I Don’t Like You

Basic instructions on classroom management often include comments like, “Of course you will like some students more than others; this is normal.  It is essential, however, that students not know this.”

Wise advice.  Very difficult to follow, in my experience.

I spend a lot of energy trying to see the good in even the most irritating of students, but sometimes I fail.  This semester, I have two students whom I have tried to understand and appreciate, but I can’t.  I dislike them.  I wish they would drop my classes.  Failing that, I wish they would become entirely different people.  I hate it that I’ll have to spend the rest of the semester gritting my teeth and tolerating them instead of having productive relationships in which each of us learns something valuable.  Maybe you have some advice.

1. Kaneesha

Kaneesha is very beautiful and very bored.  She clearly has important engagements on Sunday and Wednesday evenings, because in our 8 a.m. Monday/Thursday class, she yawns and sighs loudly to demonstrate how bored and tired she is.  If I reprimand her for talking audibly or making other distracting noises, she spreads herself ostentatiously on her desk and falls asleep.  Otherwise, she plays with her phone until I tell her to put it away; the next class, she does it again.  When I call on her, she speaks in a barely audible monotone; when I ask her to speak up, she repeats in exactly the same barely audible monotone; when I ask her to repeat a third time, she sighs and projects just loud enough that I can’t quite justify asking her to do it again.  (This despite the fact that, when she’s speaking to her friend in the next seat, everyone in the room can hear her.)  When I hand papers to her, she stares at them, or reaches not quite far enough to grasp them, so, if I were playing her game, I would have to reach that extra few inches that she is too tired to stretch.  Instead, I say, “Kaneesha, please take the paper I am handing to you.”  And she does, but the next time, she does exactly the same thing.

I can’t be sure that Kaneesha’s hostility is personal.  Maybe this is how she thinks one is supposed to behave with teachers, or maybe she resents having to take a remedial class and wants everyone to know it.  Maybe she’s this way with everyone.  I’m not really concerned one way or another.  I AM concerned about my own reaction – I find myself unable to even look her in the eye because just the sight of her infuriates me.  I’m fond of everyone else in her class, and I think I interact pleasantly with all the others, but every time I speak to Kaneesha, I have to take a breath and steel myself.  It must be evident to everyone that I dislike her.  This is not good.  I’m not sure what to do about it.

2. Shayla

I’ve written about Shayla before.  She failed this same course a year ago, and last semester, I published a slightly edited version of our final email exchange in that course, an exchange that many of you agreed was baffling and exhausting.  Shayla is back, and nothing has changed.

She missed the first two weeks of the semester.  When she finally showed up, she didn’t have her course books, and hadn’t done any reading or other preparations, and so was unable to participate in the class activities.  I pulled her out of class and sent her away, explaining that if she didn’t entirely change her approach, I could guarantee that she’d end up failing the course again.  She missed two more classes and then showed up again without her books and without her homework done.  She’d just moved, she said, and couldn’t find her books among the boxes.  I told her to stop texting, look on with someone else, and do whatever portion of the work she could.

Then I told the class that this problem was arising far too often, and so for the next couple of weeks, we would be doing individual work only.  This way, people who were prepared would not be burdened by doing group work with classmates who hadn’t bothered.  Anyone who came without their books and without having done the required reading would have to leave the class.

Shayla missed the next class, the first in-class essay.  She left a phone message to say that she was sick; I wrote her that without a medical note, she wouldn’t be able to make up the essay but could still do it as the “rewrite” portion of the assignment.

She showed up to the next class without her books and without her homework done.  When I asked her why, she stared at me blankly and said, “I can’t find my books.”

I told her to pack up her things and meet me outside.  There, I kind of lost my mind.  (Please note: As a rule, I do not yell.  I’m not a yeller.  However, it’s possible I was yelling at Shayla – it’s all a bit of a blur.)  I told her that she needed to go away and deal with whatever was preventing her from doing the absolute basic necessary things a college student needs to do.  “I can’t help you,” I said, “because you’re not doing your part.  You need to think about why you’re in college, and whether you can resolve whatever problems are preventing you from doing your work. We are almost TWO MONTHS INTO THE SEMESTER and you haven’t any books?  Fix this, because if you don’t, you are going to fail AGAIN.”

