In the Confessional: One Professor’s Angry Outburst

My course has ended and I don’t know what happened to the person who wrote Turn My Swag On. I have never in my life been so glad to see a course end. This time, it just didn’t work. I never clicked with my students.

Let me give you some concrete examples of things that frustrated me in this class:

  • Students not reading my emails
  • Students not following instructions for assignments
  • Students not doing the assigned reading
  • Students not following instructions for assignments
  • Students expecting me to be available all weekend via email to answer questions I’ve already answered on the syllabus, in class, on the assignment rubric, and via email
  • Students not following instructions in general
  • Students asking for extra credit when I’ve made it clear that I do not believe in ‘extra’ credit. I believe in providing everyone with the same opportunities to learn. Your choosing not to take advantage of that does not obligate me to provide (and grade) extra credit busy work
  • Students not communicating with me until after they turn in an assignment
  • Students feeling entitled

I believe in clear expectations and the provision of adequate tools and resources to support students’ learning. As such, I never give assignments without offering a lot of direction. Some examples are rubrics, sample outlines, APA tip packet, emails with bullet pointed advice, using class time to have a session in the library on ‘how to conduct research for empirical articles’, class time for direct instruction on ‘what is an empirical article and how do you read one?’, office hours, dedicated email hours on the weekend before the first major assignment is due, ‘lasting questions’ time at the beginning of each class meeting. I could go on if I really thought deeply. But you get the gist.

I am therefore baffled when I have bimodal grades on the first assignment. How is that possible? How is it that half of the students got a B or above, and the other half failed the assignment? Did I give two sets of instructions? Is someone punking me? Am I in Candyland? And what’s most frustrating is that the low grades were not because students did not understand the content. Nope. It was because they did not follow directions.

So like any frustrated teacher who’d put so much extra time and energy into helping students do well on an assignment, I flipped out. I went to class after having graded only half of the assignments the night before and told them (in summary) ‘I am very frustrated with you all.’ Sure I said more than that and I can’t really remember exactly what I said. I do know that my anger with them was incited further when I got to my office that morning to read their reading reflections and realized that of 20 students, only 1 had written a reflection on the more difficult reading. What does that tell anyone with a brain and a basic knowledge of stats?  That they did not do the reading. Even after I cut the readings from 3 to 2 and told them explicitly to read the more difficult piece because it was foundational for the course. Imagine my chagrin when I realized they hadn’t even done that.

Yes, I was pissed. Not only am I considerate enough to cut your total reading down to less than 40 pages because I know one of the readings is difficult, but I also cut THAT reading assignment down from 18 pages to 12 (they only had to read the first 12 pages of the reading). All of that on top of the fact that half of them did not follow the very clear directions given at least 11 times for the assignment.

I let loose on them. After lecturing them for 10 minutes on accountability and disrespect, they had a pop quiz on the reading. Out of 23 students, 1 student got 3 of the 4 questions correct. The rest of them couldn’t even get 1 question correct. I collected the quizzes and told them I would count it as extra (since I know good and well none of them earned any extra points). They were relieved.

I got back to my office after class and one student, a senior I’ve had before, had emailed me expressing concerns that I ‘went about motivating them the wrong way’. I calmly and professionally responded saying that it was not my intention to motivate them. It was my intention to communicate my frustration and disappointment. I outlined for the student most of the points I’ve mentioned above. She responded surprised that I’d taken the time to compose such a thorough and honest email.

The next day, another student came to me after class and said ‘I think I know what may have happened on the first assignment’. So I invited her to my office and she explained to me that she at least, misinterpreted the rubric. She said she thought it was an instructional guide as opposed to an assessment tool. For example, a bullet point reading ‘Are the learning goals clearly outlined?’ was interpreted as ‘does the product I am doing my assignment on outline the learning goals?’ instead of ‘the professor wants me to outline the learning goals of the product’.

While I was astounded that sophomores through seniors in college did not know how to use a rubric and would think that I would have them answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions instead of actually applying their knowledge, I was relieved to know what may have went wrong.

So the next day in class I shared that a student met with me and explained how the rubric could have been misinterpreted. I acknowledged that such an error is my fault for not explaining to the class how to use the rubric (I’d never had a previous class make this mistake so I wasn’t too hard on myself for not foreseeing this). As such, I was giving everyone an extra point on the assignment. At first this doesn’t sound like much, but given that I operate in raw points with a tight grading scale, this single point could be the difference between a B- and a B.

For the next assignment, I asked that same student to review the rubric before I gave it to the class. She made some suggestions that could improve clarity. I was grateful for her assistance (and told her so).

After that, the students definitely did their reading and asked more questions before the assignment was due. Their next assignment was better, but not as good as past classes have done. I am in the process of grading their finals and I can say that so far, these are all close to perfect. I don’t know if they finally ‘got’ that I wanted them to apply knowledge or if this assignment was just easier (I admit that I design my assessments so that the final assignment is the easiest, but only because this is the 3rd or 4th time they are being asked to apply the same content. It’s just applying it to a new context).

But maybe they did better because on the third to last day of the class I finally felt like I connected with them. We were discussing assessment in K-12 as the topic for the day, and the conversation got a bit off track (I actually like when this happens. It means the students are making big picture connections). All of a sudden, the students were facilitating their own discussion. I purposefully rolled my chair back a bit out of our square so that many students could not see me. I did not want to remind them of my presence because then they would look to me to ‘decide’ who was right in their debate about the value of standardized testing. I let them chatter for about 10 minutes before they were getting a bit too far off track. When I jumped back in with a guiding question, there was a new energy. People looked happier, more engaged. And I still can’t figure out why. That was not the first, second, or fifth time the students had taken control of the conversation. In general, that’s what I try to make happen every day. But it was the first time I got to see who they were as individuals beyond students in my educational psychology course. I think maybe it was the first time they felt like individuals. I am sad they had to wait until almost the end of the course to feel comfortable enough to reveal more of themselves.

I am frustrated that I did not do better for my students this time. I never realized how important it was for me to bond with my students. So much of who I am as a teacher is who I am as a person. If they don’t get me, they certainly don’t get what I am trying to do with and for them. Having done what I always do in my classes, I am not sure what I should have done differently this time or what I should do better next time.

But what I do know is that I have learned a valuable lesson about myself: my number one priority needs to be connecting with my students. Without it, they and I, are lost.

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2 comments on “In the Confessional: One Professor’s Angry Outburst

  1. Brilliant, brave and insightful post!! If only the smallest fraction of educators approached the profession the way you do….we would all have a better world! I do mean that, my only (unsolicited) suggestion is to try to find that middle ground (I am still looking for it, and not sure I will ever find it) where we should meet our students…how much to they have to “get me” and how much do I have to “get them”….as usual your thoughtful essay has made me think about more I can be aware of in my teaching…they are so lucky to have someone so committed!!

  2. NiseyKnits says:

    You always impress me with how excited and dedicated you are about teaching and I am definitely inspired by your work. I’m so glad that you were honest with your students and also worked with one of them to see if the changes she recommended would help her course mates. You are doing a great job! We need more educators like you! 🙂

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