A cri de coeur from a university economics professor, Art Carden, has been circulating lately, in which he begs students to understand that a) professors do not live to torture you, b) teachers are not punishing you because you don’t know everything, and c) a bad grade does not mean that a teacher dislikes you or thinks you’re stupid. The most convincing part of his article is the conclusion.
Dear student, I once thought as you do. I once carried about the same misconceptions, the same litany of cognitive biases, and the same adolescent desire to blame others for my errors. I was (and remain) very poorly served by my immaturity….Economics is hard, but becoming a responsible member of a free society is very, very, very hard.
This plea is hitting home today, as I am about to meet with a student (if she shows up) who has demonstrated these “misconceptions, cognitive biases and adolescent desire to blame others” more blatantly than most. And this, after a single class meeting, and only four days into the fifteen-week semester.
On Tuesday I got a call from the coordinator responsible for placing students in their intro English classes. The weakest students go to my class, a pre-intro course meant to help with severe second-language problems. Apparently, one of my students, M, had written directly to the coordinator, asking that she be transferred to an intro class even though she has failed the Prep class more than once. “I assume she failed your class last semester,” the coordinator said.
“No,” I replied, “I haven’t taught this student before, but I have her writing sample right here…Let me pull it out. I’m meeting with her on Thursday morning for her oral interview; maybe I can talk to her about it then.”
“Huh.” The coordinator paused. “Her email gives the impression that she has the same teacher this term as she had before.”
I was only half listening, as I was scanning the paragraph she’d written for me the previous morning. “Nope, that wasn’t me. I’ve never seen the girl in my life. Her writing is definitely very weak; I hadn’t flagged her as someone who should be transferred. However, if she really wants to move…I don’t think she’ll pass a 101 course, but keeping her in the Prep might not be effective either, if she really resents being there.”
“True. However, this email…let me forward it to you, and you can see what you make of it. If I’m interpreting it correctly, she’s not being honest about the situation. Maybe when she comes to your office you can give me a buzz and we can both talk to her.”
He sent the email over. It is indeed very strange. In it, M does seem to be claiming that she has the same teacher this term as she did last term, but it’s always possible that her language errors are obscuring her true meaning. Less ambiguous, however, is the language she uses to describe her experience with this teacher. The language is troubling, not only because of the attitude it reflects, but also because this attitude is so common.
“My teacher failed me.”
“She failed me unfairly.”
“Her class was really bad. She was never clear about what we have to do.”
“Her class has not helped me at all and I don’t think it ever will. With her I will never pass.”
My emotional response to this is so complicated that I’m not sure I can parse it. First off, she seems to be claiming these things about ME, even though I am not the teacher who “failed her,” and so I feel irrationally defensive. Second, I am outraged on behalf of her former teacher – it could be one of a few people, but I know they are all excellent teachers and extremely nice people. But finally – I am just so tired of this attitude.
How many times have I said to students, word-for-word, the admonition from Art Carden’s article: “I do not ‘take off’ points. You earn them”? So many times that I’m sick of hearing myself say it. This belief that teachers “fail” you and that your “failure” is their fault is not unusual, nor is it incomprehensible. I’m still taking courses, and I still get mad at my teachers sometimes for their grading practices and their refusal to recognize how absolutely infallibly brilliant I am. That is, I get mad at them for a few minutes. Then I try to analyze the part I played in the situation.
The fact is, I’ve read this student’s writing, and she’s in the right class for her level. I don’t know why she hasn’t made more progress, or why, in particular, she failed the last time, but the insistence that she is not responsible for her failure is not just wrong; her failure is likely due in part to this attitude. So I’d rather not have her in my class. I’d prefer to push her on, and let her fail her 101 course and blame her teacher for that scenario. But of course that is not a responsible way for me to do things, at least not if my motivation is just to get her out of my hair.
The conversation will happen later today. I’m very interested to hear her explanations of the confusing claims she seems to be making, but I’m also interested in learning what I will say to her about her approach, because I’m not sure yet.
Is it possible to make an angry teenager understand that her teacher is not the one that “failed her”? Or will only time and maturity teach that? Granted, there are irresponsible teachers who treat students badly, but what does one do with a student who says that it is the school, and not she, who has caused her problems and must solve them for her?
Image by Valeer Vandenbosch