Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Teacher Does What We All have Done, or Wanted to Do and Suffers the Internet Age

You may have heard of the viral video of a Cornell teacher reaching his breaking point: I wouldn't include it, but for two things: 1) it was mentioned in Newsweek, and 2) it went viral. It might be worth it for us to talk about it. I showed the video to my students today in order to encourage some discussion about respect in the classroom - in both directions.

I felt so awful seeing the video. I know that I have done that, or the equivalent. I don't think that I have done it recently, but certainly I did it early on in my teaching career. You know how it goes: there are some behavioral problems in your classroom, you bite your tongue, use the principle of charity, soldier on...until you break. And when you break, you break big. The break will happen on a day when you are tired, the students appear especially passive, you have spent your evenings and weekends grading, grading, grading, preparing, preparing, preparing and, well, we all know what happens next: that one thing that you may have been able to shrug off two weeks ago just sets you off.

I asked my students to compare this to the incident a number of months ago of a Jetblue flight attendant who lost it with a rude passenger and quit. The general reaction was "you go!" People supported his moment of lashing out in a way that people online have not with the Cornell teacher. Why? I am not asking that rhetorically - I think that the question is interesting and instructive. For example, if a student were to lose it in the classroom we have a whole (administrative) apparatus that would be operative in dealing with the situation. But passengers in a plane are not merely rude but positively disruptive. My own students noted that the in the course of being angry about disruption, the teacher disrupted the classroom.

I'm not condemning the teacher - not at all. I can't, since I know all too keenly the instincts that compelled him and that he wasn't able to tamp down that day. But neither do I think that his behavior represents the best judgment (I would hazard that he would not either.) But why do we celebrate the Jetblue attendant's reaction to rudeness and denigrate this understandable (but perhaps not justifiable) reaction to rudeness?

I ask this also because I think that we can learn from this as teachers. The one thing that my students agreed on was that no matter what was and wasn't rude or over the line, the teacher's reaction was ineffective. That's probably right. So. Here are the practical questions:

1) How do we deal with behavioral issues in the classroom - especially a large classroom? (I exempt myself here - I can say "call the student into office hours," but my classes are very small compared to many courses taught by my colleagues.

2) How do we think about education, students, ourselves in a way that can prevent that build up of resentment and frustration? Some degree is inevitable: our students are frustrated, and often quite rightly and often for reason that have little to do with us directly. We are frustrated, mostly because we want to do well, and to have some sense that we are doing well. But day to day, it is very difficult to get a sense from our own students that we are reaching them in any respect.

Perhaps this makes clear what an emotionally complex terrain the classroom is. We haven't talked about this much. Are there things we want from students that are misplaced (a sense of accomplishment) and are there things that they are expecting of us that are misplaced (a sense of approval)?


  1. Is it too simplistic to say that students who are disruptive are to be invited to leave the room?

    It has always seemed to me that "behavioral problems" have no place in a college classroom. Gradeschool teachers can't just get rid of those students, but I think that at most Universities, at least, professors have that power.

    I say use it.

    That doesn't speak to the issue of how to prevent the problems in the first place, of course. But how to respond to them? Simply get rid of the problem! :D

  2. Hi Becko,

    One thing that stands out to me about this is that -- however understandable the instructer's frustration may be -- it is also understandable that this kind of approach must fail.

    At the beginning, there was one instructor trying to do his job, one idiot trying to be a class clown, and 200 other students who were probably mostly _annoyed_ by the idiot. After all, they bothered to come to class. Whether they found the material intrinsically interesting, found it instrumentally interesting, or just wanted to sit there and look engaged because they thought the instructer wanted to see them there (the latter of which was unlikely to be the rationale in a class that size), they presumably wanted to hear what was going on without interruption.

    So, before the outburst, they probably felt more connection with the instructor than with the idiot. The idiot, if anything, was acting as though he was still in high school. Surely, most of the people present recognized that the idiot could have just left if he didn't want to be there.

    However, the first thing the instructor did was to ask the 200 students to identify the idiot. That's an understandable move, but it plays into the high school mentality the idiot was operating under. It also forces the 200 students to choose at the worst time possible: at that moment, they needed to choose between getting rid of the idiot and being -- and being seen to be -- a snitch. And nobody wants to be seen as a snitch.

    Immediately after that, the instructor used the students' silence to associate the 200 students with the idiot and get angry at _all_ of them. This cemented the impression of instructor-against-the-students even further.

    What could have been done instead? Well, I think the best thing would be to capitalize on the fact that the idiot is an idiot, and that everybody knows it. The instructor could have elicited the sympathy of the 200 students by remarking on how much the other students, who are taking the time out of their day (and their lives) to attend class, are having the experience ruined by the jerkoff. He could even have played it up by saying, "Don't you hate it when someone thinks that it would be funny to..." If he wanted to ask the whole class a question, I think the question would be "Who else here thinks that yawning loudly in the middle of class is funny?". This could be asked not in the manner of a teacher berating students, or a parent chiding a child, but of a comedian dealing with a heckler. The lack of response then would be seen by all those present not as support for the idiot, but support for the instructor.

