Without People: Reprise

As the semester draws to a close, I have more and more days like this one, which happened back in 2010.  Few turn out this well, however.

*

Yesterday, when I left school, I wanted to live in a world without people in it for just a little while.

My classes that morning had gone well – my Child Studies students just finished reading the first Harry Potter book, and we talked about why most of them loved it, and I asked them to make lists of books they’ve read and loved, and why they loved them.  I sometimes make sweeping statements about how “young people don’t read,” and this exercise always reminds me that I’m wrong, and it cheers me.

Nevertheless, there were, as usual, irritations.  One young man laughed uproariously when he got his last assignment back; he explained to his friends, well within my earshot, that he hadn’t read the book and his 90% was “ridiculous.”  Other students talked at inappropriate times and looked amused when I waited with thin tolerance for them to stop.

So, regardless of the fact that everyone else clearly enjoyed the lesson and participated enthusiastically in making lists, discussing with partners and sharing with the class, I headed for the metro feeling that people, especially young people, suck.

I was heading downtown to buy a birthday present for my fiancé.  Downtown, and the trains downtown, are filled with people, and I didn’t like people today, but there was nothing to be done.  I managed to score an isolated corner seat, and this made me feel better.

A young man in a red Adidas track suit, white headphones dangling from his zirconia-studded ears, hair rigid with gel on top of his rhythmically bobbing head, slid into the seat opposite me.  He was CEGEP-student age – in fact, it was more than likely that he was coming from my school, and he was the last thing I wanted to see right now.

The solution?  One of the “TED talk” videos on my iPod.  I keep them for emergencies, for days when I have to be out in the world but want to be inside a cocoon.

I allowed myself to sink into Michael Shermer’s talk about how people are idiots.  I soon began to smile, and probably even laughed out loud.  When it came time to push my way out of the train, I barely registered the fact that people were cramming their way in without waiting for others to exit, something that usually makes me furious.

Ten minutes later, standing at the counter of the clinic where I planned to buy my fiancé a coupon for a therapeutic massage (because he also has days when the world is too much), I realized that I no longer had my purse.  Hiding inside my “TED talk” cocoon, far away from the real world, I had left my purse on the train.

*

I ran back to the metro.  Standing by the turnstiles were three burly Montreal police officers: white, bald-headed, further thickened by their armoured vests and various deadly accoutrements.  They were consulting, and, as I approached, one said a businesslike “Ok, let’s go,” in the inflected way that the Québecois make “Ok, let’s go” a French expression.  They clearly had  somewhere to be, but when they saw me, they stopped and gave me their full attention.

“Yes?” the biggest one said.

Now, this is unusual.  The metro is outside an Anglophone college (not mine), so perhaps they were right to assume that I was an English speaker, but I was fully prepared to discuss the matter in French, and police officers I’ve dealt with in Montreal have been fairly adamant about doing so.  These men didn’t seem to be adamant about anything except making sure I was all right.

I explained the situation, and they outlined without delay what I needed to do: find someone who can let you into your house (my keys were gone), call to cancel your credit and bank cards, go to the nearest police station and file a report, then go to the lost and found at the central metro station tomorrow morning, because you never know.  Then they escorted me through the turnstiles so I could get back on the train (my metro pass was gone) and the biggest officer put a hand on my shoulder and said, “It could be worse.  It’s not the end of the world.  Good luck.”

*

Thus followed three very unpleasant hours.  Our neighbour, who has copies of our keys, wasn’t home.  I walked a few blocks to the home of a friend who usually has our keys, but he couldn’t find them and then had a vague memory of returning them to my fiancé the last time he came to visit us.  I called a third friend, and she had our keys, but when I arrived at her door, I realized that I had forgotten to ask for her new door code, and so I couldn’t get into her building; finally, a nearby boutique let me use their phone to call her.  All in all, it was an hour before I could get into my house.

Then I called the credit card company and the bank, had a long discussion about whether I should put a stop on all cheques (my chequebook was in my bag – but no, the landlord has postdated cheques that would be blocked), and went around the corner to the police station, where I filed the requisite report but was told that there was little I could do about identity fraud if someone tried to use my passport or social insurance number for nefarious purposes.  And then I went home to wait for my fiancé.

Between the tasks that needed doing and the numbness that was probably due to shock, I managed to hold it together until he walked through the door.

He made me change out of my work clothes and lie down on the couch.  He covered me with a blanket and ordered us a pizza for dinner.  He headed out to the bank to get me some cash to carry with me the following day.  He made me watch some stupid show he hates on the Food Network instead of allowing me to persuade him to watch the hockey game.

And then the phone rang.  It was someone we had contacted about officiating at our wedding; she was calling to ask some questions and arrange for us to meet her.  We had quite a long conversation.  She was a British woman with a calm voice, and I found myself growing quieter and quieter as we spoke.  I’m getting married, I thought, and this nice lady is going to marry us.  As the police officer said, things could be much worse.

And when I hung up, I checked the dial tone, and it was beeping to indicate a message.

“Hello?  I am wondering if you know Miss Siobhan Curious.” The voice was young, and male, and hesitant, with an accent that sounded Middle Eastern.  “I am looking for this lady, because I found her bag on the metro.”

*

When I called back, the young man’s mother answered the phone.  “Yes, yes!” she cried in French.  “It is my boy who called you, he found your bag!”  And she passed the phone to him.

“Hello?”  He was clearly a teenager; even his “hello” sounded like it didn’t know itself yet.

My thanks were effusive, maybe slightly hysterical.  When I was able to draw breath, I said, “I’m sorry.  What is your name, please?”

“Reza,” he said.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you so much.”

He asked if I could come to a metro station the next afternoon, so he could meet me on his way to school and give me my bag.  “Of course,” I said.  “How will I know you?”

“Well, I know how you look,” he said.

