Lia is Outraged

Despite the relief that classes are now over, I don’t really like this time of the semester.  As I plow through the stacks of final assignments in a kind of death march, slowly posting the grades up online, students begin to panic and sides of their personalities emerge that I haven’t seen before.  Consider the following exchange yesterday with a student who, until now, has given me no trouble whatsoever:

[Email from me to several students:]

If you are receiving this message, it is because you submitted an essay rewrite to me without the original essay and feedback sheet attached.  As is clearly indicated in the assignment guidelines, rewrites submitted without an original will not be graded.

As it happens, I need to go to my office on Friday.  If I haven’t submitted the final grades for your class by then, and if your original essay and feedback sheet are in my office at that time (put them under my door), I will then look over your rewrite.  As you know, the rewrite was an optional assignment; because of the late submission, I will not do a thorough re-grade, but will give you a small rewrite bonus if you have done a good job.

[Reply from Lia, student in my post-intro class.  The reply is reproduced in its entirety:]

A small rewrite BONUS?!? I did a rewrite to improve my grade, there was no place left under your office door anyway, so my paper would have been stiking out and probably stolen!! Unfair that’s all i have to say. And to add, I think my oral last week was the best i’ve ever done in my life. I wasn’t reading my note sheet because i knew my material and many people told me I did a good job. I’ll bring the original tomorrow, maybe you should hang something on the door for people to put their papers inside.

[My reply:]

Lia:

I am surprised by the tone of your email.  If you were not happy with your oral grade, you were perfectly within your rights to contact me and make an appointment to discuss it, so I could explain the criteria to you.  (You could even have come back to see me on the day I gave you the grade.)  If there was no room under my door for your original, there were several solutions: you could have brought it to the print shop and asked them to put it in my mailbox, or you could have sent me an email saying that you were concerned about leaving your paper and asking what you should do.

It also sounds like you have not understood what a “small rewrite bonus” means – it means that your grade will probably improve, although perhaps not as much as it would have if I had received your original in a timely manner.

In the future, if you have issues with a grade you have been given or any other actions on the part of your teachers, I would suggest that you contact them and ask for an opportunity to discuss the matter.  An angry and accusatory message is not usually the best solution to any problem.  If you wish to discuss these matters further, please make arrangements to do so in person; you are welcome to make an appointment to see me on Friday.

You are also welcome to bring your original to the print shop instead of putting it under my door if that makes you feel safer.

[Lia’s reply:]

Miss Curious, I am far from being angry, I just sens that you are not grading me right and I live far from school and there is nothing much to say becuase I read the criteria on the paper and still don’t think it’s right but if that’s the grade you honestly think I deserve then I am disapointed in myself! I have nothing  to add, that is why I don’t need an appointment. And the paper, I didn’t think of the printshop because the print shop is not your office. all I know is I was asked to bring my documents to your office and that it didn’t fit. Now this is what I’m complaining about the fact that I will not get the complete grade I was supposed to get for the rewrite. why? Just because i did my work in time but only kept my original because I thought it wouldn’t be safe to leave it on the floor stiking out. I don’t see why people who did their work would be penelized. Anyways i don’t think you see what I’m saying but happy holidays, enjoy the winter break.  Lia M.

[My reply:]

Have a good holiday, Lia.  Please put your original under my door or in my mailbox tomorrow or any time before Friday.

Because I’ve instructed her to discuss this with me in person, I have not replied to her question of “Why?”  I’ve learned the hard way that perpetuating these email exchanges is a bad idea.  What’s more, the answer is obvious: she was given very clear instructions, and the fact that I’m grading her paper at all is a compromise.

Nevertheless, an outburst from a student always makes me question my actions and my motivations.  Is she right?  Is a penalty justified, even if it’s not really a penalty at all?  (Because this rewrite is optional, the only possible effect it can have on her grade is a boost; this is part of the reason the criteria are so strict, because otherwise they’ll keep trickling in for weeks.)  Am I enforcing this deadline to be fair to everyone, or to teach them something important that has nothing to do with English literature?  Or am I just trying to punish them for inconveniencing me?