She didn’t show up for her personal appointment concerning the “rewrite” of the essay she missed in class.  The next class, she once again showed up with no books and no homework.  A classmate was supposed to meet her so she could photocopy the book, Shayla said, but the classmate hadn’t shown up for class.  “You were supposed to get the book from her today?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“So you haven’t done any of the reading.  You planned to get the book from her today – when were you planning on doing the reading?”

She once again stared at me blankly.  “Can I borrow your book?” she asked.

“Go home, Shayla,” I replied.

On Saturday morning, I received a message from Shayla.  Attached was a draft of the essay that she was supposed to come see me about on the day of her personal appointment, an appointment that she had missed without apology or explanation.  “I am wondering if you will read my essay and correct it and write comments about everything I should improve before I hand it in,” she wrote.

My reply was brief, and amounted to “No.  You missed your chance.  Good luck.”

If I hadn’t already battled with Shayla’s cluelessness for an entire semester, I’m not sure how I’d be responding to her right now.  Clearly she has a serious issue: a drug problem, maybe?  A cognitive disability?  As the previous post about her demonstrates, one of my biggest weaknesses is that I tend to explain and explain and explain because I believe in the power of rational thinking, but in Shayla’s case, I have to stop explaining and let the chips fall.  It’s that tension, between my natural instincts and my knowledge that they are of no use to me in this situation, that is making me so angry with her.  I knew that dealing with her again would be challenging, but I had no idea that it would be EXACTLY THE SAME and she would have learned ABSOLUTELY NOTHING from her previous failures.

What do you do when you are required to work with, help, and encourage someone but they undercut all your efforts, perhaps deliberately, and you end up just wanting the person to disappear?  Being angry is exhausting.  It takes away from my classes and from my own well-being, but there are days when I don’t know how to rise above it.  The semester isn’t even half over; these girls will be in my life for another two months, at least.  (If Shayla fails again, I may never be rid of her.)  Is there something I can change in the way I interact with them?  Or do I need to just take deep breaths and jog on?

Image by Lynne Lancaster

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22 responses

  1. I can relate to your dilemma. I teach high school, and invariably, there are a few students each year that test my patience on a monumental level. I have found, like you, that being angry is exhausting. I try to push my emotions to the side, and it isn’t easy. Generally when I have a student like Kaneesha I have private chat with them and explain that I am not going to continue the power struggle she is engaged in with me. Sometimes students just need to know that you are not going to “play”. No, it doesn’t always work, but I at least let her know that I don’t appreciate the way she presents herself in class and that she is welcome to find another class to attend if she can’t get on board with my expectations.

    With Shayla, I say you should probably just soldier on. She presents like many of my previous students. One thing I have noticed about my students over the years, they posses a strong sense of entitlement. No one at home tells them no, they are given a multitude of opportunities to change and they don’t, they expect others to fix their problems. When I am confronted with a student like Shayla, I make it clear that she has to align herself with the requirements of the class or she will not be successful. I also throw down some reality about the world not really being interested in her excuses. At the same time, I let her know that if she is struggling with an issue that is preventing her from attending to her studies, she should seek help with resolving those issues. It is difficult to see a student continue to move in the same loop of failure, but sometimes the natural consequences of one’s actions is the only course you can follow.

    I hope these two young ladies can get it together soon. Your frustration aside, I can see that you want them to succeed. Stand firm. Keep pushing. Don’t lower the bar.

  2. Shayla is, at least, not disruptive. She is really a problem for your department head or academic dean (on the level of, “why was this student placed in my class?”) Kanesha is disruptive and should be excluded from the class. Whether there is any way for you to do this I don’t know — at some CC’s in the US repeated disregard of classroom rules could get her dis-enrolled.

