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.
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.
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.
“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