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to follow an “online retreat” at Tricycle Magazine on the topic of kindness.  The retreat is hosted by Sharon Salzberg, a famous name in the world of “Insight Meditation.”  One question I’ve been meaning to post in the Q & A, although I haven’t yet managed to do it, is about situations like these.

If I aspire to be kind, if I form that intention and try to carry it out, then what do I do for a student like Lia?  Is it kind to let her give vent to her anger?  To engage in an exchange over email in which I try to explain my actions in a way she will understand?  Or is it kind to be firm, and to set clear boundaries and stick to them?  Could I have changed something in my tone in my first message that would have made it kinder, not only to her, but to the other students who received it?  Or should I just accept her late original and grade her and the others who forgot it in the same way I grade the students who handed everything in on time?

I know that a big part of growth is simply asking oneself these questions, but I worry about myself sometimes.  Sometimes I just want to punish people, and I have to try to separate that impulse from the truth of the situation in order to decide on the best course of action.  Here, I’m not sure.

In the end, I feel sad.  Someone’s going out into the world with sour feelings about me.  I often tell myself that being liked is not my job, but part of me still doesn’t believe it.  And that’s why I don’t like this time of year.  No matter how well things have gone, there’s always a little pill to swallow that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Image by Zsuzsanna Kilian

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18 responses

  1. I can so relate to this… Had exact same issues when I taught at a Korean university last year. End of term and grade announcement were horrible times that brought out the very worst in a few of my students.

    Hang in there!

  2. Thanks Jason. My college doesn’t have a stellar academic reputation, so grade-grubbing is rare compared to some other places, but it does happen. I try to be VERY clear about evaluation criteria to minimize the problem, but there are always incidents. Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. You’ve written a post that anyone who is a professor can relate to!

    You write, “an outburst from a student always makes me question my actions and my motivations.” I agree with you here (and I’d bet others do too even though they may not admit it). Although I shouldn’t, I also sometimes read such confrontations as a challenge to my teaching style, knowledge of the material, and/or handling of the classroom, assignments, etc. But usually (not always, but usually), this reaction is completely unwarranted. After all, the student is generally looking for someone to blame for whatever s/he has misunderstood, failed to complete, etc. Moreover, I have to remind myself that such confrontations would likely NEVER occur face to face; email is so much easier and more immediate. You’re right to ask the student to discuss her complaints with you in person; nine times out of ten, that will alleviate the problem altogether because the student probably will not show. =)

    Also, don’t forget about all of those students who are “going out into the world WITHOUT sour feelings about you.” They’re the ones who count in the end, right?!

    • Thanks so much, Kelli! Yes, I try to keep in mind all those terrific students who have worked hard and who come away from the course with good memories. (I’m marking their blogs right now, and a lot of them wrote their last post on how much they enjoyed the course – this may be ass-kissing, but it’s gratifying!) And I agree that, although it’s important to “question our actions and motivations,” that very process will often lead us to do the right thing. Thanks for your comment – it’s always reassuring to know that others understand what I’m going through.

  4. You are a conscious, hardworking, good teacher. The very fact that you think about these things so much, keep this blog and ask your self these hard questions all the time means you try hard to do the right thing. You are not perfect, nobody is, but you can be sure that you are doing your very best, you care and you practice kindness. You also do not shy away from challenging students who need it. That is not easy, but it is kind. Your students are lucky, even if some of them don’t know it.

  5. Don’t beat yourself up my dear…you did everything right and please don’t ever question that. It’s good to question oneself when receiving such emails from students but the bottom line is that she was wrong, plain and simple.

    Here’s what I think about specific sections:

    1. You wrote: If you were not happy with your oral grade, you were perfectly within your rights to contact me and make an appointment to discuss it, so I could explain the criteria to you. (You could even have come back to see me on the day I gave you the grade.)
    Excellent answer. Nothing else to add, IF Lia doesn’t like your justification, which in my opinion was a definite act of kindness as your tone was fine, too bad for her. You are not punishing her for her actions, you are suggesting the logical thing.

    2. You wrote: Because I’ve instructed her to discuss this with me in person, I have not replied to her question of “Why?”
    Again, you did the right thing. Enough said.