    The bigger issue is, why are they there in the first place? At 18, they should only be pursuing educational opportunities that they are prepared (emotionally and academically) to cooperate with. Neither is cooperating in the least. It would be interesting for an adviser to get them to open up about why they are there, whether there is some other form of educaiton that they can at least feel some enthusiasm and motivation for, and see if there is a way for them to transfer to that other option, whatever it might be, from welding to hospitality to modern dance.

    You, dear teacher, are not doing anything wrong. You are actually being a saint. You probably did Shayla some good by losing it a bit, because you showed her how the type of behavior she is exhibiting will not get her far out in the real world. Maybe you should do the same for Kanesha . . .

  3. I can’t believe these two young women are even in college! They sound like my 19 and 20 year old remedial (read failed a grade more than once) High School Seniors :( When I heard their ethnic sounding names, I was all set to defend them, and rant about fake liberals who hate the people that pay their salaries… However, I am NOT going to do that to you. You are very hospitable to both of these young ladies when they don’t deserve it… This is college, and the problems you had in High School really should be exorcised. It is outrageous. You should drop both of them from your course if possible. They will catch on, but you don’t have to be the one who ensures that these adults get it. No, let them go and give someone else a headache, until they realize the money they are wasting by being uncooperative. Post-Secondary education is a choice, if you don’t want to learn, go try to find a job at Wendy’s. This economy is too difficult and this world we live in is too complex for people to give 25%, to even let Shayla return makes me believe you are a very invested Professor. Good work. Lastly, learning is wonderful, and why don’t they know that?

  4. My God, Sioban, these are two tough chicks and I feel your pain. Of course, as you’re fully aware, there are no easy solutions here—being a teacher is extraordinarily difficult. All I can offer is what I myself have done over the years in similar situations, and I can report little glimmers of success.

    You should accept that you cannot change these students — they are who they are for deep-seated reasons well beyond your control. Perhaps their home lives are chaotic or abusive; their role models are either negative or missing; their multi-year experience with school has been damaging; etc. It is therefore up to you, the teacher, to change your strategies — and, more importantly, your mindset — to meet the needs of the student.

    The only thing you can control is your response to the young women. When I have students I dislike (because they’re obnoxious or lazy or mean or whatever), I shift my mindset—I try to convince myself that these are the kids who need me most. I remind myself that all people want to learn and want to be loved; I go out of my way to give them this dignity, dignity that they might never have felt before in school. I try to see the world through their eyes — and I strive to be the kind of adult these kids need, someone from whom they gather strength, not someone they dislike and distrust. The thing is, no matter how much they try to show everyone that they don’t care (by missing class or yawning loudly), they in fact DO want to learn — their problem is essentially “avoidance motivation” — they avoid the work and treat you disrespectfully to protect themselves from failure, humiliation, discomfort.

    I would schedule a meeting with each student — woman to woman. Sitting next to them (rather than behind a desk) and taking careful notes, I would ask questions such as “How would you describe me as a teacher?” / “How can I make the class better for YOU?” / “How can I make you feel welcome in my class?” / “I think you’ve been trying—but the strategies you’re using don’t seem to be working. Can you tell me your strategies? Let’s look at them to see if there’s something we both can do to make sure they’re working.” I would ask them about their lives/their passions/their talents, listen deeply to their responses, and inform them that your motive in asking them these questions is to be a better teacher for them. Then, in class, I would be patient, firm, personal, and always respectful. The more I fake actually liking them, the more my strategy works; the mind can change itself.

    Improvement may not happen right away — and it may not be drastic. But you may see little moments of success, little victories. Anyway, as you’re painfully aware, your strategies (esp with last semester’s failing student) clearly haven’t been working, so you should probably be trying something else. Best wishes from one teacher to another.

