Getting It Wrong

When Kalia walked into my office on Thursday, I was having a bad day.

I hadn’t slept in 30 hours.  My husband and I are buying a house, and we’d discovered an error in our mortgage agreement at the notary two days before.  We should have seen it much earlier, but in our housebuyers’ exhaustion and overwhelm, we hadn’t paid close enough attention.  The next day, we’d learned that the error was irreversible because we hadn’t caught it in time.  I’d been up all night with the mortgage documents, trying to determine if there were other mistakes we’d missed.

I’d just heard from the bank, and it seemed that everything else was in order.  The impact of the error was not world-ending, but it was significant.  The greater problem was my feeling of helplessness in the face of the grinding real estate/banking/legal machine that we understand so little about, and the failure of those who do understand it (notaries, mortgage specialists) to protect us from its vagaries.

I was feeling put-upon by the universe.  I was also feeling like an idiot.  I could have prevented this, if I’d paid closer  attention.

Then Kalia walked in.  I’d written her a few days before to advise her that she’d failed her most recent essay and that, although she’s entitled to rewrite it, it’s unlikely that she’ll pass her English course.  So her appearance in my office was expected but not welcome.

Kalia was in my class last autumn as well.  She failed, because she didn’t come to class.  This term, she didn’t show up for the first two weeks, and then one day she appeared during my office hours.  “If I come to class now, can I still pass this course?”

I furrowed my brow.  “I don’t know.”

She stared at me blankly.

“Mathematically speaking?  Yes, it’s still possible for you to pass.  Our first essay test is next class; you haven’t done any of the preparation, but you’re welcome to try it.  You’ve missed one quiz but no other major assignments.  If you come to all the remaining classes, and hand in all the assignments, and do all the quizzes, and pass them all, then yes, you will pass.”

Her face broke into a beam, but I frowned and shook my head, and the beam froze.

“I don’t think you’re asking the right question,” I said. “Last semester you said, more than once, that you were going to make an effort and come to class and do the work, but you didn’t do it.  This semester has started the same way.  The important question is: what makes you think you’re going to do things differently now?  What’s changed?”

Her smile transformed from pleased to sheepish.  “Yes.  I guess that’s the question.”

“You can pass this course, Kalia, if you really do change your behaviour.  If you don’t, you will fail again.”

Again, her face beamed.  “I will.  I’ll come to class and I’ll do the work.”

But of course, nothing changed.  She did show up for the next class, but she hadn’t bought her books and hadn’t done her homework.  I stopped her on her way out and pointed out that just showing up and sitting in the room was not going to lead to success.  She eventually did buy at least one of her textbooks, but her attendance was spotty at best.  When she finally showed up in my office this Thursday, I hadn’t seen her in almost three weeks, except for a chance meeting in the hallway when she told me that she hadn’t come to class that morning because she “had to study for her psychology test.”  Her overall average was 10 points below a pass.

“I want you to help me with my essay…” she began, but I raised my hand and stopped her.

“Did you get my message?”  She nodded.  “So you understand that, as things stand, you’re not going to pass this course.”

“But we still have the grammar test and the rewrite of this essay,” she said.  “If I pass those, can’t I pass the course?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I haven’t done the arithmetic.  I can tell you from past experience, though, that a student who has a 50% at this stage is unlikely to achieve a 60% by the end.”

She paused.  “Can you calculate it for me?”

I stared at her.  I sighed.  Then I opened my online gradebook and typed in some numbers.  “If you get a 60 on each remaining assignment,” I said, “you will get a 53% in the course.”

She deflated for a beat.  Then she perked up.  “What if I get…”

“Kalia,” I snapped.  “I am not going to sit here and plug in numbers for you.  I am also not going to help you with this essay right now.  As I instructed you and everyone, you should bring the essay to class with you on Monday and we’ll work on it some more and you can ask questions.  We have spent THREE WEEKS working on this latest essay in class, and you haven’t been in class for that work.  So you failed.  I’m not going to give you private tutoring on everything we’ve done because you couldn’t be bothered to come learn what you needed to learn during class time.  We talked at the beginning of the semester about what you needed to do to pass this course.  You haven’t done it.  You’re welcome to do this rewrite and do your grammar test and see what happens.  But I’m not going to re-teach everything I’ve taught for an audience of one.”

Here’s the interesting thing about Kalia.  When I tell her off, she doesn’t become angry or defensive or upset.  Instead, she nods, her eyes downcast, and smiles a little.  “Ok,” she said.  “Perfect.  Thank you.”  No sarcasm.  Just resignation.  She packed her essay up and left the office.

There are all sorts of arguments for why Kalia needs tough love, for why, no matter how harsh my response may seem, it’s really for her own good.  She needs to take responsibility for her learning and fulfill requirements and deal with whatever’s preventing her from doing the most basic things she needs to  do, or she needs to get out of school and come back when she can handle it.  Coddling her is not going to help her.  And so forth.

But none of these reasons are my reasons.  I didn’t snap at her because it was in her best interest.  I snapped at her because I was exhausted and she was pissing me off.  I wasn’t doing it for her; I was doing it because if I had to deal with Kalia right then, I was going to walk right down to Human Resources and quit my job.  And then where would my mortgage payments be?

