One I Probably Can’t Reach

Alternately titled “Mohammad Expects the Mountain to Come to Him”

I had a very long, very interesting confrontation with a student the other day. It’s been rattling around in the back of my busy mind for a while now, and I think I may have enough distance from it to be able to express it here with some degree of coherence.

I’ve mentioned this boy before; for the sake of anonymity and convenience, we’ll call him Henry. Henry strutted into class on the first day and, in his introduction to me and his classmates, essentially announced that he is who he is and anyone who doesn’t like that can go pound. He told us that he speaks Ebonics, that he has a mean temper, and that he doesn’t care what people think of him; his attitude forms an almost visible sphere around his body, and the range of his disdainful and annoyed facial expressions is impressive.

Henry hasn’t proven himself to be a stellar student. He often wanders in late, plops himself in the same seat by the window and puts his cell phone on the table in front of him (it often buzzes messages, which prompts him to pick it up and reply in the middle of classes). He waves to people coming past his window, he waves at them again through the window in the door as those people come into the building and, more than once, he’s attempted to carry on mimed conversations with folks in the hallway. Nine times out of ten, Henry will be gazing out the window when I look at him, and he only rarely offers up questions or comments: almost all of his class participation has come at the other end of my actually calling on him.

He’s failing the class. His refusal to do the homework has left him with quite a few zeros to overcome, and his test results at the midterm were unimpressive. Because of his grade, I was obliged to write a progress report for his department head, which I had to discuss with Henry before submitting. I went to the boy when the rest of the class was on break on Tuesday and informed him that I know he can do better than he’s doing, and that a little effort on his part will likely yield him much more satisfactory results grade-wise. At the bottom of the report, I wrote “Henry is inconsistent with his homework and seems unmotivated in class.” He signed the report, I took my copies and moved on to the next student.

At the end of the class, Henry came up to me with his attitude in full force. “I’m offended by what you wrote on my progress report,” he told me.

Offended? Really? What an interesting verb to use! Why, exactly, I asked, was he offended?

He went on to rant that just because *I* didn’t think he was motivated didn’t mean that he wasn’t. Sure, there have been homework assignments that he hasn’t handed in and yes, he did complain about having to watch the Bono speech, and he doesn’t really participate in class, and he can see why I would think that he’s not motivated, but he IS motivated, and he’s offended that I wrote the comment on the bottom of his progress report.

I stopped him at this point. “Henry,” I said, “if you can understand why I don’t perceive you as motivated, how is what I said on the progress report MY problem? You are not showing me that you care about doing well in this class. You are giving me no indication that any of this matters at all to you. If I’m justified in my perception of you, why are you offended?”

His response to this was that, if he weren’t motivated, he’d have just taken the comment on the report and said “fuck it, I don’t care.” His coming to me to complain was evidence, in his mind, of his desire to do well in the course.

I wasn’t buyin’ it.

The conversation went around like this for quite some time and, when Henry figured out that I wasn’t going to back down from my assessment of his character in my class, he changed tacks. He told me that the reason he doesn’t participate in class is that he feels disrespected by me and his classmates.

Up to that point, I was pretty calm and even-keeled; this little crack fired me up a fair bit. He was accusing me of dismissing his opinions, and he was heading to the issue of race to back himself up.

I don’t frickin’ think so!

I, very sternly but very professionally, stomped on him. First of all, I told him, you may NOT blame others for your lack of participation. NO ONE in my class has been disrespectful to ANYONE in my class – it’s even written in the syllabus that I will NOT tolerate any kind of disrespectful or dismissive behavior. Secondly, I have NEVER, EVER been disrespectful to or dismissive of him. As a matter of fact, I told him, I’ve been particularly attentive to him in an effort to try to draw him out in fruitful and appropriate ways. I told him, on no uncertain terms, that he may not accuse me of oppressing him when that is so plainly not the case.

To his credit, he did back down from that argument, but turned it around to accuse others in the class of being rude to him. “They don’t like to listen to what I have to say,” he claimed. “They dismiss me and disrespect me and that makes me not want to say anything. If they don’t like who I am, that’s too bad for them.”

Ah-HA! NOW we’re getting somewhere!

I tried my best to explain to dear Henry that – what a coincidence! – we happen to be in a COMMUNICATION class! I also reminded him of something that I said to him on the very first day we met; his goal for the course was to learn to speak clearly, slowly, and in a way that makes people want to listen to him. I reminded him of the concept of social contracts – that we modify our behavior and/or tailor the delivery of our messages so that we can interact with people in meaningful and productive ways, even if (and especially when) we don’t see eye-to-eye with those with whom we’re trying to communicate.

I pointed out to him that his “love me or fuck off and die” attitude doesn’t leave much room for negotiation, and asked him how he feels when presented with choices like that. His answer (obviously) was that he hated people like that, at which point I asked him why he should expect any different as a response when people are faced with those same kinds of options from him.