    • I’m thrilled that you shared this. I like the idea that you accept you may not be able to help students like these change, but you can leave them with something they may have never had… the feeling that someone was curious about them and took the time to listen to their perspective, yet was still able to set good boundaries i.e. respecting the other people in the class, including the teacher. That’s true compassion, and is my new goal.

      • That said. I also think it would help the teacher if the school had some boundaries! E.g. three missed classes without a doctor’s note, and you’re out.

  5. Goodness, I have two eighth grade boys who never shut up, and that’s nothing compared to this! I’m surprised that you’ve let it go on this long with the first girl. Maybe you could do a bit of a background check on Kaneesha. Is she taking other classes? Then perhaps you could ask other professors about her performance in their classes. She seriously needs an attitude check, so I would have a one-on-one talk with her about your (and the institution’s) expectations and her responsibility. Let her know that that behavior is not acceptable in your class, and if she doesn’t change her attitude or her behavior, then she won’t be allowed in class.

  6. College isn’t high school. Not only are these girls wasting someone’s money by being there, but by being disruptive, they are impacting everyone else in class. I appreciate the spirit of the teacher above who thinks they can be helped by a talk, and maybe they can. But they CANNOT be helped by allowances being made for them. That’s just not reality and the time for that has passed. These students need to be told the rules early in class, and simply sent home if they are repeatedly broken. I probably sounds like a hard-ass, but I really think if college students are not interested in being in college, they probably shouldn’t be. Save them the money, instead of dragging out failure over an entire semester. Maybe having to get a job at a fast food joint will change their perspective on the privilege of being in college, should they choose to return in the future.

    I don’t want to imply that you shouldn’t be trying, it’s wonderful that you are. I just think you are justified in having some baseline of acceptable behavior. Three classes without books? You’ve failed. I have to take away your phone three times? You’re out.

    My professors would not have tolerated this immature behavior. I find it shocking that people in college act this way!

    Best of luck to you. This isn’t meant to be critical, you are a better woman than I! I just don’t think you should beat yourself up when you are the only one making an effort in these exchanges!

    • It’s not about helping the situation “by a talk” – it’s about slowly and actively connecting with students to establish a bond of trust. Once students know you care about them, not only do discipline problems usually clear up, but also effort seems to improve. I know this, because I work my ass off every year to try to develop connections with my students and it seems to really help. Granted, developing connections is not easy—kids can be closed off or angry or wary or disinterested or just douche bags. But these are the ones I especially target from the get-go, for they need the help. The student who adores English and visits me regularly during office hours and thrives in class is easy to love–all their teachers love them and they enjoy school. The other ones are in the midst of a vicious cycle of their own (inadvertent) making—they piss teachers off with their behavior because they’ve had negative academic experiences, so teachers dislike them and reinforce the student’s hatred of school. It’s explosively powerful to be that first teacher a kid actually likes/trusts—she will remember you for the rest of her life. She will write you when she is older and wiser and less angry, thanking you for not letting her slip through the cracks. I know this because I have received those emails.

      True, I work in a high school and thus have a full academic year to get to know my students, but I think it’s true for people of all ages and all academic levels. We all want to be loved and respected for who we are—we want people to believe in us.

      • I don’t disagree with you, and I think it’s admirable that you’ve been able to accomplish this for your students. And I wasn’t trying to be dismissive of the “talk.”

        I just question if it’s acceptable to let a student continually disrupt a class that others are paying for (and often, working jobs while going to school for the privilege of getting a college education). Those students who DO want to be there shouldn’t be negatively impacted when being there at all is a choice.

        I just remember similar students from my own college career, and how frustrating it was to have that negativity in the classroom when I really wanted to be there and learn and they obviously didn’t.

        But I certainly wasn’t trying to be critical of your much more patient and understanding viewpoint than my own!

        • The big difference here is that high school is mandatory and college is not. We have to try to work through high school students’ attitude problems and failings (although we should not let them disrupt the education of others), because they really do need to be there. College students are a different story.

