Challenging Teaching Moments
For the past twenty minutes, I’ve been waiting for students who booked appointments to see me about their papers. Unfortunately, two of these students seem to have stood me up, which is incredibly infuriating for obvious reasons. Having students stand me up is perhaps one of my biggest annoyances over the years. In fact, this is making me think of instituting a one strike and you’re out policy, where if a student stands me up once, s/he won’t be able to avail of anymore one-on-one meetings but can only expect consultations via email. While I don’t think I can technically make this a set rule because I suspect it flouts university policy, I still think it’s a sensible idea. At the very least, it will help students think of appointments as set meetings, and not dates they can maybe show up for.
Having my students stand me up, though, is far from being my biggest challenge as an educator. If I had to name the biggest challenge of my teaching career to date, I’d have to say dealing with students who, um, behave like insensitive turds in the classroom is one of them. For example, there was the moment where a student, in a discussion on the provision of accommodations for minority groups, asserted that allowing women to wear the hijab is much like allowing the anti-Semitic regulations of Nazi Germany to reign free once again; he further asserted that the hijab is similar to the mandatory sewing of the Star of David on people’s clothes in that they are both symbols of intolerance. All this he said while there were several students in my classroom wearing the hijab. Thankfully, a few of them – including one student who is probably my smartest student yet – told him in very clear terms why he was misguided and why such analogies are perhaps inappropriate.
One challenging moment in the classroom that still haunts me today because I wasn’t entirely sure whether I did the correct thing as an educator transpired during an especially fraught class discussion. First, consider the dynamics. In this class, I had one particular student who didn’t shy away from expressing his opinions. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love it when students talk. When they do, this shows that I am doing my job well and that they are engaged with the material. Having engaged students is far preferable to having a classroom where I am faced with a phalanx of indifferent faces looking at me with bovine stares (i.e., they resemble cows staring at you blankly, apathetically chewing on blades of grass). That said, when one student monopolizes the classroom discussion and even shows his resentment when other students speak up, it becomes an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved. In this class, it was especially hard for me to ensure that everyone has ample opportunity to participate because I had a mix of students, from those who were political science nerds and spoke up constantly to those who were ESL and were shyer.
Anyway, because of this dynamic, I had to think of different teaching ‘tools’ that will encourage students to be more engaged. In preparation for a class dealing with an especially challenging topic, I therefore had the grand idea of having a debate, where I broke down the students into two sides and had them defend a particular position. I thought this was a win-win situation: everyone had the opportunity to speak up but they also had a chance to do a bit of group work when they brainstormed on the arguments for their side. And, you know, it actually worked in the beginning. My reticent students were engaged, my more verbose students channeled their knowledge towards helping the group, everyone seemed to be learning the material.
And then came time to sum up each side’s arguments. I was gratified to see that, because of this exercise, a student who wasn’t especially fluent in English actually started speaking up; in previous tutorials, she listened attentively, but never really said anything. Now, though, she was into the debate and made a lot of contributions. So I was pleased to see that her group chose her to wrap up the arguments for their side. She struggled through her speech but her points were clear and coherent.
When the other group had to wrap up their arguments, my most verbose and most obnoxious student naturally volunteered to be their spokesperson. This is when the shit hit the fan. He started his speech by stuttering and by appropriating his classmate’s accent when discussing the arguments the other side put forward. When he referred to the other side’s arguments, he put on this faux-Asian accent with a stutter, and then when it came time to their arguments, he spoke normally.
I was incredibly shocked. I did not know what to do. So I let it continue. Class ended and I…just sat there. I could not believe what happened.
When I finally came to my senses, I sent the girl who he mocked an email and asked to meet one-on-one. When we did, I asked her how she felt about the debate and apologized for what happened. She was understanding and said that she was used to being mocked like that, which broke my heart further. I asked her to please not let what happened deter her from participating, which thankfully, it didn’t. In fact, I think being mocked in this way strengthened her resolve to talk more, bullies be damned.
I also set up a meeting with the student who mocked her. I said, in no uncertain terms, that while I understood that he got swept up in the debate and that he wanted to ‘win’, his behavior was unacceptable and disrespectful. Though he seemed contrite and somewhat tempered his bombastic tendencies during class, his behavior towards me for the rest of the year was…well, not hostile, but defensive. In fact, I’m pretty sure the one scathing teaching evaluation I received that year came from him.
So, readers, what do you think? What would you have done?