The Art of Running Away

meSMNSmIt’s been a tough semester.

I’ve described some of the trials already: a new course that didn’t work very well, an unsuccessful experiment with blogs, a number of unpleasant end-of-semester exchanges.  More than a month after the end of classes, I’m still dealing with a challenge to one of my plagiarism rulings, and still awaiting a decision on what to do about a very rude email.

I’m also trying to work out a solution to a bigger problem, and the solution I like best is the one that probably reflects worst on me.

This semester I had an unusually high number of failures in one of my sections.  Actually, “unusually high” is hedging it – eleven out of forty failed.  For me, this is unheard of: I was consistently astonished by how weak the majority of the students in this section were, how resistant they were to following instructions, how unpleasant the atmosphere in the classroom was.

I interrogated myself about it.  Yes, the course was more challenging than it should have been, but I’d made adjustments, and the other section of the same course was doing fine.  (Four students in the other section had failed, three because they disappeared from the course and/or stopped handing in their work early on.) With only one or two exceptions, those who were making a good effort on all assignments were squeaking by.  It just seemed that there were a lot of students who weren’t invested, weren’t skilled enough to skate through, and weren’t really getting along with each other or with me.  The whole experience was nasty, and it was borne out in the course evaluations: while the other section was very positive, this section returned the worst evaluations I’ve ever received.

Generally speaking, once the semester is over, the grades are submitted, and some straggling complaints are dealt with, it’s time to move on.  Out with the old! Learn from your mistakes! etc. However, there’s a wrench in this scenario.

This course is a requirement for a major.  I’m currently the only teacher who teaches it.  This means that all these students – as many as FIFTEEN REPEATERS, not including students who have failed the course in previous semesters – will end up back in my class next winter.  This includes the student who has filed the plagiarism challenge, the author of the rude email, and the other students I mentioned in the post about requests for makeup work.  It also includes other plagiarists, other students who got angry at me about something or other, other students who have ALREADY failed the course before, and all sorts of other problematic situations.

Perhaps you can imagine how I feel.

So here’s the question.  My “good teacher” instinct is to say: Here’s a learning experience for you!  What are you going to do with this mess?  It will involve, obviously, a close examination of everything that went wrong with the course, and everything that I didn’t do to address issues as they came up.  It will involve up-front discussions with all the failing students right at the beginning of the semester.  It will involve careful “handling” of students who will be resentful and will believe that their failures are all my fault.  What a challenge!  What an opportunity for growth!

My “self-preservation” instinct is to ask someone else to teach this course next year.

I finished this semester exhausted and overwhelmed.  In addition to the struggles outlined above, I’ve been juggling other work, home renovations, MEd studies and, less and less, attempts to work on my own writing.  (As you may have noticed, my blog fell mostly by the wayside.)  The idea of not only trying to fix this broken course but doing it in the face of a pile of students who are coming in with a grudge feels like way, way too much. What I really need is a sabbatical, but I can’t afford one.  So maybe what I need is a sabbatical from this course.

This feels like a massive, cowardly cop-out.  It’s also what I really, really want to do.  Is there a way to justify it?

Image by Moi Cody

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42 responses

  1. I actually think it’s easily justified. These returning students could also benefit from a fresh start – for two reasons. One – they won’t be coming in to a new teacher with existing, unresolved issues, and two – should they continue to perform poorly, they may actually realize they need to work harder to pass. If you teach them the second time, they are more likely to believe that you are punishing them or holding a grudge, and won’t learn that THEY are responsible.

    Which is not to say that I don’t think you could make a go of it and do a wonderful job if you were so inclined – but I do believe there are justifications for letting another teach the course.

    I remember in my own college career that there were certain teachers I just didn’t click with, for whatever reason – personality clashes, teaching style, etc. – and it was always a relief to be able to choose a different instructor when one was available.

    I think offering these students the same chance is a fair justification in this case – why make them retake the course with preconceived notions of their instructor and a negative atmosphere right from the start.

    And please realize – I am NOT saying you are to blame for any negative atmosphere! – but sometimes for whatever reason, or for no reason at all, a group of people get stuck in a negative feedback loop with each other, and a different instructor could force those students to break free of that loop.

  2. I think a break from this course would be both self-protective and pedagogically sound. It’s useful to step back and away for awhile to perform the kind of assessment you’re talking about here. I don’t see how it’s a cop-out at all. (Any chance that idea might be partly sourced in a concern that others will resist stepping up as you step away?)

