Gimme Gimme

On Monday, I posted about M, a student in one of my courses who was blaming her previous teacher for her course failure and asking to be promoted to the next level.  As anticipated, I and the placement coordinator met with her on Thursday to get a clearer understanding of the situation.  Some of you asked to be updated on the outcome.  Here it is, in a nutshell:

  • M arrived in my office and, as we waited for the coordinator to arrive, I asked her to explain her request again, particularly the puzzling implication that her teacher this term (me) and her teacher last term (not me) were the same person.  No, no, she responded – she’d only meant to say that she’d had the previous teacher more than once.
  • She explained that she’d first registered at our college before her arrival in Canada.  She had no information about whether the teacher she’d chosen was a “good teacher” or “bad teacher.”  As it turned out, the teacher was “a bad teacher.”  After she’d failed the course the first time, M tried to sign up with a different teacher, but schedules were changed and she ended up with the same teacher again.  Therefore, her failure was not her fault.
  • When the coordinator arrived, he explained to M that a) regardless of what her teacher had done, it seemed very likely that M had failed because her communications skills are poor (we pointed to her confusing email message as an example), and b) there are formal complaints procedures that can be taken against teachers, but they need to be taken immediately, not at the beginning of the next semester, and c) bad-mouthing a teacher to his or her colleagues, especially in writing, is probably not a good idea.
  • I further added that if we promoted M to the next course, she would once again have no choice about her teacher, and that she would have to take responsibility for her own success or failure.  What was more, she would need to get significant extra help and be prepared for a possible failure in the course.
  • The coordinator and I then agreed that, if M acknowledged these conditions, we would promote her to the next course and let her take her chances.

On the surface, this seems to be the best outcome for all concerned.  M gets what she wants, and I don’t have to deal with her for the rest of the term.  She would probably not get much out of the course anyway, given the attitude she has coming in.  So, if the important question here is “How can we help M learn the course skills and become better at English?”, then this is probably the most effective answer.

And of course, that is the question.  But there’s another question that keeps nagging at me.  Is it a good idea to give people what they want because you don’t want to deal with their crap?

You see it all the time: spoiled children harassing their parents; rude customers bullying sales clerks into bending store policy; nice guys finishing last because they can’t bring themselves to be obnoxious in order to get ahead.  Teachers giving students good grades so they don’t have to argue about them.

I am relieved that this student is out of my hair, and I am confident that this is probably the most efficient way we could have dealt with the situation, but I still feel like justice has not been done.  People should not get what they want because they whine; they should get what they want when they’ve earned it.

We are responsible for helping our students learn our subject matter.  Many would say that trying to influence them in other ways is overstepping, that even late penalties or attendance policies extend our reach beyond its proper perimeter.  But to what extent are we obliged, not just as teachers but as members of a society, to teach people how to behave properly?

Parents are expected to enforce rules like “Say please” and “If you ask me in that tone, you’ll get nothing, young lady.”  But what about the rest of us?  Are there times when we should say, “No, you can’t have what you’re asking for, because you’re being a jerk”?

Image by Sanja Gjenero

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23 responses

      • Not sure, I have mixed views on holding back If for the most part you have a teen that just being stubborn as this one maybe you do just need to lether see she fail at the higher level. At that age maybe it’s already to late to help her understand that she’s failing herself. It has to start at the beginning, at home and school, kids need to be taught that you earn what you get effort is everything. Hard work gets results.

  1. Yes, I also think that students (and people in general) should get what they want if they work to earn it. My dad could give me a few thousand Euros for a car, but I told him, “You know what, let me start this business and earn my own money and get my car that way. Otherwise I’d feel like I’m cheating life.”
    And I think some students don’t really want to learn the material, but rather just fly through the course with the minimum amount of work required. M strikes me as such a student. But I can’t judge her.
    So here’s the thing: Even if it sounds mean, if I was her teacher, I’d hold her back. That’s life. Things won’t always go her way.