    If the instructor really wanted to bring it home and rant about it for awhile, he could have continued in this vein, saying, "I don't know which guy did that, but I will say this...". If it's a funny rant, that will get some students smiling and even more on-side. The idiot, meanwhile, will realize that he's up against everyone else. And the instructor can't be blamed for singling out a particular student, because he admitted that he didn't know who did it.

  3. Good post, interesting discussion. I saw the video too, and it made me squirm. I know what it feels like to be an instructor who works super hard on a lesson, only to have it disrupted by a careless student. However, I don't think demanding that other students call the "jerk" out was a good idea. It does seem to have turned the students against the instructor.

    Giving them a stern lecture about behavior, or even asking them to leave, may solve the problem for the moment. But these don't address the reason behavioral issues happen in the first place.

    I'll reflect on what I take to be a significant source of behavioral issues: the "too much on one's plate" phenomenon.

    A lot of students take on more courses than they should, simply because they want to "finish sooner". A full course load, in addition to full time jobs, and families in some cases. A lot less students these days are willing, or able, to devote a full four years ONLY to their studies. Scholarship requirements, the "you can have it all" mentality; those forces have resulted in students taking on way more than they probably should. That's a lot of pressure. They get frustrated, and take it out on instructors.

    They take on too many responsibilities, and then expect us teachers to assign less, and less difficult, assignments. They become frustrated when they realize that I do indeed expect them to devote several hours a week to the class, outside class--to devote as much time to the course as students have always been expected to devote to their courses.

    Heck, as an adjunct instructor trying to make a basic living, there's quite a bit on my plate, too. It feels like I have little choice, given what I make per class. The stress of nearly a dozen classes in one semester, and no health insurance, and so on definitely compromises my ability to always react calmly and rationally in an especially heated situation, especially if it's been a bad week / day.

    Anyway, I wonder if there would be less behavioral issues in the classroom if students (and instructors) were less pressured in the ways I just described? Food for thought.

  4. Dear Justin and K,

    You both make excellent points. I also get the sense that when things get to this point, the real story behind the behavior is long since buried - the frustration, the overwork, the sense of being under-appreciated, etc. etc. So much of this is projection.

    So, from our point of view, there are some things we can do to keep ourselves more calm. Both of you have offered things that we can reflect on to remind ourselves that we are simply using one disruptive student to let off steam. Not that the student isn't being disruptive...

    Here are some other things I think about and one technique my colleague uses:

    1. Most of our students have been cheated out of a decent education by the time they have reached us - that includes an education in being polite, respectful and attentive. This goes a long way in terms of explanation. If anything, thinking about it makes me angry on their behalf and compassionate with respect to the ways in which their frustrations get expressed.

    2. Being a student is often infantalizing, alienating, and disappointing, even with the best teachers. No matter how hard we try, eduction is its own justification and the answer to "what's it all worth?" is just not immediately apparent. It is normal human psychology to feel unmotivated in an endeavor that is so open-ended and difficult.

    3. What is the classroom but a highly regimented form of civilization? As such, it is capable of promoting tremendous human growth but at a cost of being embedded in a system that frustrates the one thing that you (as a student) thought you were there for - experimentation, expression, individuality, etc.

    Finally, as regards the various behaviors that look like boredom. My colleague uses a good method if the student is identifiable: without anger and without sarcasm she says to the student: "You look really tired. I'm not sure you can get much out of class today. It's better that you go home and rest up and we'll see you next class." If the student resists, she simply says more firmly, "No, I'd like you to take today off and return more rested." It works for her! I don't know if it would work for everyone.

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  6. (Late reply, but...)

    Isn't there a difference in people's perception of who holds power between flight attendants & passengers and between students & professors? My impression is that people see flight attendants as similar to waiters/waitresses - there to serve the passengers - while a teacher is "the boss" in the classroom. I think the line is a lot more blurred than that, but that could play into the different reactions to each scenario.

    I remember one day when a professor burst out in a "stern lecture" at my international relations class, after several students (about 5 of a class no larger than 20) came in late - one at a time, spaced a few minutes apart. I could see him twitch each time a new student came in (at the front of the room, inevitably a distraction). He had to start class over more than once, it wound up being delayed by probably ten minutes, and as the last student came in and casually crossed the projector image to their seat, he lost it & went on a lengthy rant. I had respected him from the beginning of the semester; this outburst actually made me respect him more. (Were I in the class with the Cornell prof, I would have been one of the students who'd be annoyed at the idiot but would remain silent as the professor turned on the rest of the class.) There were a couple of important differences, though.

    First, my professor didn't single out any one student and did make a point to tell the last late student that he wasn't talking just about them (since that student, of course, didn't know the situation). At the same time, he was clearly addressing the culprits and apologized to "the rest of you" for the rant. Second, he didn't merely get mad and yell at students to leave class or not come; he got angry and yelled a bit, to be sure ;), but he yelled about _why_ he was angry - the latecomers were being rude, disrupting the rest of the class, and by wasting our time, evincing the attitude that the time of everyone else in the class was less important than their own personal convenience or laziness, etc.

    ...I won't lie: I disliked sitting through that. But I was glad to see the prof stand up to rudeness, all the same. There's room for a good outburst - just make it a good one.


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