    • Susan: Yes, there’s always that possibility; in the winter semester, especially, it’s much more difficult to find someone to take a new course, as there are fewer sections and so most of the new teachers are not working and the more established teachers are well settled into a routine. However, if I start the ball rolling early I may maximize my chances…

  3. First of all I love your blog. Your style of writing and honesty is something I try to encourage with my owm students. My suggestion is reteach the class with theses students. You do not want to look back and regret not trying to work out the kinks. As much as we all hate particular students, we teachers must always try to find a way to work with every student. I believe that students who don’t do the work should get the F. But as I tell my young writers, we must always strive to make it better. You’ll feel much better about yourself as a teacher if you can find a way to help some of these students suceed. Never give up! Never surrender!

  4. Wow, what a tough spot! As someone who sees both/multiple sides to every situation and then sits and thinks about these multiple sides ENDLESSLY :) I understand your feelings.

    I do agree a bit with Anne–it might be a great chance to perhaps throw EVERYTHING out the window and start fresh; it could be a great opportunity to be really honest with these students and talk about how to make the class more successful for everyone; they might get a chance to see a teacher be responsive to them, etc.

    On the other hand, there is “finding a way to work with every student” and then there is “students refuse to turn in any work”! I am leaning toward asking someone else to take the class precisely for the reason that these students generally seem to blame their failing on YOU–which is pretty typical, it seems, for students at this level (I work with them myself)–they really locate the problem outside of themselves for a variety of reasons. To allow them to take the course with another professor would perhaps teach the greatest lesson of all–that they are responsible for their own choices and actions (or, lack of action!). I might be concerned that another professor may be more “lax” or maybe “relaxed” in their expectations/deadlines/extensions/etc., and that would simply reinforce for the students that “Oh, that mean teacher failed me just to be mean”. If you feel confident that whoever would take over the class would have the same standards, then, as I said, perhaps the best thing FOR the students would teach them the lesson that it’s on THEM to pass, not on the professor to pass them.

    If nothing else, notice that you’re already feeling tense and apprehensive and unhappy, and that is a terrible way to begin a semester for everyone concerned.

    • Terry: These are all good points. And handing the course to someone else definitely presents the risk that they’ll do better, either because the teacher is more lax or because the students have put in a bit more effort, and that it’ll reinforce their idea that I “failed” them because I’m a big meanie. But, you know, that’s not the end of the world. Maybe it will be the first step along the path to learning the lesson somewhere else…

  5. I know you teach college, but your situation reminded me of a situation we had at our middle school with an 8th grade class (ages 14-16). A veteran teacher was asked to move up from elementary to 8th grade. He had a solid reputation for classroom management. But in our middle school, students move into tracks (high/low) based on their math skills. No surprise, but this particular class was composed entirely of a group that had tested “low.” This was the same group that had burned through two teachers in the 6th grade.
    Add to the mix a new group of students who’d been expelled from another school and moved to my school. Can you see how the perfect storm was set in motion?
    The teacher hung in their for six months and then took a leave of absence. (He has four young children at home) and the stress was surreal. The final three months of school, the administration had up to four adults (at one time!) in that room just to try to keep a lid on things. These were, for the most part, unmotivated and unprepared students who had no respect for themselves or any adult. At one point, our security guard, who is top notch, had to sit in the classroom. I feel so for the students in that class who DID want to learn as the unruly students made meaningful teaching nearly impossible.
    I’m sure there’s a movie somewhere that features an actor turning such a class around, but the reality was that there were just so many negatives. At the end, they were rewarding the kids with candy! This teacher is returning to his previous grade level position for the coming school year having been dinged for his “taking a leave.” I know I couldn’t have survived the year.
    Sometimes, you just need a break and a change to regroup and rethink – was it me – or was it them? Or maybe a little of both? There’s certainly no reason to jump back into the “negative feedback loop” as Haikukitty described it. If you are lucky enough to have the option to teach another class for a semester, I’d go for it. :)

    • Jan: oh, god, I remember BEING in one of those classes in junior high – and we were actually an honours math class, but the group was populated with smart-alecky clowns who made teachers’ lives miserable. I’ve always wondered how those teachers managed to keep plugging at it.

      I agree that sometimes what is needed is “a break and a change”. I’m definitely leaning in that direction.

