Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What I Wish I Could Say to My Students

As the teacher, I always have to be the adult in the classroom, even when my students drive me up the wall. God forbid I should say something that negatively affects their self-esteem, something like "C's are not good grades. You can do better," or "Maybe you should rethink your career plans, because not everyone makes it in Hollywood within the first year of moving there." I don't insult my students or anything like that, but I do think this whole business of making sure that students feel good about themselves all the time is nonsense. Sometimes, what they need to hear is not unearned praise but the truth. The thing is, once they start working and enter the "real world", they're not going to get away with 85% of the stuff that they do. And I sometimes get negative reactions from students when I refuse to let them get away with that stuff while they're still in school.

But here are a few examples of things that I think all students (not just mine) should hear:

I read an article about a 20-something guy who did a project where he lived without texting, e-mail, Facebook, etc. for a long period of time, and everyone viewed it as a major accomplishment and sacrifice. To which I say, "Except for e-mail, I live without that stuff EVERY DAY! Why doesn't someone give ME a medal?"

You complain that authors like William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway are boring, which may be one reason why so many of you don't do the assigned reading on a regular basis. And yet you find your friends' Tweets that say stuff like, "Watching Family Guy. LMAO" and "Partying all night long. A very good night" so FASCINATING.

Speaking of Twitter, Facebook, and texting, I can go through entire DAYS without any of these things. So why can't you sit through an entire class without them? You'll still be alive by the end of class, I promise. And all 200 of your Facebook "friends" will understand.

You know how they say that water in a pot isn't going to automatically boil just because you stare at it? Well, if you keep staring at me without answering any of the questions that I ask during class discussions, then I'm going to start boiling.

If you don't want me to be in a bad mood when I write your recommendation letter, then don't ask me to write one for you less than two days before it's due.

My classes are rarely boring, even when I teach the same subject over and over again. It's because of all of you and how you respond to the material, and that's what makes my job interesting.

Don't tell me that you can't afford to buy the books, because then I'm going to ask who paid for your new iPhone and laptop.

You wouldn't like it if I showed up half an hour late for an appointment to discuss your paper, or if I didn't show up at all. You also wouldn't like it if I sent you an e-mail at the last minute (AFTER you've already shown up for the appointment) to let you know that I won't be there. So why do you people keep DOING these things?

When I see your writing improve, I know that you've actually learned something from me. And that makes me happy.

If you want to see me explode, then tell me, "This isn't the grade I deserve." Then show me your paper and point out all the "mistakes" I made when I graded your paper.

Threatening to go to my boss isn't going to make me change your grade. I will not tolerate such disrespect from anyone, especially not my students. And I will NOT let you force me to change your grade.

Asking me what you can do to improve your grade, taking responsibility for your own mistakes, working harder in class, writing original papers that go above and beyond my expectations and don't just regurgitate my lectures, actively participating in class discussions, and answering the questions correctly are all things that you can do to raise your grade.

Taking responsibility for yourself, rather than blaming other people, is part of what makes you an adult. So if you want me to treat you like an adult, then act like one.

I love it when you all say, "Ohhhh!!" when you finally understand what I've been teaching you. That lets me know that I've finally gotten through to you.

When you told me that you started reading other books by the author that we're studying in class, just because that person's writing interested you so much, you made my day.

If you can show up on time to watch a movie or the latest episode of American Idol, then you can show up on time for class.

Speaking of American Idol, why is it that so many of you can recite all the names of the current finalists without hesitation, but you can't remember all the names of the characters in the chapter that you were supposed to read for today?

"Watching a movie during class" does not equal "nap time".

When you become enthusiastic about the projects that we're working on, and I see that light in your eyes that shows how important the work is to you, you make my year.

Another way to make me explode is to tell me that you are just as qualified (if not more so) to teach this class as I am because you took AP English in high school.

A death in the family, a serious illness, and jury duty are valid reasons for missing class. A bad breakup, the fact that you didn't feel like it, the fact that you stayed out too late the night before and overslept, and the fact that you'd rather focus on work for one of your "fun" classes are not valid reasons for being absent. And also? The "family emergency" excuse is only acceptable if there actually is an emergency in your family. Don't use it just because you're trying to get out of turning in your work on time, because I will figure out the truth.

Why is it that you're able to update your Facebook and Twitter pages on a regular basis, but you can't seem to turn in your work on time?

Even though I happen to be younger than your other instructors, that does not mean that I'm going to be more lenient or your friend. I'm sorry if you dislike the fact that someone who isn't that much older than you has authority over you, but that doesn't mean that you can cite my age as a reason for why you think I shouldn't be teaching this class.

The priests at my church get mad if people try to sneak out of Mass early. Sometimes the priest will actually stop talking and call attention to the impatient people sneaking out. Catholic guilt can be very effective. By a similar token, I get mad when you start packing up your bookbag and standing up to leave the room before I've dismissed the class. Then I'M going to call attention to your sinful actions and make YOU feel guilty. 

