please help; horrid male students

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kara:
I'm in my first job as an assistant professor at a college I love.  I've taught my own classes for 5 years while in graduate school, but I've never had to deal with this kind of problem to SUCH an extent.

I'm teaching a composition class and am having a particularly difficult time with one of my sections. I have about five young men in the class who behave very disrespectfully toward me in class and sometimes even in office hours.   I've given them challenging reading and writing assignments and they hate both.  One student showed up in my office yesterday and announced he didn't understand what I wanted and even his mother didn't understand the assignment (which depends on having carefully read 2 of the essays we've been talking about for weeks).  He nearly slammed his draft on my desk.

 I tried to take it in stride, asked him questions I thought would help him focus his writing, but he was scowling the entire time and left my office without even a thank you. Another, more passive-aggressive male student sent me an e-mail telling me he just doesn't like the class, that he doesn't want to be "a writer," etc.  These and a few other male students don't pay attention in class; one showed up without his text and I made him go get it; but when he came back he refused to even open it.

I really don't think these students would be behaving in such away if I were older, taller, and male.  I look young enough to be a student, and though I make an effort to dress professionally and find myself behaving in harsher, less natural ways, I'm still having a hard time.  The disruptions are making me feel like I can't do my job.

I'm tired of putting up with these kinds of behaviors and need to address them somehow.  Can anyone help?

Anon:
Your situation sounds awful and it also sounds like you are handling it well so far.

You cannot know what would happen if you were older, taller, and male, so making assumptions about that is not helpful. This happens all the time on this forum, where people associate their bad situation with gender, race, geography, type of institution, being new etc. You could be right - but you don't know. Can you find out if this group of students treats other professors this way? Or all new faculty? All young faculty? All female faculty? If you find a trend, then there is probably nothing you can do. If they really just do it to you, then maybe your teaching style does need work (although that would not justify their behavior).

It also sounds like they hate the subject matter, which you can't do much about.

If this group of students does not disrupt the rest of the class, then I say just keep going and give them the grades they deserve (which I assume are low) and be glad when they are gone at the end of the semester. They are only hurting themselves.

Dale:
Kara,

Firstly, I would recommend innoculating yourself against bias claims from the male students.  Document what occurs and tell your dept. head about what you are experiencing.  If you feel threatened or in any danger, consult with campus police.  You may not be able to remove these students from your class, but you can limit out of class contact to business-only stuff.

Secondly, don't put up with these behaviors.  You are in charge of the classroom and if the students are not exhibiting behavior consistent with community standards, you can remove them.  Address them swiftly every time.

Have evidence of poor behavior and poor work.  Get another instructor to go over the work they turn in to have backup on what grade is appropriate.

It doesn't matter if these students want to be writers or not -- remind them that the term is only X weeks long, and if they can hold on and put forth the effort required, they can survive.  It's not your fault if these students don't do what is required -- you have explained what is required and taught the material.  You should not be expected to ensure high grades.

Best of luck with this thorny issue.

Similar experience:
Dear Kara,

I can't help, only sympathize: In my first year teaching, I also had a group of people in one of my classes that just didn't like me. I remember standing in front of the classroom and considering whether to go inside or just turn around and leave again. At the end of the semester, I questioned my choice of profession and arrived at the conclusion that I was the worst and least competent teacher ever.

But the next semester, I had fun classes, and even though not all classes since have been as nice and friendly as those ones, it never became remotely as bad as the first year round either.

At this point, I would say, just stick it out, the semester is almost over, and I feel pretty sure the spring will be much, MUCH better.

Hang in there!
Best wishes,
S.P.

also similar:
I had a similar experience, and after a semester of battering, I started to feel like I was not a good teacher.  After a second class did it, I was convinced I was incompetent. However, I am a good teacher -- better than most -- but I was a vulnerable new teacher, and it took several positive experiences afterward to convince myself that I can teach.  The experience actually left some emotional scars that did affect my teaching later, and I had to find a way to heal the wounds.   You are short and female, I am not short, but quiet, gentle, and very feminine looking -- similar problem.  

They kind of take you by surprise, because you expect college students to behave better than that.  Yes, you can be absolutely sure they have done this before and will do it again, but that is really just an academic curiosity, because you have to learn how you will handle this, not study all the manifestations of it.   Furthermore, there will be future students looking for vulnerable prey.   You will develop some new skills with this experience, and after a while you will cut the would-be perpetrators off at the pass so deftly that you hardly notice it.  

The one thing I learned from the experience is that you have to set boundaries firmly and early in the process -- when they first start pushing you.  Boundary setting needs to be around the appropriate teacher-student roles, not around personal issues. They talk about personal stuff, you talk about teaching and behavior.  As an official stance, you don't care whether they like you or not, or whether they want to be writers.  You are entitled to proper classroom decorum, respectful behavior.  Assignments need to be completed up to standard.  These are fairly dense students, so you may have to be blunt.  Hints and subtleties don't work.  It is best to do whatever you can in private, because they will recruit troops to attack if it is handled in the classroom, (another lesson I learned!) but you have to hold your ground in the classroom and address it immediately after.   Do document all in detail to protect yourself.  After all is said and done, you need to give them the opportunity to fail.  

Yes, there is bias and discrimination, but as teachers, we have to learn to work with who we are.  There are short, female teachers who command respect, there are black teachers who command respect.   With experience we all develop a style that works for us.   Good luck surviving this semester, and let's hope the student assignment gods treat you well in the next one!

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