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


26 responses

  1. Very sensitive thoughts…
    Well, it´s part of being human…. We teachers, unfortunatelly are also made of blood and bones and nerves… Not always able to react in the expected way…. Not always able to tell right from wrong. That´s why dealing with machines is always easier…. Just follow the directions and press the right button

  2. What you’re examining are your communication skills. I read a quote yesterday that addresses what you’re doing:
    “To demonstrate effective communication skills we have to be good observers of our own interactions, be able to self-regulate (change the direction of our actions) and self reflect (think about what we could do differently).” (Cicely Bryce, Director of Medical Clinical Skills Year 2 at UBC, and medical oncologist).

    So according to that, you’re well into the process. Bravo! Not everybody is willing to go there.

    One suggestion for an easier way to start with someone like Michael would be, “How do you think you did?” And then go from there.

    For Kaneesha, you might have preferred to have done it differently, but you were trying to set boundaries with her as well as being compassionate, and that’s important but not easy, and often quite uncomfortable. One alternate direction that can be useful is to just repeat the student’s words, for example, “You don’t know what to say…” and then wait attentively. It’s the waiting instead of ‘lecturing” that I find leads students to elaborate. And once they realize that they can trust me and that I am really listening, it’s amazing what I find out.

    It sounds as though you’ve developed a good relationship with Kaneesha, evidenced by a productive discussion. A major accomplishment. If that one discussion derailed your whole working relationship, then Kaneesha needs a lot more than a good teacher like you. She will probably understand your strength and good intentions, and if you continue to be compassionate and respectful but firm, I see no reason why the teaching relationship shouldn’t continue to be productive.

    • WUD: This is encouraging! I like the idea that self-reflection is a major part of communication skills, as I am, if nothing else, self-reflective…perhaps to a fault, as this blog demonstrates. I do think these were both situations where something needed to be done, and I did the best I could at the time, even if it turns out to be inadequate.

  3. One more thing. Your tone when you talk about these students is different than in the last posts about them. Despite your frustration, you’ve been trying hard to learn from them and be the best teacher you can be for them. When we try to understand people, we will have moments of sensing what they are feeling. Is it entirely regret you’re feeling, or is it partly empathy? Could this be a movement from anger at your students to a moment of (very appropriate) sadness at their situations?

  4. I subbed in a high school class a few weeks ago. One of the students clearly thought she could throw me under the bus (and that was NOT going to happen)…I finally had had enough of her attitude and disruptive behavior that I said, “OK GIRL X…I understand you’re not going to work today. That’s no problem…I’ll communicate that with the teacher.”…and she yelled quite loudly, “I don’t care about the EFFING assignment!” – and I said to her quite calmly, “GIRL X, stand up and remove yourself from my class.” She sat there and did nothing. I repeated it 2x. She finally left. I issued her a detention and then after I had calmed down and she had too…I explained to her why I issued her the detention. (Language, disruptive behavior, defiance, etc.) and she went on and on and on….

    My point being….I know I’m not there to change the world and it’s not MY classroom. But if i WAS the classroom teacher things would be a HECK OF A LOT diff. But yet, when I’m there I am the teacher and i have my own expectations. She was meeting NONE OF THEM…as an 11th grader!

    I saw this student again last week and she wrote me a letter of apology. Among other things she said she’d “work” on her anger…but that “I” had made her mad.

    I’ve thought about her quite a little bit….

  5. I’m really impressed by the level of compassion that both you and your commenters have. It motivates me to think about my interactions with students. I do think self-reflection is important in life in general, and definitely as a teacher.

    It might also be a good thing to model in public, as well, meaning in the classroom. It is a good skill for students to have.

    I think part of being a teacher, especially a teacher of young adults, is to start transferring responsiblity to them. That means Kaneesha is going to have to start taking responsibility for her own actions *and* their consequences. Teachers cannot carry students across the finish line, whatever that finish line is. Students have to get there by themselves. If a student has been “carried”, even if that help has been out of compassion (or is it pity, one would have to ask), in Michael’s case, he’s now coming up against a wall. I’m thinking (based on my own experiences) he has been nurtured and nudged and encouraged along but not held to the same expectations as other students–and maybe it was out of kindnessm, and/or because he is likable in a way Kaneesha is not–but now it’s falling to you to transfer the responsibility of recognizing his contribution to failure (not meeting the requirements of the assignment).

