or what qualifies as porn.

Experts know when conventional definitions don’t work, they need to reexamine the questions.   Those are the questions that are interesting, and worth asking.

From Simpsons, Season 7 Episode 19 - "A fish called Selma"

Stay curious.   And don’t be afraid of asking questions about what qualifies as a fish.  Or porn.   Fish-porn is too weird for my taste, but I won’t judge you.


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?


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.

Engaging tough topics, teacher style

This is an article I wrote over a year ago and decided not to post because it wouldn’t have helped the conversation at the time.   I came across it and decided it was still relevant, sadly.   A lot of things have been said about sexism, but there is also a lot be said about communication.

Outrage is energizing, but it can also alienate potential allies.  At the time, the outrage touched a nerve and I felt compelled to speak.

Here is what I said…

I have been bombarded lately by things with news about the Isla Vista killings.   Article after article after article talking about misogyny, women’s rights, men’s rights, and everything.   I had decided earlier that I wasn’t going to write anything about it.   Not because I don’t have anything relevant to say, but because I’m a guy, and I don’t want to be the guy “speaking from a position of privilege” about “stuff I don’t know.”    The outrage has been palpable, as is evident in a lot of the articles I’ve read.    Something in me finally couldn’t take it anymore.

Let me be perfectly clear:    what happened was horrible, for the victims, for the families, and for the family of the shooter.   I am also a feminist with a resume of action and support.   I sincerely believe that women are still fighting for equality in this society (let alone in other cultures), and that the cultural values that we hand to both men and women are often unhealthy and untenable.   I am WITH women on this fight.

… and many of them are engaging in the discussion wrong.   Not everyone, but enough to put my teeth on edge.

What was being said was true.   And not helpful.   And often engaging in the same things that lead to lousy gender roles and misogyny, only in reverse.   I’ve been writing lately about critical thinking lately, so here is some of mine:

It isn’t men vs. women.   It is human.

Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual.    Everyone on the planet is trying to figure things out on their own.

Now being human has its own needs:   food, water, shelter,  sex and security.   Notice that I put sex in there?    We are mammals, and whether we like it or not there is a biological imperative to reproduce.   But we immediately follow that up with “security.”   Now, we have communities that have survived the test of time.  But they aren’t perfect…  parents try to give to their offspring a blueprint for roles in life.

Those roles kind of suck.   They are a work in progress.   Please, please, please,  let us keep working on them.

Any culture or institution that gets control of how we think of these things is immensely powerful.   Control how people eat?   Power.   Control peoples sense of security or fear?   Power.   Control or deny sexuality?   Power.

Many people couple thought with action.   To some people, thinking is as bad as doing.   That is the trap.

Men are not the enemy

Let me tell you a personal story.   I grew up with a single mom (and I also hit the mom jackpot…),  and I attribute my love of strong women to her and my family.    When I was growing up, my mom had a nice big circle of friends.   Some of her women friends would get together and talk, and on more than one occasion I heard the phrase “All men are scum.   Except for you, Colin.”   Not from my mother herself, but her friends.   People who were important to her and to me.   I understand the feeling that was behind the statement, I even understand the (attempted) amendment on my behalf.    It was still alienating and offputting to be lumped in with “scum”, and the backpedal felt just like a backpedal.   It took a long time for me to reconcile the hurt that they were obviously feeling with the undeniable fact that I was male.   It took a long time, but I came to like who I am and define for myself what being a man really means.     I recognize that they were pushing back against the horrible expectations that had been put upon them.

I believe that all people, female and male, have inherent worth.   I believe that “no means no”, that stop is an order, and that anyone who tries to make sexual demands on a woman simply because she is female is a sick and dangerous individual.   All women are to be respected.

But nobody every told me that it works both ways.  Ever.

Men are victims of the culture as well.    I never valued being a man.   We hear phrases all the time that supposedly have some meaning, but the context for these things have changed so radically, we need to re-define for ourselves what it means to be a man.    “Man-up”, “Man-handle” or even simply “be a man”.   How degrading is it to have these things pushed at us, without any regard for what are the expectations are for men.

What I have learned about being a man is this:  it is a good thing.   I love my body, its quirks, and the pleasure it gives me.   I value being physically strong, and I know that being physically strong doesn’t detract from my intelligence or sensitivity.   I learned that men can be beautiful and sexy, not just women.  I learned that being a man doesn’t mean having to automatically defer to women, just because she hasn’t spoken up yet.   I’ve learned that it is okay to be a sexual being, and that desiring someone isn’t sick or wrong.   I’ve learned that on dates I’m not simply a wallet with a funny personality attached.    Being hairy doesn’t make me stupid, or unattractive.   That I can receive just as well as give.   For me, being a man means that I enjoy being a warrior, a protector to my friends and family; and that being a protector doesn’t mean that I can’t nurture.
Having a penis does not relegate me to role of a wallet on legs,  to being sexually unappreciative of my partners,  that I don’t have be the provider, or that I’m supposed to stoically hide my feelings.    I get to define what my role is.    My partners get to define what their roles are.   THAT is the way it should be.
Let me be clear:   both genders have horrible roles and expectations, and women clearly have the short end of the stick.   Expectations around appearance, capabilities, and roles for women are still nowhere near equal to men.   The fact that these are improvements from previous roles are terrible, and a world of work needs to be done.
The thing that we need to remember is that whatever your gender, everyone has a story to tell.   And more people need to be on board if we want to make cultural changes stick.