“Oh, of course you do, you have my ID cards!  I didn’t think of that.”

“Yes,” he said, “but I saw you on the train.  I sat across from you.  I saw you get up and leave your bag.”

And then I could see him clearly.  Red Adidas track suit.  Zirconias in his ears.  Dangling headphones.  Stiff, gelled hair.  The last person in the world I’d wanted to be looking at while I made my way downtown.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you.  You have made me very happy.”

Image by chidseyc

Scrabbling for the Stone: Reprise

My meditation practice has fallen dormant in the last couple of years, but, as the semester begins slowly winding to a close, I feel that rejuvenating it would be wise.  Students are panicking, and all kinds of unpleasant behaviours result.  What’s more, I’m tired and busy, and so I’m not always nice.

A couple of years ago, the end of semester was particularly hard, and meditation helped.

What do you do when it all seems a bit too much?

*

It’s been a rough week.

I got a couple of shrieking emails from Lia on Tuesday.  I wrote to another student, Janet, on Saturday, to let her know that I wouldn’t be grading her essay rewrite, because I’d found it on my office floor days after the deadline, with no indication of when it had been submitted.  Janet’s response was neither contrite nor understanding, and, like Lia’s, repeated the word “unfair” several times.

I then received an email from Yannick, whose story I began telling a few weeks ago. He wanted to meet with me.  Yannick, as I detailed in the earlier post, disappeared from my course about a month into the semester and then reappeared three weeks before the end, asking if there was any way he could pass, because if he didn’t, he’d be suspended for a year.  Since then, he’s been showing up for class and doing reasonably good work trying to catch up, but not the exceptional work that would be necessary to compensate for his absences.  I responded as follows.

Yannick, please let me know what the nature of your questions is.  If you’d like to discuss the grade for your blog, for example, I’d like to point out that the grade you received is in fact quite generous, and I won’t be altering it.  You’re welcome to take this up with the Grades Review committee if you really feel there’s a problem.

Unless you have something new to discuss, I feel we’ve talked about your situation quite enough.

I spent Saturday in knots.  I was hyperventilating, I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and finally I gave up trying to mark papers and went to a yoga class.  This helped, but Saturday night I couldn’t sleep.  I lay awake having angry conversations in my head in which I justified my actions to Janet and Yannick.  I was so agitated that at one point I got out of bed, booted up the computer, and began researching education PhD programs at the local universities.  Maybe, I thought, I needed to spend some time thinking about the classroom instead of being in it.

But on Sunday morning, I shook myself awake and dragged myself to the morning session of Nyinthun, the monthly day-long meditation intensive, at the Montreal Shambhala Centre.  As I settled onto my cushion, I set an intention for my meditation practice: I was going to try to release all this anger.  I was going to try to find a place of equanimity.

The first two hours were spent alternately in sitting and walking meditation.  I tried to focus on my constricted, struggling breathing; I often find that hyperventilation helps me stay present in meditation, as it’s very difficult to take my mind off the breath!  It was doing me some good, but I still felt gripped by fear every time my mind wandered to the moment when I’d go home and would have to decide whether to check my email or avoid it for a few more hours.

Near the end of the morning session, one of the instructors, Francesca, stood and said that she would be leading us in an exercise.  The theme of today’s Nyinthun, she explained, was a reflection on the holiday season.  We were going to do a practice to help us contemplate this theme.

“At this time of year,” she said, “things become intensified.  Things begin moving faster.  There is more darkness.  There are a lot of things to do.  All this leads to an intensification of our experience and our emotions.

“In addition, when it comes to the holidays, we all have a desire.  We could have many desires, but often one desire is dominant.  It could be a desire for a material thing.  It could be a desire for something we want to happen, or not happen.  I’d like you to think about what your desire is for this holiday time.”

It didn’t take me long.  My desire, I thought, is for my semester to be over.  Really over.  I want the grades to be in; I want the emails from students to stop; I want to put everything about the term behind me except a few good memories, and to move into a brief space of a few weeks when I’m not a teacher.  I want to meditate, cook good food, read novels, clean my house, and not think about teaching at all.  I want to be released.

Francesca picked a smooth, large stone up from the altar and held it up.  “I want you to think of this stone,” she said, “as the object of your desire.  Look at this stone and, in it, see your desire.”  Then she asked us to clear the mediation cushions away from a small space in the middle of the room.  She placed a little table in the centre of the space, and set the stone on top of it.  Then she used cushions to create a tight perimeter around the table, and asked us, the dozen or so participants, to stand within the perimeter.

“When I give the signal,” she said, “I want you to walk randomly around this small space, and as often as possible, I want you to touch this object of your desire.  Don’t move in a circle as you would in walking meditation.  Just walk back and forth, and try to cover the whole space, coming back to touch the stone as often as you can.  At a certain point, I’ll begin to clap my hands.  As I speed up my clapping, speed up your walking.”

We began to walk, touching the stone, walking away, returning to touch the stone again, bumping and jostling each other as we tried to manoeuvre the constricted space.  As Francesca clapped her hands more and more quickly, we found ourselves tripping over one another to get to the stone.  At one point she stopped, pushed the cushion perimeter even closer to the table, and had us do the exercise again.

I was doing my best to take this all in good spirits, but I could feel my irritation rise with every nudge and bump.  I’d come here to sit and walk in silence – Nyinthuns, after all, are supposed to be mostly silent retreats, where we eat lunch without speaking and hold talks and discussions only at the end of the day.  I’d been looking forward to a morning of this silence, but here I was, still a bag of nerves, fighting with a bunch of strangers to touch a rock.

Then Francesca brought us all to a halt.  “Now,” she said, “I want you to let go of the stone.  Forget about it.  I want you to walk through this space again, and speed up as I clap, in just the same way.  But instead of looking at the stone – instead of looking at the object of your desire – I want you to look at the others, the people.  As you meet them, look at them.  Go.”