    • Jan: the example you give of your response to your father says a lot about you, but it also says a lot about your parents – clearly they taught you that your successes in life have to do with your hard work and character! I agree; this student strikes me as someone who has learned that if things don’t go her way, someone else should fix the problem.

  2. “Before her arrival in Canada?” That doesn’t sound like someone who has been immersed in English long enough to master the complexities needed to express herself effectively at college level. If so, then working at it an extra couple of semesters is hardly a punishment! (To get back on track: I would likely have dealt with it the same way as you did.)

    • SN: well, I guess it would depend where she arrived from, and how much English she studied there! Also, having taught the 101 course for ESL students, I can attest that a very, very low level of linguistic complexity will suffice for that course, but nevertheless, I don’t expect her to be successful. That said, tackling that course may give her a better understanding of the obstacles she faces.

  3. While I totally agree with ‘those who whine should not get what they ask for’, I have no problem with what you and the coordinator did. Perhaps if she falls flat on her face yet again, it might dawn on her what is going on. Also, as you point out, she would probably get very little out of the class if you held her back and would not only make YOU miserable but everyone who took the class with her.

    At some point, you have to let it go.

    Could you have her sign some kind of ‘contract’? Something outlining what you and the coordinator expect from her? That way when/if she fails, you could point to the contract.

    • Amy:
      It is possible that her new teacher could get her to sign a contract – and some do – but as she’s no longer my student, it’s out of my hands now. I’m glad you think we did the right thing; I think we did too, but it’s good to get corroboration!

  4. I’m just going to go ahead and quote a terrible movie: “Since when do people know what they want?” (Bruce Almighty) I don’t think M knew what she wanted. She knew what she didn’t want, and kind of knew what you want. However, she didn’t know why you want her to learn all these skills. That’s why your meeting did not reach desinence. Why does she need to “learn the course skills and become better at English?” Why? I know it should be self-evident, but it is not. Not to M, and saying “that’s how life works” is not concrete enough. How does life work? So far, it’s been something like: “wake up – go to school – hate school – go home – hang out with friends – hate school – go to sleep.” Grades are not good enough, I can write ‘4.0’ in my notebook without the help of a teacher. “Learning how to learn”? That gets close, but it’s self-referential and has very individual applicability. It’s like any New Year’s resolution or project that you have – why are you doing it? Do you know? If you don’t, it will fail. Problem with teaching: you need to make sure that the student understands the whole grand scheme of things for the project that _you_ want to do. And no self-referential paregmenons, please.
    The only reason M is pushing back and being troublesome is because she does not understand why you want her to do what she has to do. The natural reaction to that kind of force is to resist – in any way possible. This mindset gets so entrenched over the 20 years spent in school (if you include college), that it will take M another 10 years to deal with it on her own (without the nagging of school and parents; unless she gets a 9-5 job and has a family – then nothing will happen until she’s 50-60). I’m projecting, I know, and I speak from personal experience, but I see it in so many kids. Also, this is not the teachers’ fault, it’s parents too; and no, it’s not the “spoil” factor (when I was in school, I wanted to rip out the intestines of the teachers who bemoaned “o tempores, o mores” every single class without actually teaching anything of the things that “we should’ve known by now” or they knew when they were “our age”; granted, you might not be saying that, but it is understood that way) I’d say that it is the adults that are spoiled and lazy – outsourcing parenting to schools, nannies, daycare, music lessons, swim teams, etc. Do parents know why M needs to “learn the course skills and become better at English?” How clearly is it articulated? This question just screams at me when I hear of cases like this and I never see it asked.

    • Runeh:
      I think you might be on to something, but I think your question of “why” might apply less to M than it does to some other students. As English teachers, we need to think a lot about “why” if we want to reach our students, but usually, a student like M – a Korean student newly arrived in this country who could have chosen to go to a French college instead – usually knows “why” she needs to take a remedial English class. In fact, students in these language classes are usually extremely motivated because they know exactly why they need to practice these skills; it isn’t like trying to teach literary analysis or a love of poetry, where students are baffled as to the use. My sense of M was that she knows why she needed to take a Prep English class; she just doesn’t know why she failed it (that is, she overestimates her own level of skill.) However, given how little time I’ve spent with her, I can’t say any of these things about her for sure…

  5. 3 additional thoughts:

    1. By the time they’re in college, it is not our job to help students figure out why they must learn the subject we’re teaching. We must make in intresting and relevant, but it’s their job to do the “why?” And “because you need it to graduate” should suffice if nothing else does. In this case, “because you won’t be able to pass any other classes until your English writing skills are better” also applies.

