Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Teachers Who No One Dared to Disrespect

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?


  1. The Teacher Who No One Dared to Disrespect. I am pedantic about pronoun usage.

    I am a laid back instructor for the most part. But I'm rigid about due dates (I'm not organized enough to take late work) and talking over other people. These are the battles I win in the classroom. People swearing? That's cool. People walking in late and walking out early? Eh, it drives me crazy, but I'm not going to let that be a thing I worry about.

    For me, it's about what battles I'm willing to fight. And I appreciate that my chair and my dean generally back me up.

    1. Hi NGS,
      I changed it. I'm not okay with students swearing at me because that just shows that they have no sense of courtesy or respect; I don't tolerate that from anyone, especially not the students, because otherwise it teaches them that it's okay to treat their teachers with disrespect.
      Students showing up late and leaving early are problematic because they expect (or in some cases demand) that I either e-mail them everything they missed or set aside extra time outside of class to "get them caught up". I am not willing to do that just because they can't be bothered to stay for the whole class.

  2. Yikes! I don't get it, when I was in college I would never dream of acting like any of those students. Are college kids just more entitled and spoiled now? Am I already old??

    1. Hi Sarah,
      Fortunately, not all college students are like that, but a lot of them are. More than one of my former students said that they should get A's simply because they attended class every day; I told them that doing the bare minimum is not enough to get an A.
      I think it's partly due to their upbringing that they're like this. One reason that one disrespectful student got their way about their grade was that they went running to their parents after not getting their way (just like a child would); the parents raised hell about it until everyone agreed to give them the grade that student wanted, not the grade the student actually earned.

  3. There's a lot of folks out there that don't realize just how hard a profession teaching is.

    1. Hi Sandra,
      I've had a lot of jobs, and teaching has been the toughest one. I used to love teaching, and I used to be happy in the classroom. But disrespectful, hostile, and vindictive students like the ones I described, as well as the fact that my bosses have typically prevented me from disciplining those students in any way, have drained my passion for teaching.

  4. Gosh, that sounds like hell. It shocks me to know that students act this way, but then again...sadly, it's not all that surprising in this day-and-age. I used to dream of being an elementary school teacher. I don't think I ever would've had the guts to teach higher grades. Let alone college students!

    1. Hi Chrys,
      What bothers me is that in many cases, teachers aren't allowed to discipline disrespectful, hostile students. I thought that elementary school kids might be more respectful, but I read an article about a middle school teacher who lost his job because he dared to write about students at his school who kept beating up each other (and their teachers, in some cases). He was falsely accused of being racist and driven out of his job, but nothing was done about the students themselves. And it teaches kids that they don't have to take responsibility for their behavior; it's easier for them to just blame their teachers and everyone else but themselves (which is exactly what my student did).

  5. I can't stand it. I can't stand entitled kids who know nothing and who are unbearably rude and who don't realise the value of learning and... Argh. I still remember the guy who was in a Middle English class with me. We were both undergrads, but this was a Master's level class with only 12 kids in it. Obviously an elective. You certainly didn't need to be there unless you were really interested in the topic. And still this guy was saying dumb stuff like, on a Monday, "I had a swim meet on Saturday morning so I couldn't finish the assignment". If I remember right, the teacher let him submit late but docked percentage points. So frustrating!

    1. Hi Deniz,
      I'm so sorry about my late reply; for some reason blogger doesn't send me e-mail notifications about comments on my blog anymore. And you definitely hit the nail on the head about the kids who don't understand the value of learning. I've taught students who genuinely wanted to not only improve their grades but also wanted to learn. Students like them are the reason I became a teacher in the first place. But unfortunately, in recent years it seems like those students are far outnumbered by the rude, disrespectful, entitled kids who don't care about learning; they just want (and in some cases, demand A's). And it is frustrating. I don't expect them to be excited about everything we're doing in class, but at the same time it frustrates me that I work really hard as a teacher and so many students aren't willing to put in even the minimum effort but still blame me and throw fits if they don't get high grades.
      And that's interesting that your classmate used his swim meet as an excuse not to do his homework. After all, if the class was on Monday and his swim meet was on Saturday morning, that still meant that he had the rest of the weekend to work on it.