Who Are Your Gurus?

This week has been an exercise in detachment.

I’ve been grading very long and sometimes very difficult final papers, and in a moment of hair-tearing frustration, wrote the post 10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment. When it went up here and, especially, on my Open Salon blog, there was an outpouring of hilarity, with a spattering of negative comments (“Huh? Who cares if a paper is double-spaced?”).

It all died down within a couple of days, but then, when I included the post in this week’s Carnival of Education, it went viral on StumbleUpon. It received almost 4,000 hits – twice as many as my whole blog has ever received in one day – and comments began pouring in. Many of them weren’t nice. In fact, some of them were truly vitriolic, mostly from students (presumably) who had taken the “you” in the title personally, and decided to respond in kind.

It was a bit of a shock. This blog has always felt like a safe and protected space – the comments have been overwhelmingly positive. My OpenSalon blog has been more lively, and sometimes contentious, but the commenters have almost always been respectful and articulate.

This was my first experience with trolls. It was rattling, but I was prepared – I’d read about trolls, and read trolls on other people’s blogs, and my minimal experience with them on OpenSalon meant that I knew that the best way to deal with them was to ignore them.

Now, not all the negative comments came from trolls, although it might have at first appeared so. One of the early, incensed responses is from Xannax. It’s pretty over-the-top. But some other commenters take her, gently and not-so-gently, to task, and Xannax responds by writing,

“I have to confess I ranted without really thinking there was room for constructive criticism, so let me apologize for the tone and explain what I meant.”

What follows is a discussion in which Xannax blows my mind. She carefully reads and responds to other people’s comments. She asks questions in order to understand their positions (and, by extension, mine, although I just sat back and watched it all happen.) And, in the end, she writes,

“Ok. I am convinced… I guess I was a bit arrogant trying to tell you how to teach without having any kind of field experience. I will keep what you said in mind when I’ll confront my first students…Thanks”

Yes, Xannax is going to be a teacher. And if this exchange is any indication, she is going to be a fine one. If she can model this kind of communication – modifying our first, impulsive reactions by listening respectfully and with curiosity – for her students, then they are going to learn a LOT just by watching her.

I, in the meantime, learned a lot by watching myself. A few years ago, the enraged, hate-filled responses to this post would have crushed me. I would have lost my will to blog, perhaps permanently. I feel much more even-keeled about it all now, much like I feel more even-keeled in the classroom.

When RateMyTeacher first appeared online, and I read my first negative comment (which was much less diplomatic than anything I’d ever read on a course evaluation), it really messed me up. Now, years later, I still read comments on RateMyTeacher – mine and others’ – and I don’t like getting critical ones, but I think about them, especially if they hit close to home. Sometimes they lead to important discoveries.

For example, years ago, there was a comment about how I was “very intelligent” but “not very pleasant.” That one really got to me. It stayed on my mind for weeks. And it was one of my first clues that maybe I was getting burnt out, and it set in motion a whole series of steps in which I tried to deal with that.

In Buddhism, the people who trigger negative emotions for us – like difficult peers, belligerent students, or blog trolls – are often called “enemies”, but they are also referred to as “gurus.” We can learn from the people who cause us pain, if we are able to detach, and examine our emotions instead of acting them out and escalating the situation.

I think Xannax’s exchange with other commenters was an example of this. It’s also the way I try to deal with my anger, frustration and hurt feelings in the classroom: thinking of my most irritating students as “gurus” has brought me peace during some very difficult times.

As a teacher (if you are one), what have you learned from the students who have caused you the most trouble? What about as a blogger (if you are one) or in your life in general – have your enemies been your gurus?

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18 responses

  1. “blows my mind” might be a bit too much, but I can’t deny I appreciate the compliment. :)
    About your post:
    Confrontation always teaches you something. I consider there is always some glimpse of truth in anything said, even under stress and even if it is said only to hurt. And if there is really nothing true in what is said to you, you can always learn something by watching your own reactions (or maybe analyzing them later).
    But that is when it comes from loved ones.
    People you do not know might also have a really good insight on your personality; they can at least tell you what is the first impression that you give. That is why I admire so much the commenting system on the internet, specially when it allows for anonymous commenting. People are free to say whatever they think with no consequences, and may the comments be stupid or smart, serious or light, I personally find them all really interesting, if only for the social experience.
    But I frankly cannot say I really learned something from my real “enemies”. My real enemies try to hurt me. They are not interested in helping me, even in a hard way, to discover something about myself. And if you are saying you learn something from your enemies as in “you watch your reactions and learn about yourself”, then fine, but the information you are able to get this way doesn’t match up with what you discover in contact with loved ones. It’s comparable to what you learn about yourself in any stressful situation (lack of money, dangerous sickness, etc).
    As far as I am concerned, Buddhism philosophy looks really nice on paper but I was really rarely able to apply it in my daily life.
    The example you give is of the ‘people-you-don’t-know’ type, not of the ‘enemies’ type. So you yet have to give a really relevant example, or redefine ‘enemy’.
    Sorry for being harsh after you have been so nice to me!

