Failing Benoit: Reprise

Students are getting their first tests back and preparing for their first essays.  There are, predictably, some unhappy and even angry faces.  I’m trying to be patient, to remember that learning can be a painful and frustrating process wherein you are told again and again that things that you KNOW with ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY are totally wrong.  However, this is always one of several points in the semester when I start wondering if there are easier jobs out there.

The post below, first published in September of 2009, reminds me that the moment when students receive their first grades of the term is always tough, for students and teachers alike.  Some students have the character tools to handle first-failure disappointment, but others come apart a little, and it’s easy for a teacher to push back in ways that may not be helpful.

*

Benoit’s in my remedial class – and how.  Every so often I read a student essay that makes me ask, silently or out loud, “How is it that this student was admitted to an English college?  What can possibly be done for him here?  How in the name of God is he ever going to get through?”  My reaction to Ben’s first writing assignment was much like that.

Ben was probably admitted because he is an athlete, a basketball player; it wouldn’t be the first time an athlete was admitted without the academic skills he needs.  Just a couple of semesters ago I worked with just such an athlete.  And then worked with him again the following semester.  In the same course.  But he did finally get through.  He got through because he really, really wanted to, and he knew that when he didn’t understand, when he couldn’t do the work or correct his own errors, he needed to get help.  He was also a sweet and even-tempered boy that everyone wanted to help, including his classmates, all the tutors in the Learning Centre, all his teachers, and his coach.

Ben is not like this.  Ben spends every class sighing loudly, thumping his desk in frustration, and asking belligerent, accusatory questions: “But why can’t I say X?  You mean I can’t ever say X?  But what about when I want to talk about Y?”  “I don’t get it.  I just don’t get it.”  More sighs.

Today I returned their first practice essay.  Ben failed it very badly.  They need to use this practice essay as the first draft for their first major assignment.  Ben sat slumped in his chair until the time came for them to use their practice essay to create an outline.  Then he stuck his hand in the air.  When I came to his seat, he said, “I don’t get it.  I don’t get why you underlined all these things.  And this…,” he turned to the rubric attached to his essay and flicked his fingers at it, “I don’t understand how you corrected this.”

I try to be patient with Ben’s complaining, sulking and accusing, but he annoys me.  It’s not that I don’t understand.  I know that he’s acting out because he’s frustrated, because he really is having serious difficulties and he doesn’t have the tools (academic, emotional or psychological) to deal with his difficulties.  But he’s very unpleasant.  He whines.  A lot.  Anyone who has had to deal with a 17-year-old who behaves like a small child knows what I’m talking about here.

Today, I had 21 other students waiting to talk to me, 21 students who were also struggling but who were doing their best.  They were all diligently creating outlines, looking over their rubrics, and trying to identify the main themes in the narratives they had written.  And here was Ben, slumped on his desk, barking, “I don’t get it.  I don’t see any errors.  I don’t get it.”

So I snapped.  Mildly, but audibly.  “Ben,” I said, “first of all, your goal today is to create this outline.  When it comes to your language errors, you need to work on them on your own, and you can come see me when you’ve made an attempt to correct some of them.  But today, please make an effort to find the main points in your story and identify them on this worksheet.  If you want to talk about other things, wait until the others have gone and we’ll discuss them then.”

So when I’d worked my way through the rest of the class, and Ben remained in his seat, folded against the wall, his expression poisonous, I made my way back to him.  “Now,” I said, “my sense is that you are frustrated.  I understand this.”

“But I don’t even get why you underlined these things,” he screeched.  “You put this mark there, to show a missing word, and I don’t even understand what word is missing.”

“Of course you don’t understand,” I said.  “If you understood, you would have put the correct word there in the first place.  The fact that you don’t understand is the first step.  Now you need to start, piece by piece, with what you DO understand.  You need to fix what you can fix before you start complaining about what you can’t fix.  You need to take this one piece at a time, not just look at it and say ‘I don’t understand, so I give up.’”

“But that’s not the case!  I understand some things.  I know why some are wrong.”

“Then begin with fixing some of the ones you know how to fix.”

“Like, this here.  What’s wrong with this?  ‘He is the best player on the team.’”

“Are you writing about right now?  Is it the team you’re on right now?”

“No.”

“It’s in the past?”

“Yeah.  So how do I fix it?”

“What is the past form of ‘he is’?”

“He was?  ‘He was the best player’?  You mean my whole story has to be in the past?  Even the details?”

“Of course it does.”  Ben sighed and thumped his paper onto his desk.  “This is the kind of question you need to be asking me, Ben, instead of just saying, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t get it.’ I think it would be a very good idea for you to take your essay to the Learning Centre and get yourself a tutor.  Do you have any interest or motivation to do that?”

His face was dark and sour.  He said nothing.  He crossed his arms against his chest and leaned against the wall.  A minute passed.  Then he said, “Whatever.”

“Do you have any interest or motivation to do that?” I repeated.

He shook his head.

“Well, that is the kind of help you are going to need.  In the meantime, you need to work on what you can fix in this, decide what questions you want to ask me, and come see me next week before you hand this in.”

Ben folded his papers together, gathered up his books, and stalked out of the room.

I mean, what’s a teacher to do?

I’m not under the illusion that I handled this properly.  I was tired and peeved, and unable to summon up any compassion for this clearly troubled young man.  But surely anyone would be tired and peeved in the face of this?  Is there something (other than some sitting meditation and a few glasses of Scotch) that I can do to soothe my jangled nerves and help this boy?  Because I’m telling you, right now I’m having some seriously unteacherly thoughts about what sort of correction he needs.

*

Addendum: Benoit came to see me the following week, almost cheerful, and together we identified a few major essay-writing issues that he could work on.  A few weeks later, in a followup comment on this post, I wrote, “His behavior has changed quite a bit. The tone in his voice has become much more respectful, he asks direct questions about the things he doesn’t understand, and in general he seems willing to take responsibility for his own learning.” He made small improvements throughout the term, and scraped through the course with a 59.6%.  (He probably shouldn’t have, but in the end the points added up.)  This was by no means our only moment of conflict, but it was probably the worst of them.  We weren’t able to significantly improve his skills, but when I think back to the improvements in his demeanour, it gives me hope for the students who are starting this term defiant and argumentative.

Image by Gabriella Fabbri

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3 responses

  1. I find it can help at the beginning of a conversation like this to clarify for the student what is really being expressed. When Ben says he doesn’t get it, is he telling you he is angry or is he asking you to explain? I find directly asking which message I am supposed to be getting can help if it’s done early on. Or even just acknowledging the feeling without attempting to explain at all, until the student actually asks.

    As teachers, we assume a students wants or should want help and come at it from that perspective. Young people sometimes don’t know how to express feelings to authority figures or know that there are appropriate and allowed ways to do it. Sometimes, conversations like these go badly wrong from the start because we are working at cross purposes, and the student becomes more insistent and belligerent in a frantic attempt to be heard.

    But if he changed his attitude later on, I think you may have been more successful in handling this than you think. Sometimes directness is exactly what is needed.

    • I agree. Sometimes students do need to be taught how to figure out what it is that they are really trying to express.

      And sometimes they need the forthright approach that tells them “I’ll help you when you are ready to take your part seriously.” I suspect that your clarifying for him the part he was responsible was far more effective that your sitting with him for another hour trying to coax him into a better attitude.

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