    • Alwaysjan, your comment to Siobhan resonates deeply. My 10th grade class last year had a small group of students who kept the class terribly stirred up. There were students there who were very frustrated at these students and the overall tone of the class. I’d been in classrooms for 5 years and never had anything like that happen.
      Would I want to teach them again? Could I teach them anything with the mindset they had of wanting to control the class?
      It took me all summer to come to grips with how I would do just that, if I had to. I would do it. And I would take a page from an old psychology article. I would be the adult in the group. I would not address the situation of the previous class. Instead I would treat them as if I had not taught them before. You see, I made it a point to learn about myself and my responses, and I searched for some alternative ways of dealing with the scenarios the students enacted. I am not the same person that they had last year. And they are not the same students either. Having said all that bravely, I didn’t have to teach them this year. But I was ready to, and I would have.
      I don’t know if this helps, but I am not someone who walks away; I suspect you are not either. Whatever you decide to do, I am sure it will be the best thing for you – and the next class.

  6. I’m in the camp that says that you should hang in there, if only because you don’t want to let these students have a negative effect on your reputation and relationships in your department. As you said, there was a strong and cyclical dynamic in that class that pulled most of them down. In another classroom with different classmates, these same students may perform wonderfully. But be upfront with those students that whatever happened last semester has no effect on the new semester and they have a clean slate with you.

    • Cabbage: interesting. My reputation and relationships in the department aren’t something I’d really considered, and frankly, not something I’m terribly worried about. However, you may be right about how students will perform in a different dynamic. On the other hand, the opposite is also possible. I’m thinking in particular of a group of four girls who were in many ways responsible for the unpleasant tone of the class. Three of the four of them failed, two in part because of plagiarism. They’re likely to show up once again as a gaggle. Of course, they may have matured considerably by then, or dropped out of school, or broken their friendships. All this to say: things might change, things might not, and I have to be prepared to face similar problems and hope for more manageable ones.

  7. I cannot even begin to imagine the stress and hard work that would go into your profession. This in addition to students being escapists or just incapable or the kind that keep a grudge. I cannot supply you with a solution but I guess there has to be a way of not running away or taking a sabbatical. Make breaks in the semester maybe? Hope the next semester is better. Take care. :)

  8. Again thanks for your honesty about your successes and failures. I think we teachers all need to be real and say “maybe I just can’t reach this kid.” That being said, I’m tenacious when it comes to kids. I would stick with it. I would torture myself, lie awake at night thinking and plotting, but stick with it. I think I would have, as you already stated, mandatory meetings with these kids the first week of the semester and set out to discuss how you can help them succeed and what they are willing to do to ensure that they succeed. Is there a way to have them removed from class if by a certain date they are not passing? This way they wouldn’t be able to “gaggle” and destroy the atmosphere of your class.

    But I wouldn’t fault you or think you weak if you were able to not teach a different course next winter semester. I have switched classes with people before for reasons similar to this. Sometimes kids need to be in front of someone else. It doesn’t mean that you weren’t able to reach them, it just means that maybe they would be more receptive to learning from a different body.

    Good luck with your decision and have a nice relaxing summer. Enjoy your garden, read what you want, when you want, and write. It is time to charge our batteries for the fall.

    • Kathleen: I so identify with your picture of you “torturing yourself, lying awake thinking and plotting…” It’s the thought of this that exhausts me, frankly. That said, maybe I need to envision the possibility that my mindset toward some of these kids could change. I have definitely internalized some of their hostility – would it be possible for me to look at them with more loving, more caring eyes? Over the years, my sense of connection with my students, especially the difficult ones, has faded considerably. Maybe there’s a way to get it back.

  9. I can really see a case for both sides.

    I don’t think it’s a bad or wrong impulse at all to realize that this is going to be a whole classroom full of students who, for whatever reason, did not succeed with you as a teacher in the past, and that maybe for THEIR own good as well as yours, they may be able to have a more productive relationship with a different instructor. Which doesn’t make it a failing of yours, necessarily, but every teacher can’t be everything to everyone. (When I was in school, there were two very different instructors who taught organic chemistry. And it’s highly possible that I would have done as badly as I did anyway…but I realized after the fact that I had been with the wrong one of those instructors.)

    If you decide to teach the course again, I might as the students, and not just you, to honestly and seriously think about what went wrong for them the last time they took the class–both in terms of what they needed that they felt they didn’t get from the class or from you, and also what they didn’t do for themselves that they could have.