We began walking around again.  As we encountered one another, we looked each other in the eye.  It was embarrassing, and uncomfortable, and it wasn’t long before everyone was smiling awkwardly.  And then smiling broadly, grinning at one another as we passed.  Francesca clapped more and more quickly, and we slid by each other more and more rapidly, but there were only a few bumps and jostles.  There was mostly just smiling, and even a bit of laughter.  When the clapping stopped and we slowed to a halt, we just stood there beaming at one another.

“Do you see?” Francesca asked.  “Do you see what I mean?”

We returned the cushions to their places, and as I settled back onto my crossed legs, I felt like I might melt into the floor.

My fixation, my obsession, with the object of my desire – the end of my semester, the resolution of all the semester’s problems, the elusive peace that I would supposedly feel when it was all done – had blinkered me.  The students who were pestering me – Lia, Janet, Yannick – were not obstacles between me and the stone, hurdles to be climbed over or knocked down. They were people.

They were responding to their lives in the same way that I was, scrabbling to get at the stone: the good grade, or the passing grade, or the sense of pride that comes when a teacher respects and validates you.  I was angry because they were getting in my way.  They were angry with me for the same reason.  If I could see them, not as frustrating roadblocks, but as people, then maybe I could stop fighting them, and start looking them in the eye.  I needed to understand that the stone is not the point.  They are.

The morning session was almost done.  We sat for a few more minutes, and then scattered for lunch.  I couldn’t stay for the afternoon, but I stopped Francesca to tell her that the exercise had meant a lot to me.

As I made my way to the metro, my mind no longer simmering, a couple of quiet revelations emerged: a memory of a gesture I’d made a week ago but forgotten, and an inspiration for another one.

That evening, I wrote a message to Janet.

After sending you that last note, I realized that I had in fact agreed to look over the rewrite of one of your classmates, and give it a small bonus, even though it arrived late.  This is because the student contacted me IMMEDIATELY about the problem.  You did not take that step, but because I did this for him, I will do it for you as well.  I hope you will thank him in your heart for his responsibility and common sense.

And to Yannick, I wrote the following:

You have been extremely respectful and reasonable throughout this whole process, and I appreciate this. As I emphasized to you in our last meeting, I am not going to give you extra work or any other special privileges; I will not be giving you any opportunities that I did not give to everyone in the class.  I do, however, have a suggestion for you.  I think you should go see the dean of your program and explain your situation to him/her.  I would be more than happy to send your dean an email or letter attesting to the fact that, although you were not able to pass my course, you made a good effort at the end, and that I expect that if you are re-admitted to the college next semester, you will try harder.  This might make a difference, and at the very least, your dean might have some advice that could help you.

After sending these messages, I read them over several times.  I still wasn’t sure that I was doing the right thing, or that I was doing it for the right reasons.   But I went to bed, and I slept very well.

Image by Armin Hanisch

Yannick’s Debts: Reprise

There’s a month left in the semester.  Four weeks.  Fifty-four hours of class time.

When I arrive at this point in the term, I always think of Yannick.  I anticipate others like him, students I’ve all but forgotten, who will reappear with stories about why they should be allowed to make up work, do extra credit, coast by.  There are at least four this semester who might turn up in my office with sad tales, and I’m already formulating my answers.  They are all variations of “No,” much firmer than anything I said to Yannick.

That said, I don’t think my responses to Yannick two years ago were all wrong.  Maybe you have a different opinion.  Let me know.

*

When Yannick walked into my office on Thursday, his first words were, “Miss, do you remember me?”

I did.  He’s in my Travel Literature class, but I hadn’t seen him in almost 2 months.  He hadn’t written any of his required blog posts.  He’d showed up to do his (half-assed) oral presentation, but had never submitted his bibliography.  The major essays had been due the day before, and I’d heard nothing from him.  I’d assumed he was gone for good, but that’s often a foolish assumption.

“I’ve been away from school for a while,” he said.  “I’ve been having some problems.”

I gestured for him to sit down, and he explained.  He’d visited Academic Advising that morning.  He’d told them what was going on, and why he’d missed so much school, but they’d told him that there was no official remedy for his situation, because his difficulties were not medical.  His only hope was to speak with his teachers, see what he could do to complete his semester, and try to pass four of his courses, because he’s on academic probation and if he fails this term, he’s out for good.

“I’ve seen my other five teachers,” he said.  “Two of them say there’s no way.  The other three told me what I need to do if I want to pass.  So that just leaves this course.”

Yannick is a handsome and confident young man.  He reminds me a little of another handsome and confident young man I taught a few years ago, one who spoke with the assurance that of course you were going to do whatever he asked of you.  And people did, especially girls, who allowed him to cheat off their tests and, I heard, signed his name to attendance sheets in courses he skipped.  (He eventually failed my course for blatant, unrepentant plagiarism.)  Yannick’s air is a bit less presumptuous, slightly deferential but not obsequious.  It’s an effective air, but I’ve seen it before, and am mostly invulnerable to it now.

I outlined what the possibilities were.  He wasn’t going to pass his blog project, but there was still time to make up some missed posts and get something more than 0%.  His major paper was going to be late, but I accept papers up to a week after the deadline, albeit with a 5%-per-day late penalty.  His Mock Exit Exam would be the following week, and he needed to show up and do his best with that.  His in-class assignments grade was in the toilet, and that was not reparable.  “It’s not impossible, Yannick,” I said, “but frankly, I’m not optimistic about your chances.”

“But, you see, miss…do you want to know my situation?”

I gave a shrug that I hoped was nonchalant without being insulting.  “You’re welcome to tell me about it if you like.”