        • I didn’t take your comments as critical in the least. I just wanted to clarify my ideas. The thing is, Siobhan is clearly a dedicated, hard working educator. Every teacher understands the frustration she feels right now–we’ve all been there. Teaching is just so, so, so humbling–and it’s messy, because at its core is not the subject we teach but rather the people we teach, and people (students and teachers alike) are imperfect. Who knows if Siobhan can reach either of these students?–Who knows if they’re even reachable?

  7. I work for a community college here in the States, and in the “remedial” classes designed to get the students to enter (and one hopes, pass) the basic composition course which is a prerequisite for almost every other class. So we do work with students who are taking many different paths (vocational, transfer, etc.), so they probably are similar to your students.

    I am shocked that Shayla is allowed to continue the class! Here, if a student misses the very first class of the semester, they can be dropped from the class. Also, once the student reaches a certain level of absences or combination of tardies and absences they can be dropped. Finally, students are only allowed to repeat a class three times. Yikes. Do any of those apply? I don’t know if there IS anything you can do for Shayla other than repeat the conditions for passing and point out where she has not met those conditions. You could refer her, I suppose, to resources outside of the class (tutoring? health services?) but there’s not a lot you can do.

    With Kaneesha…Within the class I would (try to!) completely disregard her attempts to be rude (e.g., not taking papers from your hand)(by the way I’d be so tempted to just drop the papers on the floor in front of her–but that’s not the best way to handle it. Ha.). Pretend you don’t even realize she’s being rude. Plaster a big smile on your face and breeze on by…La la la I don’t even recognize your rudeness! However, if she is actively disrupting the class, perhaps the same thing applies–in a private meeting point out the part of the syllabus where she is not meeting conditions for passing the class. Some professors here make disruptive behavior count as a “tardy” or even an “absent” and same thing–once the student maxes out on the acceptable amount, they are dropped.

    I’m not entirely sure englishteacherconfessions approach would work because it seems to put the burden on YOU to change YOUR style to accomodate someone else, but that someone else is exhibiting behavior that is detrimental to themselves and the group, so if you do conference with them I’d see how you can put the onus on them to realize they need to change their behavior in this situation.

    Best of luck!

  8. You could try simply asking. What is it that Kaneesha so hates about you and about the class? (And, yes, I think she really does hate you–no wonder you find her difficult to tolerate. She is dumping hate by the second). What is going on with Shayla that she can’t get it together?

    It’s usually really difficult to be someone like Kaneesha. It seems to me that someone like her believes the world should revolve around her, and it must drive her mad that it doesn’t. Daily. I wouldn’t want to be her. Remembering that gives me some compassion for people like that, which makes me hate them a little less.

    Another approach with Kaneesha is to just direct your attention away from her. Don’t call on her, since she won’t speak comprehensibly to you. If she won’t take her paper without a specific instruction to do so, don’t give it to her. Walk away.

    With Shayla, it’s hard to know what motivating her. It may be she has a belief she shouldn’t need to be responsible, or she may be so distracted by ongoing calamity in her life that she can’t solve her own problems. She may be a drug addict, or she may be living with one. College students have all of the wounds of childhood still and none of the adult perspective or time to heal them.

    Good luck!

  9. I’m with Englishteacherconfessions. Each year around the third month into a semester ( it always takes me this long to learn the same thing – I must be a slow learner about these matters) I realize that my most difficult students have not changed much in their annoying habits – but I have changed a lot. When I am no longer bothered by their bad behaviour, strangely, the bad behaviour begins to change. I often get to this not -caring point out of sheer frustration – in essence I give up – and then they begin to care. It is a phenomenon I cannot explain. But I will add: I am often shocked when I probe a bit deeper (either through interviews or through student service records) to discover that the worst behaved student in my class is doing very well in another class or has a successful job as a manager or has a dad in a coma or three younger siblings to take care of – in other words – a real life outside of my concerns about them in my class. Like Englishteach, I am humbled by these discoveries. Do the anti-intuitive thing Sioban – give Ms Kaneesha the queenly respect that little girl wants – smile at her, go right up to her and put that paper on her desk with a smile and say, “How are you today, Kaneesha?” You have all the adult chops to do this – teach her how to be an adult. As for Shayla – she keeps trying doesn’t she? She’s got be good at something surprising. What does she want to study at college? Is this remedial course really necessary for her to be successful at what she wants to do? Really? As you say Sioban, these students teach us more about ourselves than we teach them. Most often when I encounter the crazy-making student one or two years later, I am always shocked by how pleasant they are, how together they seem and how sincerely they thank me for god knows what I taught them. Bon Courage.

