It’s really true; regardless of how fantastic a group a teacher has, there’s always one student who presents a greater-than-average challenge.
I find that it’s these kids who really do teach me the most about how to be a good teacher, but they’re lessons learned through some significant strife. My “special” kids have all been profoundly memorable to this point – there were the twins, Megadeth Dave and Tad, each of whom presented me with their own unique challenges; there was Henry, who may well have given me my most story-worthy confrontations; and there’s Betsy, the lady who decided that she didn’t deserve the failing grade she earned, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There have been a few others, some of whom I’ve written about, others I’ve not, who have all given me great gifts by presenting me with full-frontal experiences with ignorance, stubbornness, and non-existent work ethics in an academic setting.
I thought – mistakenly, it seems now – that I was going to pretty much skate by this term with no particularly noteworthy students. Sure, there’s Harvey, but he’s not so much a challenge as he is a curiosity; there’s something in there, but even he doesn’t know how to access it underneath all that affectation. Nope; I’ve discovered that I’ve got another winner, and that my bosses, yet again, have my back.
This student has shown up to precisely half of the classes we’ve held so far. This student’s grade point average is hovering somewhere around a 30. This student has claimed that the attendance issues – and the lack of completed homework – are the fault of a long commute and rising gas prices.
My brief experience in this teaching game has taught me many things. It is through my dealing with students like this one, however, that I’ve learned one thing well and clearly: get in front of it as early as I can. To that end, I forwarded everything this student has given me so far – including abysmal homework assignments and emails – to the department head. I bundled everything together and sent it off as an FYI to my colleague yesterday, and he called me into his office today before I was to see this student in class (provided, of course, that the student was going to show up).
The first thing the department head (let’s call him Sam, just for the heck of it) said was that he was not in the least bit surprised that I’d already encountered trouble with this student (we’ll call the student Jon, just for the heck of it – I’m trying to be as anonymous as possible here, but typing “student” over and over is getting annoying). Sam has had dealings with Jon – and, from the tone of Sam’s voice, not very pleasant ones, at that – since the first week of Jon’s first term. The program that Jon has applied to is a public service training program – he has aspirations of being in a position that involves close contact with the general public, and Sam has had great reservations about the possibility of Jon’s success in this pursuit. He thanked me for putting him in the proverbial loop, complimented me on my clear, firm, and matter-of-fact responses to Jon’s emails, and assured me that he would be working very closely with him this term. Sam encouraged me to continue my approach with Jon, told me to not allow myself to be intimidated by the student, and to come to Sam at any time and as often as I felt I needed to discuss my dealings with the kid.
I left the office feeling appreciated and very well supported.
Jon delivered what was supposed to be an informational speech this afternoon. I am still unclear about what the main thesis of the presentation was, though I can tell you for certain that it was not at all informational. It turned out to be a rant about the injustice of the class system – and specifically, of Jon’s unfortunate position within that system – and was punctuated by various inappropriate references and words (“crap” came up three times, “shit” was said twice). I probably should have stopped the presentation when I realized that it had gone completely off the informational rails (or, rather, when I realized that it was never on those rails to begin with) but I let the thing play out to the end. I didn’t want to embarrass Jon, nor did I want any accusation of unfair treatment in front of the class. I moved us as quickly through the group critique process as I could and started the next speaker.
Sam was going back into the building as I was going out after class, and I invited him to come to the copy room with me so I could provide him with a copy of Jon’s speech. Before I said a word, Sam said, “Let me guess; he spoke about racism, or sexism, or violence, or something inappropriate.” None of what I had to say about the student’s performance came as any surprise to my colleague, and that came as an enormous relief to me. Sam knows that I’m not exaggerating or overreacting to my experiences with this kid, and I know for sure that I’m not going to have to go out of my way to prove that I have legitimate cause to assign the grades that I do. I told Sam that Jon’s performance warranted a failing grade; he agreed, and is now fully prepared for whatever fallout may result as a consequence of that.
My dearest hope is that my next job is in an environment that is half as supportive as this one. For all of TCC’s faults, professional solidarity is not lacking – not even a little.