You know what would be nice to hear once in a while? "Thank you."

Trust me. You WILL read and write even after you graduate from college, so it's better to strengthen your skills in these areas now.

A college education is about so much more than just getting straight A's and earning a degree. It bothers me when people view me as a degree distributor, not an educator.  If all you care about are your grades and fulfilling your requirements, you're going to miss out on so much. And then you'll end up regretting it later on, because you'll never get these years back.

What do you think of the self-esteem movement? What are other things that you think college students need to hear?


  1. I am not an educator, but I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about things you'd like to say to students. I wholeheartedly agree that an hour without Facebook or Twitter won't actually hurt anyone!

    1. Hi Kyra,
      Thank you! I think it's tougher for me to control students' behavior now because they all have cell phones with Internet access. In one of the classes I taught, some of the students kept taking out their cell phones even after I told them not to. I called them on it every time, though.

  2. Sheesh, except for a few giveaway details, it was hard to tell if you were talking about freshmen in high school or college kids.

    1. Hi Gia,
      I have taught freshmen in high school before, actually. Even though a lot of them did misbehave occasionally, at the same time most of them were more willing to accept my authority. I think one reason is that they think anyone over the age of 20 is old.

  3. I don't call it the self-esteem movement, I call it the instant gratification movement. People want everything NOW and they don't necessarily want to work for it. They'd rather take it from someone who has worked hard than work for it themselves. Not only are they robbing others of what they earned, but they're robbing themselves of the pride that comes upon sacrificing to earn what they want.
    Sorry, off tangent now. The part about Catholic guilt made me giggle. I call it the Jewish Mother syndrome. Effective AND funny!

    1. Hi Emily,
      I totally agree with you. I think the instant gratification is related to the fact that we can get a lot of things so easily and much more conveniently now, thanks to technology. Several of my students have told me that they should get A's just because they showed up to class every day. Apparently, it's okay to reward students for every little thing, but it's not okay to discipline them for most of their mistakes or misbehavior. And I don't think that's right.

  4. I get where you are coming from. I HATE when students complain about grades/the amount of work/how you don't respond to emails ASAP. But I'm not sure if you're in the right line of work - you seem so unhappy that you have to deal with all of this. You are right in everything you say, but there are ways to deal with all of it without stressing out or hating every second you're at work!

    1. Hi NGS,
      I don't hate every second that I'm at work; if I did I would have quit grad school and teaching years ago. There are good moments, but sometimes it can be really difficult to keep going. I think the thing that bothers me most is that a lot (though not all) of students have a strong sense of entitlement; that's why so many of them say that they "deserve" an A even if they didn't actually earn one.

  5. I agree that sometimes the truth, said carefully and gently, would help more. Of course, it depends on what that truth might be. If it's something they can't do anything about, then perhaps not ;)

    1. Hi Lynda,
      You're right in that it's best to tell the truth carefully and gently, because brutal honesty can be too much. I think that if the students who pressure me to change their grades would instead look back at their own work and see what they could do to improve it, things would go a lot more smoothly.

  6. As a former teacher, I can relate to a lot of these. I wish I could open my mouth and actually SAY them! I think quite often students need strong, honest words to get back on the right. If we give everything people do a positive reinforcement, they'll never learn!

    1. Hi Talli,
      Exactly! I had one teacher who hardly ever praised the students; we had to work really hard to earn his praise. So when he finally did say something good about my work, I felt really happy.

  7. I agree with most of those and i think if it's said in a constructive way it might work. As for social - or should i say anti-social networks - most people spend way too long on them. It makes me wonder what would happen if twitter and facebook crashed for a whole day, would people be forced to go outside? To actually talk face to face?

    1. Hi Alice X,
      Social-networking sites can be very addictive; I spend a lot of time blogging, which is one reason I figure I would become even more addicted to Facebook and Twitter. I do kind of like the idea of Twitter, though, because I think it, like blogging, would be good writing practice. You raise an interesting question about what would happen if these sites were shut down. I bet that people would probably start texting each other.

  8. Love it. I always loved tougher teachers like you - and you're not actually tougher, you're just not being a pushover for all the lazy undeserved-sense-of-entitlement kids (I was in a lot of classes with kids like these: "professor, I couldn't finish the assignment I had two weeks to do because I had a swim meet last Saturday..."). Don't let 'em bring you down!
    Very true - how can they possibly find Faulkner boring after having been on Twitter all day?

    1. Hi Deniz,
      I have to admit that when I first started teaching, I didn't put my foot down nearly as often as I should. That's one of my biggest regrets. But I've learned from my mistakes, and I've learned to be strict when I need to be.
      I think it'd be interesting to know what famous authors like Faulkner would have written if they had had Twitter pages.