    One final thought–what about the other students in the class? The ones who do the work, and show interest or at least compliance? Who actually do what you ask of them? I wonder if they see how much care and time you put into students who, in Kaneesha’s case, just (act like they) don’t care. They might start to wonder why you don’t spend that time and care with them. If the “problem student” always gets a teacher’s care, they might wonder why bother showing you that THEY care.

    • Terry:
      Your final point is a good one, and one I’ve thought about a lot. A few years ago, a quiet and hard-working student wrote a scathing course evaluation (I recognized her handwriting) about how I had no control of the class and it was impossible for her to learn. Since then, I have been extremely conscious of trying to nip disruptive behaviour in the bud, and have been much more successful. But when it comes to one-on-one support and interaction, I like to believe that I spread myself around evenly, especially when it comes to the time in the classroom. This is why behaviour like Kaneesha’s is not allowed to continue.

  6. Your students are very lucky to have someone who cares a great deal and takes their role as an educator so seriously. I hope my kids have a couple of teachers like yourself.

  7. PLEASE do not beat yourself up over these interactions. They don’t go as well as you might wish because the sttudents, both Michael and Kaneesha, have been allowed to fall far short of standards (academic in the case of Michael, behavioral in the case of Kaneesha) by many, many people earlier in their lives. Teachers of 18-year olds should not have to untangle the reasons behind this level of underperformance. If the reason seems to be caused by mental illness you can refer the student to counseling. If it’s caused by total inability to do the work, you refer the student to the advising office. Other than that, you can’t do much other than (as you rightly point out) maintain the standards that are appropriate for the other students , who are doing the work, learning the material, and behaving like adults in the classroom.

    • Quite a number of years ago, there was a theory of parenting that advised parents not to punish children for misbehavior, but to let the natural consequences of that behavior teach the child not to repeat it (I know, I know; very idealistic, right?). But there really was something to that, if among the “natural consequences” you were allowed to include that others would avoid the child if s/he was being really out of line. It strikes me that the two students that Siobhan is trying to help (Michael and Kaneesha) have up until now been robbed of the “natural consequences” of their behavior. Michael has been passed along without learning for what must have been a very long time. Kaneesha has not been excluded or suspended for her egregiously bad behavior. What we must do is restore the natural consequences that would have taught these students to (in the case of Michael) find a better use for his time, and (in the case of Kaneesha) learn to behave like an adult.

    • “…the students…have been allowed to fall far short of standards…by many, many people earlier in their lives.” Agreed. Kaneesha in particular astonished me – it was as though she had never been told, by anyone, that it’s not ok to do these things in the classroom.

  8. Thank you for your response! I meant to add that although you might wish you had worded it differently…that pointing out what college students should act like is maybe a step in the right direction. She may have never SEEN good students in action, so it’s all totally foreign to her. She just might not know what “good students” do–what they act like in a classroom, how they manage their time and materials, how they interact with peers and professors. It might all be brand-new for her. She genuinely might not know! (I’m giving her the benefit of a lot of doubt, here! You’ve been so patient with her it puts my reaction to her in reading your blog to shame) So maybe in the future there is room for some sort of teaching moment/lesson about how to *be* a college student..?

  9. I had somewhat of an experience with a student in a class I’m TA-ing for. I have no idea how this guy passed high school because his handwriting is probably more like a 1st grade. I’m TAing a math class and every week there is homework due. I would spend way more time on his sheet than on the other students in trying to decipher his bloody scrawls. I told him time and time again that he needed to write more clearly, but he just wasn’t listening.

    After a few hw sets, I set an ultimatum to him: type this up or I will not grade it. (Luckily the professor in the class had no trouble w/ my decision–he completely agreed). The weirdest reaction was that the student was *shocked* that I told him this.

