On Friday I had a little confrontation with a student in my 8 AM class. As soon as I walked through the door of the classroom, I knew things were going to be tense. Several students had arrived ahead of me and were sitting at their desks and talking about their graded papers, which I had distributed on Wednesday. One young lady was turned around and talking to the students behind her. When I appeared in the doorway, one of her classmates she was talking noticed me and said to her, “He’s behind you.” A young man in the class, who happens to be a youth minister at a Baptist church, then wanted to argue with me about the fairness of his grade. He complained that his score on that project was probably going to keep him from receiving an A in the course. (And that’s unfair because…???) Others chimed in. Thus my hopes for having a smooth class session that morning quickly evaporated.
I tried to get the class underway, asking them to have small group discussions about the homework I had assigned. The youth minister, however, kept up his gripe session with the student sitting next to him, and when I approached them and asked them to do what I had told the class to do, he launched into a loud tirade about his grade on the last project and how upset he was about it. Feeling both angry and a bit nervous, I had him go out in the hallway with me so I could talk to him about his attitude problem. I first told him that he was “continuing a tradition” I’d encountered while teaching: the rudest students I’d had to deal with had always been evangelical church-goers. Initially, he wanted to defend himself and claimed that I was just stereotyping. I assured him that I was simply speaking from personal experience; those students who stood out in my mind as the most blatantly disrespectful had always been people who attended evangelical churches. Could he explain why that was the case? He did go on for a moment more about how frustrated he was with the all the disruptive talking from his classmates, as well as how they often didn’t actually work on what I would ask them to do. But then he became apologetic for his rudeness and acknowledged that he had needed to hear my rebuke. I in turn admitted I had been too lax with the class and should have done a better job of maintaining order.
So we both returned to the classroom and I spent a while scolding the class for all the unnecessary talking and other inappropriate behavior that had been going on. I laid down the law, reminding them that they were college students and should not have to be told how to behave in class. In the future, I would resort to ejecting people from the classroom if they didn’t follow the rules. My 9 AM and 10 AM classes got read the same riot act.
Following my classes on Friday, I went to speak with the head of the English department about my concerns, both with my students’ grades and their classroom behavior. She proved to be very understanding and offered some very helpful feedback. After looking over a couple of the papers I had graded (the students they belonged to had not picked them up yet–in fact, one of them has apparently had to drop the course), she said my grading was completely fair and reasonable, thus allaying my concern that I had perhaps graded them too harshly. Furthermore, she pointed out that since the community college had an open-door policy when it came to admitting students–that is, it didn’t have the more rigorous GPA and entrance exam requirements that 4-year colleges and universities generally have–a number of my students would struggle with their work and that I needn’t worry about the school seeing my students’ low grades as a reflection on me.
Later that day, I received an email from the youth minister in my 8 AM class. In it, he expressed deep contrition for the way he had lashed out at me in class that morning, saying he had, above all else, failed Christ. I wrote back, telling him I accepted his apology and that we could just move on as if the incident hadn’t happened.
And today, my students behaved better. Hopefully reading them riot act is as stern as I’ll need to get. After all, I’m not by nature a stern person.