  2. Xannax:
    The point is not whether a person knows me or not, or whether that person is trying to hurt me or not. It doesn’t matter whether the person is interested in helping me or not. The other person is not the point at all – I and my emotions are. If I can be honest and open with myself about how an “enemy” (which, in Buddhist terminology, means “a person, any person – or even a situation – who is making me feel bad in the present moment”) makes me feel, I can begin to learn about my own mind and the way it reacts in negative situations, including lack of money and dangerous illness. That is what Buddhism tries to teach. It’s not really something that can be understood on paper; it’s something one has to practice and experience.

  3. I often have my students do writing exercises during the last few weeks of school, and on the last day, I give them the prompt, “What do you really think about Mister Teacher?” I tell them I won’t even read it until they go home, and they are free to be honest and open about everything they like and dislike.

    A few years ago, I was reading one from a little girl that, while a bit lazy, was a girl that I enjoyed in class. She talked about how boring math was and how she wished she could be in the other class, and she ended with “I hate math and Mister Teacher.”

    That really stung! But you just have to realize that you can’t please everyone all of the time.

    Last year, I had a girl in class that bugged the CRAP out of me. I would have helped her pack up and move out of state in a heartbeat if someone asked. She went out of her way to annoy everyone, and I was constantly getting on her case. Later, another teacher told me that this girl always said that I was her favorite teacher and she loved being in my class.

    What a world of weirdos we deal with…

  4. Mister Teacher:
    Isn’t it crazy? I think as young teachers…well, maybe I should speak for myself…when I was a young teacher, I was very invested in all my students liking me. It is only quite recently that I have realized that if I care less about how much they like me, and more about what they learn, I am a better teacher.

    Seemingly paradoxically, the less I care about them liking me, the more they seem to. The meaner I think I’m being, the more they respect me and the safer they feel (the truth being, of course, that when I think I’m being “mean,” I’m really just being “firm.”)

    We all want to have our egos flattered, but as my mentors keep telling me, we don’t learn much from constant approval. My difficult, disapproving students have taught me the most about myself as a teacher.

  5. When I was a newspaper columnist, I got a letter from a man who hated, loathed and detested my most recent column. I realized I was going to meet him that night at a dinner we held annually to honor people who’d written exceptional letters to the editor. When I introduced myself, he immediately apologized for that day’s letter. He said he’d been so angry at my first sentence that he’d written and mailed his letter before reading the rest of my column. On reflection, he’d decided that I had a point.

    We became friends or, at least, friendly acquaintances.

    As a columnist, I had to accept the fact that not everybody was going to like me or my work. I tried to evaluate criticism, decide whether the critic had a point and ignore the idiots, anti-Semites and loons. I remember the writer who thought there was a conspiracy involving the Lesbian Women Voters, Japanese motorcycle companies and, of course, the Jews. On the other hand, I got a number of marriage proposals from convicts.

  6. Joanne:

    I think people who have worked in print media (and, currently, in mainstream online media) have to develop pretty thick skins. I’m always amazed when I read the comments sections of national online newspapers – I can’t read them too often, because, as a friend recently put it, “It makes me feel really bad about the human race.”

    I know you’ve participated in OpenSalon as well, so you’ll be familiar with the nastiness that sometimes goes on there.

    I find it shocking that people who would probably never launch a personal attack to anyone’s face feel free to do so in the comments section of a blog or in a letter to a columnist. This is what some of the commenters on the “10 reasons” post seemed to think I was doing – personally attacking them – without considering the fact that I was of course not personally targeting anyone, much less some anonymous reader halfway around the world. Writing a humorous piece about grading frustration, or writing a reasoned, polite criticism of someone’s humorous piece, are entirely different enterprises from firing off a vitriolic letter or comment.