This kid has a lot to offer. He’s had experiences, as a multicultural student, that many of us in the classroom haven’t had. He has perspectives on issues and questions that the rest of us may never consider. I told him that I truly believe that he matters – he’s got something important to say that we all should hear. We’re not going to listen, though, until he learns how to TALK to us. Ranting and blustering and preaching and blowing attitude isn’t going to cut it. He’s got to learn to get past these walls he builds. He can’t expect us to come all the way to him – he’s got to meet us at least halfway.

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I have NO idea if he heard me or not. I hope he did, but my experience with students like him tells me that he may have nodded and thanked me for my time, but he likely went outside and complained to his friends that I’m just an ignorant, racist white bitch who has it out for him because he’s different. That’s the mode of thinking that’s gotten him this far, and I fear it may be too late for anyone – even someone who actually cares – to change that.

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9 Comments

Filed under concerns, frustrations, Learning, student chutzpah, Teaching, Yikes!

9 responses to “One I Probably Can’t Reach

  1. Wow, you do work really hard to reach them. I am quite impressed. I was just sitting here thinking, how come I do not see more of this in my classes? And then I realized, we are 2 year upper level only. So many of the students like Henry have already failed out or quit before I get them. I hate to see people wasted before they try.

    And what is it with this respect thing? I had a student come in for council about trying to get into graduate school. First of all, he has 5 years worth of college credit but is no where near graduating. So he is not close to achieving the prereq degree he needs for a masters in software engineering. He wanted to graduate with a degree in liberal studies and take just enough CS courses for the grad schools to be happy.

    I told him that he really needed to speak with the advisors at those schools to find out what they would and would not accept. He said, “well I did and they wouldn’t tell me anything. They weren’t RESPECTING me. I expect a better level of service than that.” On and on.

  2. sphyrnatude

    Unfortunately, you are probably right on this one. Keep in mind that besides going and complainnig to his friends about you, he’ll probably also approach his dean, the ombudsman, and whoever else he thinks may listen to his “victim” whining…

    Good luck!

  3. I have to agree with saintseester – you really do go over and above to reach these kids. I think I’d lose my shit with a student like that. I just don’t understand his worldview. He’s going to have a heck of a time when he gets out into the real world. How’s he going to keep a job? “I don’t show up on time or get my work done because nobody here respects me.”
    Oh, OK. I’m sorry about that. You’re fired.

    I can understand a student who’s taking a required class not being engaged (see my post on Cost Analysis – grrr!), and maybe just “phoning it in” to get by with a passing grade. But come on! If you don’t even do the minimum amount of work to pass, then don’t be surprised if you fail.

    I think it’s interesting, too, that the student chose to argue semantics with you over your comment that he’s “not motivated.” How subjective of you to draw such a conclusion! It seems very devious to me – I’d be very careful around this kid. Either that or qualify everything, like: “Although I cannot be certain of the reasons why Henry has missed 8 classes and failed to complete 10 homework assignments, judging from his behavior while in class and the quality of the work that he has submitted, I would question his motivation to complete this class with a passing grade…” Which you probably do anyway, cuz you’re no dummy.
    OK, enough rant.
    Go kick some ass, Mrs. Chili.

  4. You already did cover yourself. You said he “seems” to be unmotivated. That’s an opinion and it’s your job to have opinions about your students motivation in class.

    If he did indeed thank you for your time and walk quietly out of class than I think you have already reached him. That SEEMS to be an enormous step for this particular kid. So I think the entire conversation can be counted as a win.

    I want to ask, though, did either of you address the fact that you have been tolerating dismissive and disrespectful behavior in your class? His interaction with his cell phone and with people outside the classroom is both of those things.

  5. Suzanne

    I have to say I’m with Kizz on this one. It sounds like you did a great job during in your interaction with him regarding the progress report. But his behavior up until that point was both dismissive and disrespectful of the class and his fellow classmates.

    I’ll be interested to hear how this all plays out.

  6. This was good to see. I’m in my first teaching job, and I’m dealing with the “we didn’t do it that way last year” issue with a couple of the kids. Some are quite responsive to me, but other just ignore me. I get mad easily in a classroom because my expectations are ungodly high sometimes. I expect silence in my classes. In the oak tree vs. water reed analogy, I’m as rigid as it gets, and I can see the cracks forming.

    Chili, you’re pretty good at this redirection stuff. Any tips on how to be easy going in a classroom?

  7. Will

    Funny, he is usually nice to me when I ask for large fries.

  8. Will, I don’t think you’re thinking of THIS kid – there’s really not much that’s “nice” about him; he just radiates attitude….

  9. Sue

    I am going to put on my “rose-colored” glasses for this response and say that you may not SEE the change that you produce in this and other students, but those changes often happen. I tutored in english when I was taking classes at a community college and one of my students had just got out of prison. He was brash, a horrible writer and sometimes begrudged the fact that his english teacher was making him “learn all this grammar crap.” He felt she “knew what he was trying to say,” and should just be happy with that.

    To make a long story short, that guy went on to get a Master’s degree in communication!!! It took him a longer time than it would some others, but he really turned his life around, and I think his teachers pushing him while he was in those first few years of community college really got through to him at some point. So, although you may not see the result, I have to say, keep trying! You never know what is going to click with which students and what they will go on to do in their lives because of a conversation like this one.

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