Monday, March 2, 2015

It's a third of the way through the semester, so it must be time for me to be frustrated...

Arrgh. I do not know, people. I somehow manage to be massively frightening and intimidating to large numbers of my students here (or they are just always looking silent and scared and dumbstruck) and at the same time I get tons of disrespectful, boundary-pushing behavior from others. My "actual" class persona is only slightly silly and fairly brisk and clipped, so in response to student freakouts and that terrified look on their faces I dial it back, way back, and go way way against my usual style to be as inoffensive and unintimidating as possible. I'm sure that this reads to some other students as "pushover" or lacking in authority and they take my fairly lax classroom rules and discipline as an invitation to start pushing back on me about what's acceptable. It seems to consistently happen at about the same time in the semester every time too --- which is when this place does student evaluations (sooo bizarrely early!) and that is just extra sucky for me.

I know what has happened in previous semesters that is bad (here is me trying desperately to learn and improve from this whole getting non-renewed thing): I get frustrated, I stew and obsess over these disrepectful behaviors and replay them endlessly in my head at home, and then I get touchy and prickly and pushback or lash out in the classroom --- sometimes as part of stopping the offenders, sometimes at other people --- and then the terrified students get even more terrified as my more snarky or abrupt side comes out.

Ok, hmm, so how do I replace this cycle with something better and nip it in the bud? I've got my mantras and I'll write me even more mantras ---- I wrote a post for you about my plan to use mantras, right? ---- anyway, I'm going to do my student conferences with the freshman comp class and try to get them to talk as much as possible and seem very very unintimidating (I hate days of small talk while trapped in my office! Aaaaaaaaah!) and maybe even tell some of my quietest froshcomp students that I would love for them to speak up in class more.

My developmental class I'm not going to do conferences with yet because they are really surprisingly into me and the class (but I have shared a lot more of my movie/free time/life preferences) ---- with the exception of the two guys who showed up totally high that one day (and these are the two who were repeating everything I said in a mocking "quit hitting yourself" tone of voice at the end of class --- these two inspired this post). Totally High Guys --- I think I'm going to send an email to Coach. I may even kick them out of the class, but that's always hard when people are looking to skate right along the edge of what is acceptable and not get caught. I kinda need to have a script or mantra for that kind of situation and whatever I prepare doesn't ever fit the actual situation as it arises. I'm definitely one of those people who comes up with the "perfect" (pedagogically speaking) retort two days later after stewing about it, and who comes up with the Worst.Possible.Response.Ever (in terms of being really harsh, funny, and often obscene) as something completely unthought that just pops right out of my mouth unexpectedly. Sigh.

The other class ---uhhhh, the other class. It seems to be going so well, compared to froshcomp. We have had several really really good discussion class sessions where a fairly large chunk of the class just ran away with the show and I wrote stuff on the board ---- and there are still a few very quiet people who don't really participate, but I think even most of them spoke up once or twice. But we just did peer reviews and I had a student who was doing this weird thing being simultaneously really flattering and saying zie really really wanted an A on this paper and kept asking what grade I would give this paper at this time ---- um, no. No. That is not appropriate behavior to even ask or demand a grade once, and you did it for like ten minutes. Now if I had said, stop it, this isn't professional behavior, or does that tactic work on any of your other teachers? I might have cut this off, but --- see above about trying to throttle any responses that seem too intimidating or might scare away students. Which means that, since I don't have a supportive and pedagogically-appropriate mantra lined up for this unforseen situation, and since my knee jerk response in my head was Really?!? Quit it. Grow up., I was kinda left doing this glassy-eyed head nod and "ok, but... ok, but..." inarticulate thing. 

Sigh. This is tough. I need a drink. And maybe to punch someone.


Anonymous said...

Anger is a killer when you're a woman. Disappointment is the key. They're used to it from their (female) K-12 teachers and they don't hold your disappointment against you. They know what it means. It took me a few years to figure that out.

Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov is also invaluable for teaching tactics about how to prevent and shut down student disrespect. I use his stuff *all* the time. (It's also about K-12 teaching but even works on graduate students!)