Much like motherhood, teacherhood is held up to a terrifying amount of scrutiny in our society.  There is an expectation that teachers will be a strange cross between automatons and saints, that we will unfailingly do what our students need us to do.  (Here’s a post that’s been going around lately, detailing what that entails.)  And it’s true that if we’re good teachers, we WILL strive to do that.  We won’t always succeed, but we’ll do our level best.  It’s our job.

There will come a day, though, when we just can’t.  For me, Thursday was that day.  I couldn’t do what was best for Kalia; I couldn’t even decide what that was, and didn’t care.  I wasn’t capable of being a good teacher.  I just wanted her THE HELL OUT OF MY OFFICE.  If someone else had turned up that day, someone less infuriating than Kalia, I hope my responses would have been different.  But one way or another, they would have been limited, because I was THIS FAR from setting fire to my desk, cancelling my last two weeks of classes and booking a plane ticket to somewhere far away, never to return.

I hope you’ll forgive me for this lapse; I’ve forgiven myself, and I forgive you for any day when this has happened to you.  I don’t dispute that it’s essential for us to always, always do our best, whether it’s for our students, our children, our spouses, our friends.  It’s just that some days, our best isn’t very good.  That’s ok.  A good cry and 13 hours of sleep meant that the next day, my best was a little better.

That won’t help Kalia, but honestly?  I don’t know what will help her.  Maybe my outburst was just the trick.  If not, maybe someone else will know what to do.  I could spend some time here scrutinizing my behaviour, as if it were a mortgage document, scanning every line for errors.  I’m fully capable of such scrutiny, as you regular readers will know.  But: no thanks.  I dropped the ball where my mortgage was concerned, and there will be consequences, but the world will not end.  Kalia will survive too, even if I failed her.

Sometimes we get it wrong.  Sometimes we have no idea if we got it right or not.  We have to just keep doing what we do, and fixing what we can, and taking the consequences.  And trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Image by Adrian van Leen

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11 responses

  1. I wouldn’t worry too much about your response (which was entirely appropriate) and the motivations behind it. It sounds like this student has some personal problems to work out. That’s the only explanation I can imagine for her behavior. In that case, she has to help herself.

  2. Where’s a good student counsellor for the likes of Kalia when you need one? We have a really great counsellor at my school and as a teacher it’s good to know that if I can’t be everything and mother to my students, there’s someone I would trust with my own kids (if I had any) to work through issues such as attendance and motivation like Kalia’s. It is impossible to be ‘on’ all the time as a teacher, and frustrating when your school doesn’t offer a support network for the students or a support network for you as a teacher when you have an ‘off’ day.

  3. I am a teacher myself and I can totally relate to what you wrote. And yes it’s a tough job with higher accountability but the students also need to understand they can’t make it if they don’t play their roles with honesty and properly.

  4. Hi Ms Curious,
    I have taught too many Kalias. I too think that anger and exhaustion sometimes fuel my responses and reactions to student demands. I reign in those reactive feelings and check in with my colleagues who often give me sound advice and support. But here’s the thing, Siobhan: what is it that makes people like you and me think that when a student repeatedly behaves irresponsibly and disrespectfully we must continue to be kind and flexible with them? I do a test: I ask myself, does this person show any sign of being responsible and making effort anywhere in her life? If the student is faltering in my class, but passing math and physics with 80 percent, I feel I owe her another chance. If this student works a full time job to help support her family, I am willing to extend myself and my rules for her. If I cannot see any determination or ability to succeed anywhere in her actions in or out of school, I shrug. Nothing I can do. I love Kalia’s smiling, nodding response to your anger and frustration. Have you tried that on her? Try smiling and shaking your head and shrugging your shoulders. when she asks if she can pass.

  5. Even though the reason for your response was anger, I actually think your response to her was completely valid. Is school free for students in this program? Or is Kalia really paying to keep failing your class? She sounds like she needs a reality check.

    So sorry to hear about the mortgage. As a single woman who bought a home at 21, I can really identify with this. I was confused 99% of the time when all the legal regarding my home purchase was happening, and I wish that the people in charge had taken things a bit slower. I really hope everything works out!

    • Actually, it would be abnormal NOT to feel angry and stressed when a student showed this sort of behavior!!! But, good for you, you remained civil.

  6. I don’t think you failed her, I think your school is failing both of you. Teachers need support as much as the kids do, and they need to not also be social workers, psychologists, mother/father figures, and saints.

    Here’s a really interesting blog on how some kids face so much trauma at home, they can’t learn at school – and what some schools are doing about it:

    Not that you have to read it and change *at all* what you’re doing. It’s just fascinating to see teaching from this perspective.

    Thanks for your honesty. Hope the house works out!

  7. It’s entirely understandable that you can identify ways in which your own frustrations influenced your response to this student. On the other hand, the influence, I think, was one of rhetoric and not of content. The message you conveyed to your student was the right message, but it may not have been conveyed in the best way. I often encourage my students to email me before meeting about grading issues/concerns, particularly because it allows me to gather my thoughts, look at their history in the class, and develop a series of responses/suggestions for them. I don’t think anyone enjoys the “I’m not happy with my grade” ambush.

  8. I taught 9th grade science in a public school. I completely identify with this post. I think the major issue that probably sent you over the edge (other than things going on in your personal life) is the repeated behavior of the student. There comes a point that enough is enough. There is a thin line between being supportive and enabling. And this line exists at a different location for each student.

    But thanks for sharing your post.

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