Teaching: Trying Not to Be Snide, Or, A Battle In My Mind

The student had already tried my patience.  Largely, because less than 24 hours earlier, he was asking for information about an assignment (due in 72 hours) that could be found right under the title of the "Assignment Guideline".  Thus before class as the student approached, I didn't have the best frame of mind (a problem unto itself).  He began asking questions about the assignment; questions that I had gone over in the previous class.  What to cover (also in the guidelines), how to deal with the subject matter (also in the guidelines), and other details.  He kept asking; I kept answering and suddenly, I caught myself (and wanted to smack myself).  This was THE tone.  This was the dismissal.  This was where a student becomes disconnected.  I had to take a step back and reassess what I was doing.

I spend a lot of time with a course, making sure I have everything the student needs in order to properly accomplish the task at hand.  This means generating about 20 pages of text (and increasingly 1-2 hours of self-created videos) to be made available for the students.  I couple this with setting aside class time to go over the assignment step by step.  So there is a tendency within me to feel like I've "done enough" for my students or that I'm happy to answer questions that are more substantive than when's the paper due (listed on the syllabus, the guideline itself, and each upcoming assignment is posted on the homework slide in class).  I believe deeply in the idea of transparency and that when a student steps into my course, he or she knows everything that will be expected of him/her throughout the entirety of the class.  Students may not always like the amount and the type of work that I expect in a course, but they are never misinformed on my behalf.  I do this, because I care about my students' success.  I want them fully aware of what success looks like in the courses that I teach and I want to make sure I've guided them in the right direction.

But there I was, slipping into that authoritative tone that looks to berate the student because I know it's in there and this student doesn't fully realize it.  I don't like the tone; it feels too distancing and comes at the expense of the student's lack of knowledge.  It's too matter of fact and not enough matter of concern.

I caught myself before slipping too far.  I was able lighten my tone and engage with the student about the assignment in a more meaningful way.  But the moment had me thinking (obviously).  I caught myself that time but what about the other times that I don't catch myself.  How many students have I lost or sent down the path of apathy because of my lack of sensitivity.

It's not that I look to baby my students in any way; they have ample work to do in my class.  But I would rather work from a vantage point of working with them-not against them.  The work will be hard in my class, thus I look to be a conduit to aiding them in making sense of and accomplishing it.  I want to guide and strengthen their skills, but that doesn't happen by shaming, disregarding, or (directly or indirectly) insulting them.  That alienates and distracts them from the purpose of education.  I regularly emphasize that the classroom is a place of learning and a key piece of learning is sometimes making mistakes (or even failing).  I know my own life is full of failures that have been great lessons on life.  It's moments like these that I have to hold onto that and communicate it better with my students.

So I guess that's something I need to keep working on.




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