  10. It seems as though you are describing a junior high or high school-level situation, rather than college. I’m assuming these students are paying to be there and, obviously, putting out no effort and are becoming complete distractions to the other students. Can you not simply flunk them out? As middle school or high school teachers, we were handcuffed and had to deal with these types of problems as best we could. It would have been so nice to be able to cut them out of the program because of their attitudes and lack of respect. It seems odd for this to be allowed to go on in a college setting. Curious…

  11. What a thoughtful bunch of responses – thank you so much. I’ll think about all these suggestions. Just a point of clarification: “college” in Quebec is not the same thing as “university.” Students pay some small student fees and the price of their textbooks, but otherwise, college is publicly funded. Our college has a reputation for accepting pretty much anyone, and it’s very difficult to be kicked out. For more on Quebec’s college system, you can check this post: http://siobhancurious.com/what-is-a-cegep/

  12. It’s interesting that the comments fall into two categories: “Get these kids out of your class,” and “Be a therapeutic friend to these students.” I suppose some teachers at the college level (clearly equivalent to our CC’s in the US) have those therapeutic skills and want to use them. Many others do not, and those skills are not what they are hired to do. My concern is that tolerating bad behavior (or absence) in the classroom sends a bad message to the other students, even if in the long run, as TO Teacher and Englishteacherconfession note, some of these students pull themselves together. It makes them feel that their education is not as important to the teacher (or the institution) as accomodating immature behavior is. Most of the students understand that adult behavior is expected once we are 18, and allowing some students to act like 12 year olds is insulting to the rest.

  13. Another fine conundrum, one I have faced in my HS classes and in my Comm College class when I taught there. As some have pointed out above, at the HS level, we are stuck and have to try and find some way to get them on track. It is always a balancing act – not allowing the bad behavior to get all the attention when the well behaved students have to wait for the games to be over.

    It doesn’t seem to end. And yes, students today have more of an entitlement disposition which is scarey in and of itself. Do your best – that’s all we can do.

  14. Wow, there are so many great responses to this one already! I would add that it seems like these girls need way more help that you can or should give them. At the heart of it, they have got to “see the light” and care about their education or they will never succeed. Try your best, but sometimes, a child has a right to fail.

  15. These girls sound like some high school students I once taught. One girl in the 12th grade class was pretty and well off; would be going to college on a cheerleading scholarship. She would brag to her friend in class about all the partying she did every weekend, but then give me some lame excuse about being “too busy” to do ANY of the assigned readings, studying or homework. She failed nearly every test and quiz I gave. Because the 12th graders had a big senior essay coming up, I spent two classes lecturing on plagiarism and how to avoid it. I assured them that if they tried to plagiarize, I would catch it. (I mean, Google. Duh!) She hands in her 5-page paper two days late, and the only thing she’s written is the first 3-sentence paragraph–so many grammar errors that I can’t fix them all. The rest is a Ph.D. dissertation. Literally. Complete with “See Table 2″ inserts. There were no tables in her paper. I pulled her outside and told her point blank that if she tried that mess in college, she’d be kicked out–scholarship or no. I don’t know if it made a difference, but I was so furious I wanted to make her repeat the 12th grade–and would have done it, too, except the principal intervened. I feel your pain!

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