And then he proceeded to tell me about his father’s business.  The details of it were confusing, but the upshot seemed to be that his father had dug himself into a hole by importing cars, selling them at auction, but then getting behind on his payments and sales and accumulating debt.  The auction had finally seized their cars and, after some negotiation, agreed to accept a payment of $50,000 to cover the remainder, money the family didn’t have.  Yannick had been working 12 hours a day at the shop trying to help out, but now creditors had been calling and coming to the door, so they weren’t spending much time at home.  The family and the business were crumbling.

“O.K.,” I said.  “I understand that this is a difficult situation.  But you’ve been missing from my course for 7 WEEKS, Yannick.  There are 3 WEEKS left in the semester.  There’s no reason you couldn’t have called your teachers a month ago and let them know that you were having problems.  I have plenty of other students who have problems at home, and they’ve either tried to manage these problems differently than you have, or they’ve accepted the consequences.  It’s not impossible for you to get through, but I think, given the work you’ve done already, that it’s highly, highly unlikely, especially if you have three other courses you need to try to pass at the same time.  If you’re on academic probation, then you KNOW what happens when you don’t come to class and you don’t do the work.”

“Well, the academic probation, that was all me.  I just didn’t take things seriously.  But this, Miss, I’m not bullshitting you.  I can bring you proof if you want.”

“It wouldn’t matter.  Unless you’ve had a medical crisis, there’s nothing the documentation can be used for.  You just need to do what you can with what you have left, and hope for the best.  But there are absolutely no guarantees, and I have to be honest with you, Yannick – I don’t think you’re going to pass.”

“The thing is, Miss, you have to understand.  If I fail out this semester, they’re going to kick me out for a year.  I don’t want to spend a year doing nothing.”

I stared at him for a moment.  Then I said, “Of course I understand that this is difficult, but we have to be realistic here.  I’m not going to GIVE you the grades.  You have to earn them by demonstrating what you’ve learned, and you haven’t been in class to learn anything.  So we’ll see how it goes.”

Then we went over the guidelines for the remaining assignments, and he shook my hand, thanked me, and left.

When he was gone, I put my head in my hands.  For a moment I was angry, although that calmed pretty quickly.  Then I was just sad.  Really, really sad.

This 18-year-old man was once a little boy.  He watched his father deal either underhandedly or extremely unwisely with his business.  Yannick watched his father make bad choices, and then try to weasel out of the consequences by accumulating debt and, eventually, staying away from his home and refusing to answer the phone.  And now Yannick, not just for one semester but for two, has made his own choices, and has ignored the consequences until it was no longer possible to ignore them, and has reached the point of trying to make those consequences go away by pleading with others to fix the problem.

How could I be angry about this?  Where would this boy have learned any other way of dealing with the world?

And then I thought about his father, and what kind of a father or mother he might have had.  And then I thought about all the bad lessons I might have taught my children, if I’d decided to have any.

The trouble with trying to be compassionate is that it doesn’t mean you can be easy on people.  On the contrary, I think – although I’m not sure – that the most compassionate thing I can do for Yannick will be to make him face the consequences of his choices, and recognize that they WERE choices.  I have no desire to punish him.  I certainly don’t think I should assume I know what’s best for him, or what will make his life better or easier.

But if there is one thing teaching has brought me to believe with all my heart, it’s that we all – students, teachers, parents, children, politicians, criminals, cats and dogs – need to learn the principle of cause and effect.  If you spend more than you earn, you will go into debt.  If you don’t go to class, you will fail your courses.  And if your family business is going to hell in a handbasket and you can’t go to school because you’re working 12 hours a day at the shop, then maybe a year away from school is exactly what you need.  Not that that’s any of my business.

I don’t know.  Am I crazy here?  It isn’t my job to un-teach the lessons he’s learned his whole life – it’s my job to teach him how to read and write about literature, and evaluate whether he’s learned THOSE lessons.  He’ll pass or fail on the basis of that and nothing else.  But earlier in my career, I might have been tempted to make allowances and exceptions.  Now, I don’t think that any more allowances or exceptions will do him any favours.

Image by Ashley Voortman

The Power of Regret

I’m not one to regret things.

Of course, I make tons of stupid mistakes.  I look back at things I’ve said, letters I’ve written, men I’ve stayed with past the point of all basic sense, and thought, “Well, that was a colossal error.”

But that’s not the same as regret.  My underlying attitude, when I bother to think about it, is that in each instance, I’ve done my best with what I’ve had.  My state of mind + the external circumstances + my genetic wiring + my previous experience + the alignment of the planets + variables x, y and z = idiot behaviour.  I will try not to do it again.  Moving on.

However, in my teaching life, there are moments when I worry.  I’m dealing with young lives here, and I try to think carefully before I speak or take action, but even so, I sometimes come away from a lesson or a student conference and think, “I don’t know.  I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

We all have memories of teachers who did or said things that threw us off course for years, or who unfairly crushed our self-esteem.  I’m not opposed to derailing students, or altering their overblown self-esteem toward reality.  I AM opposed to confronting students with things they can’t handle, or venting my anger, or making bad situations worse.

In the past week, I’ve had two interactions with students that I now regret.

1. Michael:

I’ve written about Michael a couple of times before, describing an essay he wrote about his troubled home life and the severe difficulties he’s experiencing with his schoolwork.  Last week, Michael did his oral presentation, and he got a zero.  He spoke for barely a minute (for a 5-7 minute talk) and nothing he said bore any relationship to his topic or made any sense.  I was unable to give him points or feedback in any of the categories he was being graded on.  It was hard to watch.

When the time came to discuss the presentation with him, he just nodded as I explained why he’d be getting a zero.  Then I told him that at this point, I see no way for him to pass the course.  “I know you’re working hard,” I said.  “But even with all your hard work, you’re not managing to meet the requirements.”