    That said, the fact that someone gets so very angry about something one has written can be eye-opening, and can make one consider whether one’s goal was to press those buttons. Sometimes, it was. Other times, one simply needs to stand firm against the other’s irrationality. And maybe sometimes we have to admit that we weren’t considering all the angles.

    Thanks for your comment! I’m a fan of your blog.

  7. Very good point, Keith. And I always feel that if people get mad, it’s because something I’ve said is important.

  8. One of my gurus was a parent who wanted to discuss my book report requirements for freshmen. As we moved through the painful conversation, I realized that he had a point. I changed it. It sounds that simple, but the meeting was excruciating at the time (I was a young teacher then). I felt small and inadequate at the time (that was all from me), but managed to turn it around and grow from it.

    When I have students that disappoint me, or anger me, I tell myself that they are there to teach me something. I don’t know what it is, and even if I do, I might not like it. But I’m still here on this earth to learn about living. I try to open myself up and listen — and in this job it seems particularly difficult, as I often feel attacked from every side and on my guard to defend what I do and the way I do it (I’m less controversial than that sounds, and less controversial than I’d like to be!).

    This year my gurus are the girl who couldn’t stop grade grubbing (she needed more positive feedback on what she did right), three colleagues whose teaching styles and/or professionalism get under my skin (still working on that), and a principal who’s a pathological liar. So, SO many lessons!

  9. OKP:
    The lessons are never-ending. And I agree: staying open seems to go against human instinct, but if we can manage it, it not only helps us learn, but also it helps us de-fuse the volatile situation. I can’t count the number of times a student or colleague seemed to be looking for a fight and they were disarmed by my attempts to be cool and rational, yet understanding and even accommodating. It’s not always possible – we’re human – but it helps everyone.

  10. Pingback: Carnival of Education at Joanne Jacobs

  11. Yes, it DOES seem like many commenters were bitter from some isolated incidents with past teachers.

    If it makes you feel better, though–I also found your blog through StumbleUpon, and I love it!

    It is unfortunate for something enjoyable of yours to be surrounded with negative energy. However, truly great works receive positive and negative feedback. Sounds like success to me!

    One of my favorite quotes I associate with my journalism days (as the editor of my school’s newspaper): “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

    Which I guess is a true theme when it comes to the printed press! Sensational feature writing that pulls at your heart strings. Slander and gossip from critics, on those established and with power.

    Yes, some readers responded poorly, but you also invited us to look inside the mind of a teacher. I’m also sure any lover of the English language applauds you.

    Darn good writing, I say!

    -a 21-year-old college student

  12. Mary:
    “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable;” what a great quote!

    And I agree that if people get upset, it can be a sign that you’ve touched on something important. What’s more, it’s worth getting a negative reaction if it also brings in more readers like you.

    Thanks so much for this comment. I hope you have fun browsing around here!

  13. Read the awful comments on your top 10 and was glad to see you followed up here. I’ve never visited your blog and don’t understand why you got such negative responses. I can’t grasp it at all. Perhaps people do honestly feel more passionate about their 1.5 spacing than I would have thought. But, I mean, I have a really, really bad mouth on me, and yet, I was offended by people repeatedly calling you a b****. What the hell? For a comical rant about people who habitually ignore instructions? The rant was all the more funny because of all the times I’ve done exactly what you list and rant about.

    I’m sorry for how mean everyone was and glad that you aren’t letting it crush you.

  14. Cashew:
    Thanks for your support! I think people reacted that way because they took it so personally. Maybe at some point a teacher was mean to them because they didn’t do what they were told…maybe it happened over and over…and my post gave them a safe, anonymous place to rant about it.

    And of course, people often speak in ways on the internet that they never would to a person’s face, as though the blogger they’re addressing isn’t a real person at all. This is a phenomenon I don’t understand – it seems really cowardly to me – but I see how it can happen.

    Thanks for coming by!

  15. The tone of this one is much better, I believe the reason you got so many negative comments on the 10 reasons blog was the tone of the rant. This one is much more calming and now I can see where you were coming from. I myself was a teacher for four years and the one thing that my students taught me was patience; Rome wasn’t built in a day and lets face it most students in this day and age are kinda dumb, however that’s why we are here. glhf oh and to Cherenkov from the last one

  16. Pingback: Top 10 Posts of 2009 « classroom as microcosm

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