    2. If this student is recieving financial aid of any description, other than her own and her parents’ contribution, then the interests of the college and/or the taxpayers enters in. And on that score, I vote we do not let her register for a class for which she is unlikely to earn credit.

    3. This sounds like a student who should not have enrolled in the first place. She should first have done Adult Basic Education classes in English, while she worked or volunteered in a setting that would help her increase her skills.

    • EB: In an ideal world, I would agree with all your points. However:
      1. When it comes to core curriculum, we will never stop having to address the “why,” I don’t think, and I think it’s part of our job to do so.
      2. In terms of the time she will spend in the CEGEP system (which is a public system, so all fees are subsidized, although as an international student she is bringing the college more money than most students do), it will make little difference whether she does my (non-credit) course again, or fails the next course and repeats it.
      3. Many would argue that none of the students in Prep for College English courses should be in college. But there they are. English teachers have pleaded with administrators to stop admitting students who can’t read and write, but, as a publicly funded institution, our funding is based on our population. Those students are not going away.

      • I take your points, Siobhan, but I fear the results when our educational systems (Canadian and US alike) are so overloaded with students who can’t or won’t face reality about their achievement levels. We go along with them at some risk to the future existence of the overall system. The public loses confidence in educational institutions that are trying to do the impossible (and worse, claim that they CAN do the impossible).

  6. The problem then becomes, what happens when you are a teacher who shares this philosophy, but the parents of your students (I am at the high school level) don’t? Time after time I have dealt with issues like this, only to have the parent come in with the same or worse attitude as their child. They will often take things to the principal, the region, or the district level just to get their way. At which point I have to ask myself, is it worth it? Sometimes yes and sometimes no I guess, but man, it is a lot of work.

    • TG and OKP: I am very, very grateful that I don’t have to deal with parents. On the rare occasions when I meet them, they give me some pointed insight into why their kids are such a mess.

  7. Oh Teacher Girl, absolutely. I have been there, bought the T-shirt, and set up a kiosk. I have meetings like that every year, and they are draining as f***. For me, I find that there are some ditches I’m willing to die in and others I simply cannot. My compromise is either I stand my ground and hold my tongue, or I give in and they get a piece of my mind. I’ve done both, and it seems to work out and keep me balanced.

    Harassment Mom and her Tantrum-throwing Progeny got the B she didn’t earn (a .1% discrepancy in the teacher view of the grading system versus the parent portal view), but I told them both that any contact they had with me outside of class had to be with an administrator present — and I told the mother that her actions were harassment and that the school resource officer had been contacted.

    A-Mongering Anthony did not get the A he didn’t earn, but I refrained from telling him that his attitude and class habits kept him from earning what he wanted (he never paid attention to instructions and lost points on almost every assignment — not a lot, but some). His helicopter parents sealed the deal in my refusal to budge.

    In Siobhan’s situation, I would probably have done the same. There are times I’ve regretted what I see as giving in, but I’ve tried to let that go. I am not the World Police, and I can’t exhaust myself and empty the joy out of my job every single time. Justice isn’t always served…perhaps because I’m not always willing to be its waitress.

  8. I agree with OKP. It makes sense to give in sometimes. I have an aunt who developed a major health problem while suing the school district for harassing her in order to silence her on some issue. I’m proud of her for fighting instead of just shutting up and going away though that would’ve made her life easier. But, when picking your battles, the girl who doesn’t want to repeat a class several times (even if to her and the tax payers’ detriment) isn’t really that important.