The difficulty came with what to say next.  How to tactfully explain that because he is demonstrating absolutely no progress from assignment to assignment, and is not in possession of the most fundamental skills required to pass, he’ll probably never  complete college?  How to say, “It makes no sense that you ever graduated from high school”?  How to say, “This is the wrong path for you”?

You might ask, “Well, who are you to say these things anyway?” Good question.  Here’s why I felt it was important to say them. I’ve talked to other teachers and tutors who know Michael, and they confirm what I’ve seen: he works very, very hard, and he makes no progress.  None.  It breaks my heart that he continues to waste his time, when he could be investing himself in something that brings him enjoyment and maybe even an income.  For some reason, he’s been continually given false expectations of what he is capable of.  Someone, somewhere – maybe many someones – has to help him understand that he needs to stop banging his head against this wall.

I asked, “Have you ever spoken to someone in counselling about your bigger plans?  About what you want to do with your life, and where college fits in?  I can see that school is a big struggle for you, and it’s causing you a lot of anxiety.  If you talked to a counsellor, he or she might be able to help you think about other options, and plan your decisions with all the facts in mind.  If you have a hard time explaining it, you’re welcome to tell the counsellor to call me, and I can explain what I’ve observed, if that would be helpful.”

I handed him the info for the counselling centre.  He took it and thanked me.

“Is there anything else I can do to help you with this?” I asked.

He hesitated.  “It’s just…do you think, if I really worked hard for the rest of the semester, there is even a small chance that I could pass?”

“No, Michael,” I said gently.  “Realistically, I don’t see that happening.”

He nodded again.  “Thanks, miss,” he said, and left.

I have been racked with self-doubt ever since we had this exchange.  Who the hell do I think I am?  Do I really think this kind of discussion is going to change anything, other than making him feel terrible?  Should I be physically leading him down to counselling and sitting him in front of someone?  Should I just keep giving him failing grades and gentle feedback and keep my nose out of the rest of it?  Do I know for sure that it’s impossible for him to pass?  Should I be pressing him to tell me more about his situation, like what happens when he brings home a failing grade?

The bottom line is: I didn’t know what else to do.  Nevertheless, I’m worried about the consequences of what I’ve done.

2. Kaneesha

I wrote about Kaneesha two weeks ago.  She’s a royal pain.  At the end of last week, she came in for a mandatory appointment to discuss her next essay rewrite, and was perfectly pleasant and asked pertinent questions.  I felt tempted to leave things at that, and to hope that this productive conversation would change something in our relationship.  However, past experience tells me that such hopes are in vain.  So when we were done talking about her essay, I said, “Now we need to discuss something else: your level of attention in class.”

A sheepish smile came over her face.  I detailed her offenses: texting constantly, sleeping on her desk, talking while I’m talking, sighing and yawning loudly.  She shook her head, still smiling: “I’m sorry!  I’m really sorry.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re sorry, but it doesn’t really solve the problem.  I’m not sure how to talk to you about it, so I thought that, rather than being angry about it, I’d give you the chance to explain WHY you do these things.”

She just stared at me for a few moments.  I couldn’t tell if she was thinking, or just paralyzed.

“Well?” I asked.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said.  “I don’t know.”

Let’s pause.  In hindsight, I should have stopped right here, and done something with this information.  I could have told her to think about it and come up with a response.  Write me a paragraph at home, entitled “Why I’m Not Always Focused in Class,” to be counted as a homework assignment, for example.  This would have given her a chance to think about what I was saying, and to express herself without sitting under my accusatory gaze.

Instead, I launched into lecture mode.  (A sign that I hadn’t thought this through.)  Point 1: it’s hard for me to do my job when I’m annoyed.  Point 2: she’s distracting other students, and it’s not fair to them.  Point 3: if she continues making noise, talking and distracting people, she’ll be ejected from the class.  Point 4: if she just quietly continues being rude, I’ll be angry with her, and I don’t like being angry, but I can’t change her; only she can do that.  And so forth.

Finally, I asked, “Do you understand what I’m saying here?”

“I…” She was still half-grinning, but with a touch of shame.  “I just… I don’t think I’m that bad!”

Now, this kind of assertion always throws me for a loop.  My natural tendency is to second-guess all my feelings and responses, so contradiction of them sends me into a spiral:  Maybe she really isn’t that bad! Maybe I’m overreacting! This was a terrible idea!

“It’s not a question of being bad, Kaneesha,” I said.  “It’s a question of creating a difficult atmosphere in a small classroom.  You may think your behaviours are normal, but they’re not normal behaviours for a college student.  If you look around the class, you’ll see that others aren’t doing those things.  I guarantee you that some of them are tired, some of them are bored, but they’re doing their best and they’re not being rude.”

At that point, I could see her face closing down.  “All right?” I concluded.  “I want you to think about what I said.”

“All right,” she said sullenly, and gathered up her things and left.

Argh, I thought.  Stupid.  Useless.  Why did I have to use words like “normal”? Why didn’t I give her something concrete to do, to change, to focus on? I just made things worse.

*

I haven’t seen Michael or Kaneesha since these conversations (and I suppose that, depending on what Michael decides, I may not see him again.)  I am anticipating negative fallout from each of them, but we’ll just have to see.

Have you taken actions with students, with teachers, with loved ones, with friends, that you’ve later regretted?  Why do you think you did what you did at the time?  Were you doing your best, or were you careless?  Were you able to fix things later? How?

Image by Cecile Graat

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

Arrows into Blossoms: Reprise

My meditation practice has fallen to the wayside these days.  It would be wise for me to return to it.  In November 2009, I was tired of a lot of things, and some Buddhist reflections were helpful.  In particular, I spent time thinking about the writings of Pema Chodron, a tattoo of the Buddha under the bodhi tree, and how hard times and irritating people are opportunities for growth.  My thoughts on these subjects appear below.  The upshot: being pissed off is not so bad, really.