    I feel like sometimes, maybe these kids don’t have anyone to tell them straight up what they need to hear. That other people don’t care enough to tell them that they are doing something wrong and they need to fix it. And when someone tells them something that is, quite frankly, factual (but no one has taken the effort to tell them), they are shocked.

    You were asking them to think and to seriously consider what their actions were costing them. I don’t think that is wrong..

    • ASPS: I have some trouble w/ this one. I have absolutely illegible handwriting because of a permanent injury in my right arm – I have my students submit most of their work online so I can type comments and feedback. I’ve also known people throughout my life who have had very little fine motor control and so have never been able to develop their handwriting skills. I agree that some solution has to be found – typing in the case of your student, for example – but I would hesitate to put bad handwriting down to laziness or an unwillingness to learn. Sometimes – more often than we might think – it’s a physical issue that is as frustrating to the student as it is to the teacher.

      • And yet, this student is, at a minimum, 17 years old. Has no-one, in his high school career or earlier, helped him figure out that he can’t use his own handwriting for homework and other assignments? I’m sorry to be harping an the same message over and over, but it seems to me that CEGEP and community college teachers (and many university teachers) are being asked to deal with academic and behavioral issues that should have been solved in elementary school or high school.

  10. Very tough stuff. I was an admittedly okay student, but the teachers I remember most were the ones that addressed my natural behaviours square-on and caused me to re-think things. I think that’s what you are doing here. Only time will tell the impact of your conversation on the second student, but perhaps one way to grapple with the impact on the first student would be to follow up with him later? It may be above and beyond the job description, but it may also give you some perspective on how you chose to address the situation. Maybe with a bit of time, he, too, will have come to consider options other than college and may have other questions you could help him with that would help him full realize his potential and place in the world. Good luck with it all.

    • SWG: agreed, followups may be a good way to gauge the impact. I may check in w/ Michael to see if he did go to counselling. As for Kaneesha, at this point I don’t feel enough empathy for her to know what to do; it may come down to just managing her behaviour for the rest of the semester. You’re right, though – even if students sometimes react badly in the moment, interactions that hurt their feelings are sometimes the ones that have the most lasting positive impact.

  11. I am as always a fan. As to directly answer your question, I am full of regrets! So much so that I sometimes feel that trying to shut them up is making me swing in the equally terrible polar opposite: of not feeling compassion at all. Or rather making guilt to bottle up and build.

    But when the time and tide click, I remember the casual remarks that had hurted people and worsened the situations. There came a time in my life when I was so guilt-ridden that I had almost made up my mind to go out and say sorry to each person whom I felt I had slighted in the past, knowingly or unknowingly. But all such plans die a natural death, since in broad daylight there is a natural aversion to make surroundings uncomfortable. Then one thinks, ‘Oh, let bygones be bygones.’

  12. What I read on your blog of the things you worry about are providing students with a blunt reality. On the one hand, you seem to feel compelled to do it, and on the other you feel guilty and like maybe you don’t know reality well enough to offer it. In Michael’s case, you were motivated by real concern for him–that he’s actually getting more beaten down by failing repeatedly in college than he would be if he chose something he might actually be successful at. In Kaneesha’s case, “normal” was probably exactly the right thing to say, as that is the fundamental problem with her behavior. She sees it as “normal” when it is far from usual for other people. Her frame of reference is herself, and herself alone. Telling her that this isn’t usual for other people could possibly be helpful, as getting along in life will involve recognizing that she needs to conform to standards not her own to get through. But overall it is probably not a fixable problem. She does not fundamentally feel responsible for her own emotional states or her behavior, and she is not concerned about their impact on other people. She reads like a textbook narcissist.

    i do do things I regret. I usually tell the student I’m sorry and that I said the wrong thing and should never have said it. Sometimes my failures and regrets put our relationship on a more positive track than it had ever been on before. There is something appealing to young people about an adult who makes mistakes and admits they have made them. Just as long as you don’t make them too often.

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