    Break a leg, whatever you decide.

    • Chavisory:
      Your comment is making me think of a possible essay topic – if only I could find a way to ask the students who are repeating (and assure myself that they’ll actually do it!) to write a paragraph or short essay on the questions you raise: What went wrong? What has to happen this time if you’re going to be successful? I will have to give this some thought.

  10. If I take a course in University as a ‘semi’-adult… I’m the one responsible for passing, making the right choices and treating myself and the teacher with respect. It sounds like you had many that were very immature and looking for an easy way out by plagiarizing, and blaming the teacher for their failure, etc. Why would you put yourself in the position of allowing them to drag you through the wringer again. You are only human and you need to take care of your sanity and well being.
    By finding another person to teach these repeats, they will most likely find a way to disrupt another class, blame another teacher and not do well all over again. These ‘adults’ want it handed to them on a silver platter by the sounds of things and if that happens with a new teacher, then so be it. It will be their loss, not yours. Let them go with love to do whatever they wish to do…. and pray for the new teacher!!

    • Truvei: “You are only human and you need to take care of your sanity and well being.” I think this is the thing I lose sight of most in my quest to be a “good teacher.” I often remind myself that my objectives for my life are to be happy and to be useful, and that neither of these should take precedence over the other. Sometimes a check-in is required to maintain the balance!

  11. I prefer to think of situations like these as “listening to yourself” and “not running away.” There’s a big difference between the reluctance to run away because you know it’s not the right thing to do and a reluctance to listen to yourself because the people around you will interpret your next move as running away. Know what I mean?

    • CA: I know what you mean. It isn’t always easy to separate these things, because knowing what is “right” often requires considering how others will see it. (In some situations, right vs. wrong is pretty cut and dried; in this one, I don’t think it is.)

  12. I think you already have justified it! Why throw yourself to the lions again???? I’d cut my losses and hand it over to someone else they can eat for breakfast. The students won’t change.

  13. I feel your pain, Ms. Curious. I’ve had terrible collections of kids in my classes over the years – it is in part due to the nature of our alternative HS. The past year was really troubling as our students have gotten younger and too many don’t give a rats ass about doing well. Some won’t even do what is required to earn credit, yet disrupt class enough to drive the good students out.

    I can see both sides of the coin in your situation and believe you should trust your gut and do what may be best not only for you but for those students who didn’t get it. If you aren’t worried about your job, make plans now for the change and see what someone else can do with that gaggle of kids.

    Having taught a few years at community college, I’ve seen some of the same behavior I’ve witnessed at the HS level over the past 13 years – entitled and clue-less about being responsible for their own choices and decisions.

    So, I’ve been feeling the burnout but did not have the option of having another person take over any given class. On top of that, our small staff of 5 teachers have known all year that one of us was going to be laid off. Towards the end of the year, we heard it could be two teachers.

    On the last day of the school year, I was one of the two laid off. And it turned out that 2.5 teachers out of 5 were laid off or reduced. Looks like our program will involve mostly computer directed instruction. We’ll see how well that works.

    As for me? I’m too young to retire and will never have 30 years in since I switched careers. Not sure what I will be doing come fall but I’m not real optimistic about finding another teaching job. Things are miserable for teachers in Michigan and not getting any better.

    Good luck in your quest for sanity and instruction!

    • TB: I am so, so sorry to hear about your situation. I really hope that, if you don’t find another teaching job, your experience leads to something else that is rewarding, satisfying, and lucrative enough to make you comfortable. I’m confident it will, and I will be thinking of you!

  14. You should give this required class to a different professor. It sounds like the kids aren’t ready to accept responsibility for their own failures. If they fail with another professor (which is highly likely unless someone can rewrite the requirements for the course), they won’t be able to blame you. They will have to admit that it may have been their fault.
    If they do pass but don’t put forward any more effort, you don’t have to know anything about it. You can teach your other courses, happily ignorant.
    You are a human being. You are a fantastic, conscientious teacher or you wouldn’t be worried about this. You would have just passed them all so you didn’t have to see them again. You know that won’t help anyone and you want these students to succeed (but not at the cost of your own sanity).
    It will be hard for someone of your personality type (much akin to my own over-achieving self) to hand this class off without feeling guilty. Embrace it and move past it. As you said, your personal life and your writing career is suffering. Is it really worth all that?
    You and I both know the answer is “no.”