    My first time giving in to make my life easier was when my student’s parent was my co-worker. Splendid, right?. She taught Reading Recovery, while I taught Language Arts; we even shared some of the same students. She had a reputation for always thinking the problem was the teacher and not her child. She constantly had him switch teachers, so when he came in mid semester and didn’t receive a grade that would allow him to play soccer that six weeks, she came after me by going to the principal first. The principal didn’t know how to handle it, and advised that I just do what the parents want because they aren’t going to back down. Fine. I backed down, but not without making her cry. I just sat in my chair and stared at her as she apologized. Okay, I eventually comforted her. I just really really hope I don’t become a blind idiot just because I want what’s best for my kid or myself.

    It makes me wonder, though, about the customer service industry. Like at IKEA, they pretend to not take an item back once it has been taken out of the packaging, but I know from experience that you just need to stand there long enough waiting for the manager to come, and then you get what you want, like to return the rug you thought would look great in your living room but doesn’t. I’ve worked at a public school and at private schools. Being businesses, private schools have to give their customers, the parents, more weight. But, at public schools they just threaten to sue, so… anyway, I just wonder if it’s wrong of me to cause a fuss at IKEA to get what I want. What’s the difference really?

    I guess the difference is that as teachers we put a lot of effort into making our class fair and useful, so when someone comes in and says they should get to pass although they didn’t complete the class as intended, we feel offended and don’t appreciate the breakdown in the system. Whereas the IKEA employees may or may not remember that rug… or that bed… or that curtain.

    • Emily:
      I think the difference lies in one’s principles. If I am fundamentally opposed to a store’s returns policies, then I feel I’m entitled to kick up a stink about it. If a store sells me something faulty and then won’t take it back, that’s not cool. But if I just don’t like how the store’s policies are working out for me that day, then I think I’d be a jerk to cause everyone a lot of problems. I once waited at the cash at a video rental store for twenty minutes because my friend absolutely insisted that the wobbly teenage cashier honour her expired free video coupons. The coupons were EXPIRED. However, my friend knew that if she bullied the cashier, the cashier would give in. She knew this because she is the kind of person who gets what she wants by making a fuss until it happens. We’re not such good friends any more.

  9. Another brilliant post.

    I don’t think people should get what they want just because they’re whining. I REALLY dislike it when people get away with something when they do not deserve it.

    There is this girl in my class who I used to be friends with… she is extremely annoying. Everytime we were going to meet somewhere at whatever time, she’d be late, or if she wanted to go and we wouldn’t be moving yet, she’d start acting like a little baby. The same if there was something she didn’t like about whatever.

    So, since she was SO obnoxious, my friends would decide to go or to make things nice for her. So now she is used to that, basically. People doing what she wants. Of course it doesn’t always happen like that, but most of the time.

    I don’t know if this story is well related to the post or not, or if I explained myself properly, I just wanted to say that people should earn what they want, not just get it. Maybe once in a while, depending on the situation, but not always.

  10. I realize I am coming to this conversation totally late (I’ve been a little backed up in reading posts this semester, but am trying to play catch up). I have totally come around on this particular issue from where I used to be. I definitely used to be the “their adults…if they want to fail, let them”. Then I taught a writing class two semesters ago (something I don’t typically teach) and realized that when students are “let by” it basically ends up punishing some other instructor and class. Not because that instructor can’t handle the student or won’t fail them, but because often as instructors, it is our default to do our best to help a student succeed. Which means when she ends up in the higher class, that instructor feels compelled to help more and try to make it work. It may also hold back students in that class – we did a lot of peer review in my class and someone who is struggling is not a beneficial peer reviewer for other students much of the time.

    I am wondering if you’ve done any follow up on how this student did or how they impacted the class they ended up in? Just curious. I am really one to say, for writing in particular, they need to do the work to get to the next level for the benefit of all those involved – themselves, the instructor and their peers.

    I have found that having clear standards at the start of the semester and constantly reflecting back on those standards throughout the semester and having a written record of the students’ performance helps with these discussions. I have started to do my grading of papers online for this reason – makes it easier to have a record of their papers, my comments, and their progress in the semester.

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