    3. You wrote: Am I enforcing this deadline to be fair to everyone, or to teach them something important that has nothing to do with English literature? You are being fair and hopefully by standing your ground one day, and God only knows when, she’ll accept that this is a life lesson to learn…unfortunately some people, mainly narcissists, will never learn it. But that’s her problem, not yours.

    4. You wrote: In the end, I feel sad. Someone’s going out into the world with sour feelings about me. I often tell myself that being liked is not my job, but part of me still doesn’t believe it.
    She may not like you now, or maybe she never did, you just weren’t put in a situation to know it. Her manipulative tone and ‘feeling owed’ is, as you said, not the way to go to get any sympathy. Teachers do, even when we don’t always intend to, provide students with opportunities to learn something about life, not just about school. And that’s excellent. So kudos to you!

    You are a dedicated, kind and competent teacher and trying your best to do the best job. No one can, or should ask for any more than that, not even YOU. Giving special treatment to 1 student only opens a can of worms – if others find out, believe me, they will call you on it and the fallout will be much worse than Lia’s spoiled comments.

    I hope I’ve given you another perspective – you are surely tired, more sensitive, and students consciously (or consciously) feel that. Lia is probably tired too. Hence her uncalled for reaction.

    Keep the faith dear! And please, don’t change a thing. Don’t be manipulated into doing something unkind and unfair!

    Generation X

    • Gen X: Thank you so much for this detailed and thoughtful reply! I’m pretty sure you’re right that this was the best response to the situation, but I think it’s important to keep asking myself these questions…

  6. Everyone is saying it well, and better than I. Great post. I hope Lia comes in for the answer to why, and in kindness, you hold to the boundaries you set.

    • OKP: Thanks for that. I don’t think I’ll be seeing Lia again, although maybe she’ll turn up next semester to pick up her paper and demand more explanations…but rest assured, I won’t be compromising any of those boundaries this time.

  7. In my (rather hapazard) experience, having boundaries (requirements, due dates, etc.) are important for all sorts of reasons that make classes run. If you didn’t have any boundaries, most students would learn less from the class (I’ve taught classes with fewer and less firm due dates, and on the whole, students learn less than when I have more due dates, and there are penalties for late work). If you didn’t have boundaries, you would be less efficient at grading and getting feedback to students, which again, would result in most students learning less. If you didn’t have boundaries, you would be exhausted, and you wouldn’t be as effective a teacher. I have (sad to say) tried most of these experiments–a few on purpose, most by accident. Your boundaries: due dates, requirements, penalties, etc. are part of what makes the class work.

    I’m really good at feeling bad when students are upset, so I empathize with how you’re feeling, but I am very convinced that keeping those boundaries is part of what makes you a good teacher.

    Take care!

    • LSquared:
      This is a very interesting argument. I know there are many education theorists (but rarely teachers!) who argue that students should be graded entirely on their output, even if that output all appears magically in your office two weeks after the end of term – that deadlines etc. are irrelevant to a student’s demonstration of his/her learning. I too have always felt, like you, that deadlines nevertheless FACILITATE learning, but I’ve never been able to articulate it as well as you do here!

  8. This is a situation most good teachers are in. We try to offer something that will help the students, but the students don’t follow the assignment and then blame us. Good students don’t do that. Bad teachers don’t care.

    I think the story means that you are a good teacher.

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  10. As a homeschooling mom, I have witnessed, when my kids take homeschool classes with different teachers, that some teachers give very strict criteria so students know what is expected of them. I really appreciate these as the kids know what it takes to be successful. It is the teachers that don’t give this criteria that bothers me because I never know why a bad happened. It seems you are very clear and the student is panicking.

    I am making it a point to teach my kids to follow guidelines so they can excel in college.

    • Andrea:
      I agree that clarity is key. I would never feel comfortable enforcing criteria that I had not be extremely clear about. In fact, in this instance, I attached a sheet of “rewrite rules” to each essay I returned and went over the rules with the students in class, because I’ve found it essential to always have the criteria written down – giving instructions orally is never enough, and even when you hand instructions out on a separate sheet they often get lost. So I go through the tedious process of stapling the rules to the essays one by one, and there’s always at least one student who still ignores them!

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