When I was in high school, I had a teacher that everyone was afraid of. We had to wear school uniforms, and we had to tuck our shirts in as part of the dress code. The other teachers joked that when this particular teacher walked down the hall, all of the students frantically tucked in their shirts so that she wouldn't yell at them.
When we were in her class, all the students sat up straight and were quiet unless she called on us. No one ever talked back to her, no one challenged any of the grades she gave out, and no one disrespected her. They didn't dare.
When I was in college, I took an American literature class taught by a professor who was very kind and intelligent but didn't always call out students on their bad behavior. Once, he offered to host a study session for the class in preparation for the final. A student said that the session time was inconvenient to her and said something like, "I'm not going to drag my ass to campus for something like that." He was trying to help us, and she was a rude jerk to him. Although I respected him, I wish that he had stood up to her, and I wish I had stood up for him.
I always wanted to be a teacher like the one I had in high school. When I first started teaching, I was still in my twenties and knew very little about how to interact with students. College teachers don't get the same training that grade school and high school teachers do, partly because search committees at colleges care more about job candidates' scholarly accomplishments than their abilities as a teacher (which is sad and unfair, but it's true). I only ever took one class, "How to Teach Freshman Composition", and that was it. I had to figure out everything else for myself.
And that was why I ended up letting far too many students walk all over me during my first year, like the one who threatened to get me fired because I called her out on her bad behavior, or the one who screamed at me for almost twenty minutes for giving him a B (male instructors who were concerned by his aggressive hostility had to intervene on my behalf), or the one who falsely accused me of racism in an e-mail that she circulated to multiple people in my department, including faculty who had no authority over my job, but she wanted to smear my professional reputation to as many people as possible.
I did not call out these students on their nastiness and blatant disrespect towards me (although I will say that I didn't change the grade of that student who screamed at me, even though it was clear that he was trying to bully me into giving him an A). I should have, but I was too scared of losing my job and did not yet realize that I was the one in charge of my classes, and therefore these students did not have the right to treat me like crap.
Every year, there are always at least one or two disrespectful students, like the one who claimed that he knew more about teaching literature than I did, even though he'd never taught anyone, or the one who literally reprimanded me for not responding to his e-mail in less than two hours. There are also the ones who ignore the fact that I have a Ph.D. and have earned the title of "Doctor", and insist on calling me "Ms." or by my first name instead. (I can't help wondering if that's partly because I'm a woman; the male professors don't face this problem nearly as often.) But each year, I grew stronger, and I pushed back against them, refusing to back down to them.
Recently, a student in one of my classes demanded a grade that they didn't earn, for work that they didn't do. This student was extremely disrespectful towards me and harassed me throughout the semester about their grades. Although the college administrators and my boss agreed with me that this student's behavior was unacceptable and that the student really didn't earn the grade that they were demanding for themselves, they still gave in to their tantrum and let them have their way.
The unfairness of it all angered me. The student doesn't get a grade that they think they deserve, throws a tantrum about it, and I'm the one that has to let them get away with it? I spoke to a professor once who said that disrespectful students like that kid can ruin a class that's full of other students who are hard-working, well-behaved, and respectful. And it's true. It's students like this person that make me question whether teaching really is my vocation.
Sometimes I think that if I had been more like that teacher that everyone was scared of back in high school, this disrespectful and hostile kid would never have dared to lash out at me. Other times, I think that it just reflects what many colleges have become: "safe spaces" that let kids with a strong sense of entitlement and the unwillingness to respect authority have their way, again and again, even if it's to the detriment of their own education.
It reminded me of an incident that happened when I was teaching in Small Town. A student in one of my classes stopped showing up for more than a month, stopped turning in his assignments, and ignored my e-mails. When I refused to give him a passing grade, he sent the nastiest e-mail I've ever received from a student, where he said I was the worst professor he'd ever had and THAT was why he stopped showing up. Although my bosses agreed that this student was immature, they wouldn't let me defend myself and told me to APOLOGIZE to the student for the fact that he was going to be penalized.
I know that as the professor, I have to be the adult in this situation. I can't tell the students exactly what I think of them because then I would get in trouble and lose my job. But it's hard to keep my cool when yet another student disrespects me, and on the inside I'm basically feeling this:
What about you? Do you ever have to deal with disrespectful people at your job? Did you ever have an intimidating teacher back when you were in school?
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