  15. Absolutely don’t teach that class. There is the chance that a different instructor will be able, just by being different, to make the students take responsibility for their behavior and their educations. It is very rare that that happens when it’s the same instructor over again.

  16. Well, you have heard a lot of good advice on both sides of this question. I am coming at this a bit late, just now catching up on some of my blog reading. When I assess your situation with my teacher’s hat on, I see and feel your need to see what went wrong and how to fix it. And that is a great approach to teaching, especially since each new semester and new course will be a bit different. If you address the repeat students somehow to ask their take, let them be part of the solution, this could be a growing experience. I also remembr how often times students who have failed in my class choose to take the same class from me again, even when there are other options–they have their reasons.

    But then I put my dean hat on. I do not want one of my best teachers to be burned out. I also have a concern for the students that the course needed for the major is only available from one teacher. Diversity in teaching style is a reality, and students need some choice. On my own campus, I at times have to fuss at some of my better teachers to try other classes or other time frames for their class. If a great teacher only teaches in the mornings, students who can only take classes in the afternoon or evening or Saturdays never has a chance to expereince that great teacher. From my deans perspective I would also wonder if the course might need some revision and that other eyes teaching it could help determine that. Or maybe the shake-up of the class could be in the assignments given, making them different enough that repeater students have to do new things or at least not have assignments completed the first time around to turn in.

    Overall, I would say it is your call. The most sane might be to put your energies into another course for awhile. Some perpective on the matter could help you and the students. Good luck.

  17. Just do it. I don’t think you owe them anymore. You can’t make a purse out of a sow’s ear. It would be a shame for you to burn yourself out and it sounds like you need a change.

  18. There is no shame in bowing out and trying again later. I think you would do well to teach a different course for a semester or two to give yourself a break. Then perhaps you can come back renewed to teach the course again.

  19. I’ve just been reading Brene Brown’s book on shame, “Daring Greatly,” and you might want to look at it. It’s a book I had to read in small chunks because it hit all my buttons, but her strategies for shame resilience might line up in a way that supports you.

    Specifically, she suggests sharing the story with someone who can empathize – and that seems to have happened right here! But then also asking trusted people for feedback and setting up clear boundaries. And she talks about sitting with the person you’re in conflict with – literally sitting next to them instead of across from them – and model the kind of openness and vulnerability you want from them.

    Personally, I’m not good at most of those things, but she is. And her stories are both moving and hilarious.

    I don’t think either decision – teaching it or stepping back – is inherently wrong. Either way, you’ll have supporters and critics. You just can’t let them define you.

  20. You have probably already thought of this as you are an incredibly thoughtful educator (based on everything I’ve read so far on your blog) — but at the end of the course, do you have your students write a “meta-learning” essay…? I love them. They don’t solve everything, of course, but they do require students to honestly reflect on their own level of engagement for the class and what they have learned or not learned. I use them both in high school and college classes, and for the most part, I find that students are pretty honest. They also can help me assess whether students have learned ANYTHING, even while the final project (often a long paper) is pretty miserable.

    I agree with comments above — no right answer — many pros and cons no matter what you choose. If you decide NOT to teach the class, let it go. You’ll have a chance to teach it again and I’m certain at that point you’ll be re-thinking and re-evaluating based on all your prior experiences.
    What’s clear to me at least is that you’re a dedicated educator who grapples with difficult choices and decisions and who has her students’ best interests at heart. Don’t beat yourself up if you decide to take a break from that class.

    Everything that you write resonates with me! I really, really love and appreciate this blog!

  21. Wow, I missed a lot of months! What did you decide to do?
    I would put myself in the “cop out” camp. Not because it is a cop out, but because coming back to the class refreshed would be best for both sides.

    I’m curious about the plagiarism issue. I had a situation in high school where two students turned in the same essay for a test. I failed them on the test. The principal of the school came in and told me I couldn’t fail their test and had to regrade the whole thing and pass them. Later, I found out one of their parents was on the school board…

  22. Such great responses: thanks everyone. In the end, I’ve discussed matters with the curriculum coordinator and we’ve agreed that it would make sense for me to alternate this course with someone else; a colleague has expressed an interest, so this might work out. As for the plagiarism case, Mary Ellen, it went to committee and it was upheld (not that there was any question; if you copy your work from Biography.com, there isn’t much to be done…)

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