*

I’ve just finished reading Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. If you’re not familiar with Chodron, she is the world’s most famous Tibetan Buddhist American nun, and her works are meant to help Westerners understand the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism and apply them usefully in their own lives.  I found Taking the Leap, like all her books, inspiring, reassuring, and helpful.

At one point, she describes a famous Buddhist image that I hadn’t heard of before.  Before mentioning the image specifically, she tells a part of the story of the Buddha that many people are familiar with.  When the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree (where he eventually attained enlightenment), Mara, “the evil one,” came along and tempted him with beautiful women, delicious food, insults, and all other sorts of distracting objects.  Chodron says,

In traditional versions of the story, it’s said that no matter what appeared, whether it was demons or soldiers with weapons or alluring women, he had no reaction to it at all.  I’ve always thought, however, that perhaps the Buddha did experience emotions during that long night, but recognized them as simply dynamic energy moving through.  The feelings and sensations came up and passed away, came up and passed away.  They didn’t set off a chain reaction.

This state of being – the ability to experience emotion without being “hooked” by it, without being dragged into a whole self-feeding narrative of, say, anger, self-righteousness, and more anger – is the subject of Taking the Leap and some of Chodron’s other works.  I’d be willing to spend the rest of my life working toward this state of mind.

For example, I’ve been seething because the students in my most difficult class absolutely refused to cooperate with an activity I asked them to do last week, an activity that is essential in preparing them to do their next assignment.  They talked when I asked them to work alone and quietly.  They insisted that they “had to leave class now” and that they should be allowed to finish the assignment at home, even though I had clearly explained that this activity was practice for an essay they would have to write entirely in class.  They refused to press themselves beyond the simple declaration that “I don’t understand this story.”

I couldn’t calm my irritation, my sense that their stubborn resistance was a personal attack.  There is, of course, room to explore whether the assignment I gave them was too difficult, whether they haven’t had adequate preparation, whether I’m expecting something they can’t deliver.  But the deeper problem is that I was angry with them, and couldn’t shake it.

It’s possible to see any difficult situation as an attack from Mara.  We’re under threat, and we can react angrily or with panic or self-loathing.  But there’s another possible approach.  We can see the attack as food for our growth, as an opportunity for us to develop loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.  Difficulties are fertile soil for training our minds, and can be greeted with eagerness and gratitide.

A situation like mine, for example, is an opportunity to develop compassion.  The day after this frustrating lesson, my Philosophy of Education teacher returned an assignment to me, and I didn’t do as well on it as I always expect to do on my coursework.  In reading through his comments, it became clear to me that I simply hadn’t understood the criteria he was evaluating me on, and didn’t understand the process of philosophical inquiry he wanted me to go through – in fact, I realized that I didn’t have a clear idea of what a “philosophical approach” entailed, and so had no way of engaging in it.  At first, I was furious and defensive.

And then I remembered my class from the previous day.  This is exactly what they were feeling, I realized.  They were feeling it for a number of different reasons, and the fact that they don’t understand is due to a number of factors that they could have controlled – by showing up to class more often, for example – but the feeling is the same.  I get it.  And understanding where they’re coming from, and why, can relieve some of my feelings of helplessness and irritation.

After Chodron retells the above snippet of the story of the Buddha, she mentions the image I’ve taken all this time to get to.  She says,

This process is often depicted in paintings as weapons transforming into flowers – warriors shooting thousands of flaming arrows at the Buddha as he sits under the bodhi tree but the arrows becoming blossoms.

Immediately after reading these lines, I put the book down and ran to Google Images to find a depiction of this moment.  I wasn’t satisfied with the images I found; none captured the beautiful scene in my imagination, the blazing arrows morphing into a shower of soft flowers and cascading around the Buddha like snow.  If I could hold a pencil steady, I would’ve tried to draw or paint it myself.  Finally, though, I found this image, by the artist Austin Kleon:

buddhaflowersarrows

He describes the process of creating this image, a tattoo for a friend, here.  If I someday decide to get a tattoo, I may ask permission to use this.  In the meantime, I may have to post it on the cover of my course binder, to remind myself that every challenge can be transformed into flowers if I can only see it, not as a battle to be fought, but as an opportunity for growth and for deeper understanding of the human mind and the human condition.

This doesn’t mean I can make my students do what I want.  But maybe it means I can suffer less as I try to help them.

One Minute of Solitude: Reprise

solitude

We are six weeks into the semester, and I’m starting to pinpoint small classroom management issues and think about appropriate responses.  Nothing major has arisen so far (fingers crossed), but whenever I am confronted with hints of passive-aggressiveness, defiance or rudeness, I start evaluating what I need to do: ignore? Confront? Defuse in some other manner?

This always makes me think of past experiences, and one class from the autumn of 2009 has been coming to mind.  Here’s an early attempt I made to curb their inappropriate behaviour.  Take a guess: do you imagine this approach was effective?  Do you think it would be effective in one of your difficult classes?

*

Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.

This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.

What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.

Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.

All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.

What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?

And then I remembered a technique that a friend mentioned a while ago.  She said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.

This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.

So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.

“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”

“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”

I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”

60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”

Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.

I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…

Image by barunpatro

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

The Limits of Compassion: Reprise

What does being “compassionate” really entail?

One of my major preoccupations, in my teaching life and my life in general, is the line between “real compassion” and “idiot compassion”.  In March 2009, I was struggling with this dichotomy; I didn’t resolve it, but I often look back on this event when I am wondering how to respond to a student’s difficulties.

*

A few weeks ago, a student named Alexandra emailed me.  She was going to miss a week of classes because a friend of hers had died suddenly; she had to fly home to attend the funeral and help his family.