Changing culture and making allies… mostly

Not everyone can be an ally.   When making cultural changes, it doesn’t pay to preach to the fringes.   The feminist side already knows the problems that need fixing, and the chauvinist side would rather return to the 1950’s without Rosie the Riveter.  The people who need to be moved are the center.   The people who are otherwise indifferent or put off by either side.

I’m a teacher at heart.   I believe that change starts with education.   And that the lessons that people learn are those that they teach themselves.

There are men who are so completely off the rails that they believe that they are entitled to sex with women, anytime and anywhere (that was Elliot Rodger’s and his cronies complaint).  Misogyny is a cultural problem, and many men have a false sense of being a victim.     You know what helps the fight?   Let chauvinists talk.   So many of them are self-important, entitled assholes… the best thing that you can do is to poke the bear and stand back.   Let them say what they have to say.  By they time they are done, they will have succeeded in proving that changes need to happen.

That is when reasonable voices can take the stage.   Outrage at this point just would serve to polarize, but the acknowledgement that those men have been speaking the same line of crap for years.  Women can stand up as leaders, as people who don’t deserve to be marginalized.   Men can stand up and ask to be supporters, and can change their own roles as well.   And finally those institutions, religions, and groups that try to use gender and sexuality as a means of social power will either change, or lose their popular approval and into the lunatic fringe where they belong.

Positive change can happen for everyone… but only if we stop vilifying each other and can listen and work together.   Both sides can win only when we can agree to meet in the middle, and keep the discussion alive.


Postscript:    In retrospect, I can see why the very polarized discussion can be helpful.   Anger is a useful  emotion, it is an impetus for change and can be very unifying.    But ultimately, setting aside baggage needs to happen before anyone can change.

I’ll step down off my soap box now, and return us to our regularly scheduled Summertime fun.

Now go out there and change the world.   Or change your mind about something.  Same difference.

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.

Pushing Points

I’m going to share with you a dirty little secret.*    I haven’t always been a teacher.   Once upon a time, I was a professional Tarot reader and Palmist.** ***   Aside from the technical aspects of the job (like knowing how to read Tarot cards well without freaking out your customer) was being able to read your customer.    Getting a feeling for how well the reading was going was a good indication.

That skill is invaluable as a teacher.   I think any performer can tell you when their audience is entertained, bored, or lost.   The same thing should apply to teachers, but anyone with experience as a student knows that this isn’t always the case.   This is one of the reasons that I say at least half of teaching is entertainment.   Once you know what to say, knowing how to say it in a way that it gets across is important.

There is another aspect of keeping a class engaged though, and that is keeping them challenged.   There is a balancing act in every class between keeping the material relevant to students who are struggling with the material as well as keeping the interest of those who are already past it.    If you can’t keep them interested, then no amount of entertainment can keep them studying.

  • Once you have given your general instructions, then you can give more and more difficult examples to show the utility.
  • You can preview future material for those who are already ahead (note:  definitely revisit the material later, because not everyone will be capable of keeping up).
  • Keep it real!     A lot of students get bored in a math class if there isn’t an obvious application.   If you can give them examples of how the math they learn can be used in the world, they will retain the information more and be more interested in other topics.
  • In order to be interesting, you need to be obviously interested.   If you can find the topics that energize the students, talk to those topics.   I find lecturing on zombies is a lot of fun, but I’ve talked on everything from lasers to video games will often keep the student’s attention.
  • One-on-one time.    For students who seem to be getting ahead, I like to ask them if they’re getting bored.   I have a file full of exercises I call “next level,” for students who are ready to work on more challenging topics.

Every class is different, and each class will have it’s own personality.    I have very obedient students this quarter****,  and they have worked faster than I had anticipated.   I’ve had to advance their lecture schedule, and advance it again….  But every class is different.   Keeping them in balance is one of the main challenges we teachers face.

It is important to know when to push them.

I love my job.


*   Get your mind out of the gutter.   This isn’t that kind of blog!

**   I quit doing that a long time ago.   Part of the reason is that I became an atheist.    And the tips kind of sucked.

***   Any student who asks me for a reading will immediately fail.   So don’t even try.

**** It is so weird!   And kind of cool too — they listen for the most part, and they do their work.

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.


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.