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I've had some success in difficult semesters with a divide-and-conquer technique. Divide the class in two, and meet separately with each section for a couple of days while the others go to the library, see a movie, work on some assignment, whatever. Then you can be all supportive and nurturing of the terrified students and tell them you want them to succeed etc and be more stern with the others and tell them you want everyone to succeed and that means RULES. If you're lucky then everyone thereafter reads your normal behavior as being in keeping with the message they got in those separated days.

But classroom management with people who are in very different places as far as either discipline or smarts or both is really, really tough.

Anonymous said...

p.s. It looks like we have three posts on the stuff we got out of Teach like a Champion on our website, if you search for the book's name you'll get the last two and Part II has a link in it to Part I. But well worth interlibrary loaning in any case.

Contingent Cassandra said...

If you ever figure out how to simultaneously scare some students while making others less anxious/scared, please let me know (though DEH's idea sounds interesting, and I'll read N&M's posts). It seems to be a perennial problem (and really, though of course we do what we can, adding this kind of pscychological management on top of an already very heavy teaching load seems like a bit much. Can't we expect adult students to manage themselves at least a bit more?)

As for the Totally High Guys, emailing Coach sounds like a very good idea. Coaches can be remarkably effective at bringing such characters into line.

Feminist Avatar said...

So the theory on making insecure students feel secure whilst disciplining the less-well behaved (and which is something my husband, a high school teacher, says works very well with that age group) is consistency. In the first week establish the boundaries of behaviour in the classroom (with school students, they are often asked to make the class rules themselves and they tend to more severe and need to be talked backwards than the reverse - this might not be the right strategy for adults) as well as the repercussions for non-compliance (such as being asked to leave). It is good to have something like a three strikes rule to help with this (but this should be told to them at the beginning). If necessary, you may even want to visibly take note when students 'strike out'. You then need to enforce those rules constantly and consistently (especially in early weeks). You shouldn't differentiate for 'good' or 'bad' students - what are they doing on that occasion, does it break the rules? You shouldn't carry grudges over weeks - each class is a new opportunity to behave or not; and don't go in expecting bad behaviour (or at least don't give that impression). Moreover, when you discipline you should make reference to the discipline policy - 'I am sorry, but that is against the behaviour policy for this class. This is your first strike. If you continue, you will be asked to leave'. When you enter into such a 'social contract' with students at the beginning, they will tend to help police themselves, ie by telling off their badly behaved members or supporting you when you have to ask people to leave.

More importantly, it makes the insecure feel secure, because they know what to expect. When they know that the badly behaved will be punished, when they know that you will always respond in the same way, they will start to trust you and relax. You can combine this with always treating every genuine contribution as just that; by responding seriously, by 'rewarding' them with kind words and, even if they're wrong, by a response that allows them to feel like it is ok to be wrong in your classroom (I tell my students this at the start of term actually).

Interestingly, being strict and enforcing rules is not something that ruins trust, as long as students feel they know where they are. It is the teachers that are kind one moment and angry the next; or put up with an infraction one day but not on another; or who sometimes respond kindly to intellectual contributions and sometimes shut them down, that cause students to feel insecure. Now you may not have caused that insecurity, but you can start to try at least to create a classroom context where they can feel that they are safe with you. And, key to this, safety is not just about how you treat them, but those around them.

In my own classroom, I do lay out expectations for what will go on in that space and also about what speech is or is not acceptable (no racism, sexism, talking over each other etc). I have never had to use a three strikes rule for discipline however, as I've never had discipline problems like that (which is probably about the nature of my institution). But I know this works really well for my husband; I'm appalled you need to do this with adults - but if they're behaving like children, then perhaps it is needed.

Sisyphus said...

Cassandra, it's funny you'd ask me that since I was taking your idea of the individual conferences as the way to tailor diversified messages to my students. I will let you know how it shapes up!

Anonymous said...

I just remembered another quick fix, this one by boice---get to class 10 min early and chat with the students. This has helped at least 3 female profs I know including me.