I sent her my condolences. I also explained that if she wanted to make up the in-class essay she would miss, she’d have to bring documentation of the reason for her absence.  The funeral home was used to these requests, I explained, and would know what to give her. I also reminded her that her lowest in-class essay mark would be dropped, so it wasn’t essential that she make this assignment up if she wasn’t up to it.

On the day she returned, at the end of class, Alexandra slammed a pile of scraps from the funeral – a copy of the obituary, some decorations with the deceased’s name on them – onto my desk and stalked away.  She was gone before I could ask what her gesture was supposed to signify.

At the beginning of the next class, I called her to my desk and asked if she’d brought those “documents” because she wanted to make up the essay she’d missed.  She said, “I brought them because you said you wanted to see something.”  I gently reminded her that I’d wanted to see something only if she wanted to retake the essay test – that documentation is always required if a student wants to redo a major assignment. I explained again that she was welcome to make up what she’d missed, but that, given the time that had elapsed and the circumstances, it would be understandable if she wanted to let this one slide, as her lowest essay test grade would be dropped from her average.

She seemed to soften.  She said that she probably couldn’t do a good job on the essay, so she’d pass on this one. I got the feeling that she understood: the request for documentation had nothing to do with her personally, and everything to do with a general rule that I had to apply equally to everyone.

In the weeks since then, however, Alexandra’s attitude toward me has been considerably colder than it was. I don’t know whether that’s a general change in her mood, because of the terrible loss she has just sustained, or whether she still harbours resentment over her [mis]interpretation of my request.

When I first started teaching, I gave students a lot of chances. If a student said his grandmother had died, I took him at his word and helped him make up the work. Over time, though, it became clear that students were taking advantage of this, and it was making my life more difficult and wasn’t helping them in the long run. Putting clear rules about late and missed work into place, and applying them consistently, has helped me deal with some ambiguous situations.

A case in point: another student in Alexandra’s class, Peter, emailed me more than a week after the due date of a major at-home assignment to ask if I had received his essay, which he had “put in internal mail.” I hadn’t, and reminded Peter that if he didn’t put an essay directly into my hands, he was required to email it to me immediately after submitting his hard copy, as proof that it was done. The next class we spoke about it – he still hadn’t brought it to me – and I told him that if he sent me the essay IMMEDIATELY, I would read it and consider giving him a very small portion of his grade. Four days later, I received an email with Peter’s essay attached. His aunt had died, he said, and so he had forgotten to email it to me “IMMEDIATELY”.  I replied that it was too late, and I wouldn’t consider his essay (such as it was – it was too short and made little sense.)

Peter would have failed the course even if I had graded his essay – maybe this is why I didn’t hear any arguments from him.  I suspect, though, that he didn’t protest because I had called his bluff.  I put such deadlines in place, and ask for documents to confirm legitimate reasons for missed assignments, because I don’t want to make decisions about who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.  Most students understand this – not just students who make up excuses and then can’t back them up, but especially students who have real, compelling reasons for missing work or handing things in late.  Alexandra seems to be an exception.

Of course, it’s difficult to explain to someone in Alexandra’s situation that, because of students like Peter, rules have to be created, and have to be enforced, for everyone. But it’s also difficult for teachers to know when to trust our intuition, and when our intuition will get us into trouble. If I had relaxed the rules for Alexandra, and then Peter had come back to me and said, “Well, you made an exception for her, why not me?”, things would have gotten messy.

How do we create structure and accountability for our students without sacrificing compassion for their very real troubles? It’s an endless dance, and sometimes we make the wrong moves.

Image by Gesine Kuhlmann

When You Are Uncool: Reprise

As promised, today I begin a Thursday series of posts from the archives – posts that have long since disappeared from view but that I still like.  New readers may be encountering them for the first time; if you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, maybe you’ll see something new in the post this time around.

The first is a slightly edited version of “When You Are Uncool,” a post that first appeared in December of 2008.  Some of the details of this post are no longer true – for example, my bra size has decreased considerably (yes, this is relevant; you’ll see.)  Nevertheless, the questions raised here still seem significant to me.  Should teachers aspire to be “cool”?  Is it possible to alienate students with one’s coolness or lack thereof?  Please give me your thoughts.

*

In September 2008, the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s yearly “College Issue” contained a piece by Mark Edmundson called “Geek Lessons: Why Good Teaching Will Never Be Fashionable.”  Edmundson summarizes his premise in a quote from the movie Almost Famous, out of the mouth of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, the real-life music journalist Lester Bangs: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you are uncool.”

According to Edmundson, good teachers are not cool. He lists off the ways teachers can be cool: “You emulate your students. You do what they do, but with a little bit of adult élan. You like what they like: listen to their tunes, immerse in their technology. …The most common way to become a hip teacher now … is to go wild for computers.”

A truly good teacher, Edmundson writes, is not like this – or, perhaps I can extrapolate, is not invested in being like this. “Good teachers see the world in alternate terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar.”

He describes a teacher entering the classroom through the window and asking students to define the word door. Another teacher takes his students outside so they can, with their bodies, create a kinetic scale model of the solar system, complete with orbiting and rotating. (I remember reading, in Lorrie Moore’s novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, about a similar class project in which one student, the narrator, was forgotten well into the night as she stood shivering outside the town library. She was Pluto.) “The good teacher is sometimes willing to be a little ridiculous: he wears red or green socks so a kid will always have an excuse to start a conversation with him; she bumbles with her purse to make her more maladroit kids feel at ease.”

The “Bangsian” professor, Edmundson acknowledges, is taking a risk. Students like cool teachers. They give them good evaluations. But according to Edmundson, “students don’t rebel against eccentric, surprising teachers. They rebel against eccentric, surprising teachers who take themselves too seriously.” The key, if you’re uncool, is to know it and be able to laugh at yourself, just like the fictionalized Lester Bangs.

Now, I’ve never been cool. I was deeply uncool as a child and young adolescent, was tormented and harassed for being uncool. In high school, I had plenty of friends, but I was also a lower-achieving version of Tracy Flick in Election, my hand always in the air and my smarty-pants mouth always running over with big words. I’ve always felt that everyone else knew some profound secret that I didn’t understand, a secret that allowed them to interact comfortably and unselfconsciously with others.

When I began teaching, I felt cool for the first time in my life. I was very young and acceptably good-looking, two qualities that immediately set a teacher on the road to cool. I also cared about my students, a lot, and cared even more about what they thought of me, so I wore clothes I thought they’d appreciate, did activities with them that I thought they’d like, and said “Yes” to almost everything they asked. I was an assistant teacher, so I wasn’t expected to discipline anyone – if students didn’t behave with me, they were removed from my class and returned to their regular teacher – so I rarely had to do anything that a child could construe as mean.

Students wanted to hang out with me on the playground, to hold my hand in the street, to share a room with me when we were on school trips. Never mind that these students were nine, ten and eleven years old and I was congratulating myself for being “cool” in their eyes.

I then began teaching at a high school, and my “coolness” was even more apparent and even more rewarding. I was barely out of high school myself. I was living in a small town where there were no young adults, all of them having left for the city to study or work. So I had no real friends. But to my students, I was cool.

I was an attractive twenty-year-old Anglophone (read: foreigner) who spoke French with a cute accent and had nothing better to do than chaperone school dances and go shopping in the city for slightly, but not threateningly, funky clothes. The boys wrote me love notes. Some of the girls, especially the “cool” ones, disliked me at first, but they came around when I was nice to them. When the Gulf War broke out and I drew a peace sign on my face with eyeliner every morning, the kids started doing it too. They wanted to be like me.

But I also went out of my way to be like them. I played games with them in the classroom, without ever asking myself what the pedagogical purpose of them was. I translated one student’s soap opera-style film script into English and spent all my free time, for the last two months of my time there, casting, directing and videotaping it. I went to volleyball games. I listened to French Canadian pop music. I watched Chambres en ville and Les filles de Caleb, the téléromans that they loved.

It wasn’t hard: I was a young person myself, and found these things enjoyable. I was almost effortlessly, almost naturally, popular.

It was intoxicating.

And then I started getting older.

The transition was a slow, and not a steady, one. I still loved my job, and my students, and that made me cool. When I was working in contexts where students were well-behaved and enthusiastic about what I was teaching, my own enthusiasm was enough to make me cool. I was, for many years, still young, and looked even younger. That was cool.

But I’m really not cool any longer.

I’m no longer good-looking by any teenager’s standard. The music most of them listen to is vapid and boring as far as I’m concerned. I’m not attracted to clothes that a seventeen-year-old would consider fashionable. I hate cell phones. Hate them. And, just as I used to say “Yes” to almost anything my students asked for, I now find myself saying “No” over, and over, and over.

It’s been very difficult for me to let go of the ego-trip, the sense of validation, that I got out of being “cool” all those years. I decided to become a teacher because of the feeling of self-worth that I got from being in the classroom. That feeling came from the way the students responded to me, a feeling I’d never had growing up. And as time went on, their responses changed. For a while, I thought that maybe my reasons for teaching were gone.

I’m no longer cool, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is that I haven’t resigned myself. I’m still looking for the kinds of responses I got when I was nineteen and twenty years old, and that’s just not going to happen.

What’s more, those responses had nothing to do with my students learning anything. I was validating my students just as they were, making them feel good about themselves by liking what they liked and never refusing them anything. But learning is not about being affirmed over and over. Learning is about being put in a position where you need to adapt and change.

I like Edmunson’s example of the red and green socks.

Most teachers I know spend time thinking about their clothes. When you’re standing up in front of rooms full of people all day, you can’t help but worry about your appearance. I know of teachers who safety-pin their flies closed every day, just in case. A colleague told me a while ago about female teachers who wear padded bras to avoid the problem of “nipplus erectus” in cold classrooms. (This option isn’t open to me: I wear a G-cup, and padding my bra would lead to a whole different set of fashion problems.) You don’t want to own too many sweaters that are similar, because then students will accuse you of wearing the same clothes all the time.

I mean, you don’t want to be laughed at. You take yourself seriously.

Even up to a few years ago, I got comments on evaluations along the lines of “I love the way miss dresses! It’s very special.” And I got comments like “One thing the teacher could improve: Her fashion sense.” I enjoyed comments like the former, and was baffled and hurt by comments like the latter. I still couldn’t grasp that I couldn’t please everyone all the time (even though I am, and always have been, well aware that my fashion sense is random and tenuous and sometimes just plain absent.)

Since reading Edmunson’s article, I’ve been musing about going in an entirely different direction.

I knit my own socks, often in hilarious colours. My hand-knit socks are not cool. Until now, it would never have occurred to me to wear a pair of my hand-knit socks in the classroom, unless they were well hidden inside boots.

But last night, as I finished up a thick pair in peony pink and sage green worsted, I held them up and had a vision of walking into the classroom in them, of a student saying, “Oh my God, miss, where did you get those socks?” And then we could have a conversation about sock knitting.

Sock knitting may be cool these days amongst hipster thirty-somethings, but to my students, believe me, sock knitting is not cool. It, and my pink-and-green socks, set me apart from them.

But we could talk about sock knitting, something this student would never have thought of doing, just like she would never have thought of wearing pink and green wool socks.

And even if she didn’t hear another word I said all class, she might go home and tell her sister or her father, “My teacher is a nutjob. You should have seen the socks she was wearing today. And then she told me she knit them herself. I mean, are you kidding me?”

And her vision of the world would have expanded to include people who knit, and wear, pink and green worsted wool socks.

People who, in other words, don’t take themselves very seriously.

I think Lester Bangs would approve.

Image by Riesma Pawestri

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