I’ve been too busy and/or migrainey to post about the first day of my late start classes last Thursday, or the real beginning of our new research/writing unit yesterday and today. I’m not going to try to catch up, because I just don’t have the energy or sufficient memory to do a good job at that.
What I do want to write about is a couple of things having to do with the Learner’s Bill of Rights.
First, in my 121 MW class yesterday, I responded too harshly to a student’s infraction of the course policies. I didn’t get angry, but I did offer a pretty harsh response: I made her leave the classroom. Normally, students are supposed to leave the classroom when they are using technology that interferes with their participation in class. This was one of those times. However, the student was willing to put the technology away, and I made her leave, pretty much because she gave me attitude about my attempt to enforce the rules.
Now, many hours later, I believe I overreacted to her reaction to my initial request that she take her texting out in the hall, if you can follow that. It was an awkward moment for her and for me; the entire class suddenly went quiet and looked at both of us, and neither she nor I was expecting to be under so much scrutiny. I didn’t know what to do about the high level of sass in her tone, so I just asked her to comply with my original request. I also said she was being disobedient, when what I really meant was that she was being disrespectful to me in her attitude. Anyway, she got really upset and left. I thought she might hang around in the hall, and I could talk to her after class, but she didn’t.
I’m concerned about what I did. From one perspective I was totally justified in responding the way I did. But from my usual teaching perspective (see this blog’s “About” page, as well as “A Little Respect” and the Learner’s Bill of Rights), I overstepped my bounds as a teacher. I stripped a student of her dignity because she sassed me, when she was probably responding more to the embarrassment of having the entire class staring at her. Maybe she was sassing me. Does that really matter? As the teacher, I already hold most of the cards in this scenario. What does my reaction say about my priorities?
Really, I’m pretty sure that it says that I hadn’t been confronted with this sort of reaction from a student in a long time, and I wasn’t prepared to deal with it, and so I fell back on my first learned safety net: control. Understandable, but less than desirable.
So: what will I do? First, I owe this student an apology — not for requesting that she comply with course policy, but for going about it in a way that did not allow her a chance to regain or maintain her personal dignity. Because I overreached myself in front of the class, I owe her an apology in front of the class.
What would that look like? I don’t think I owe her groveling or tearfulness. I was within my rights to request her compliance. However, I want this made clear to her and all my students in that class: sometimes they and/or I will mess up. It is not the end of the road when that happens. We have options, and one of them is to figure out how to do things better next time.
The argument could be made that I deserve an apology from this student, for sassing me. However, if I demand or require an apology from her, I am still not allowing her the space she needs for self-respect. She may offer an apology to match mine. That would be nice. But I am big enough, as the teacher, that my apology to her is sufficient for my needs.
I have to admit, as someone with an anxiety disorder, it is difficult for me to let go of interpersonal eruptions. I don’t like conflict, and I have a tendency to either become defensive or overly self-blaming. There is a part of me that wants to do everything I can to track down this student and make things right, as soon as possible. But here is another part of the Learner’s Bill of Rights:
The learner has the right to personal privacy.
After class yesterday, I left the offending/offended student a voicemail and sent a email, saying that I felt I had been too hard on her, and I would like to talk with her about how we both could do things differently the next time. If this student decides she does not want to be in my class anymore, and she does not want to talk to me or see me, I won’t have a chance to apologize. It is her right to avoid communication with me, if that is what she wishes.
The second thing I want to write about has to do with my religion and my students’ personal life choices, such as the choice to embrace their homosexuality. In my classes, we talk about how people come to believe that certain actions or attitudes are ethical and others are not. The fact is, there is a wide variety of belief about what is real, what is right, and what is true. We can’t prove any of it, because proving it requires that other people accept our evidence, and we can’t force them to do that. We can bully them into it, but even giving into bullying is a choice. Knowing — as in accepting something as fact — is a choice, no matter how you cut it.
Today I had a really great conversation with a thoughtful, highly reflective and apparently ethical gay student of mine. I wanted him to know from me that I am LDS (Mormon) and also that I completely support his right to not only make his own choices, but also to defend himself in class. I am responsible for making sure none of my students is discriminated against, and I take that responsibility seriously. But I don’t want that to mean that we can’t respectfully discuss our differences.
Anyway, what with all the media attention on Romney’s religious practices, and the highly publicized fight over gay marriage in California, I wanted my student to hear from me that I am a practicing member of a religion that he might find threatening, but that I also respect and support him as my student. Like I said, this is a very perceptive student, and he and I went on to have a great discussion about what can be known, what and how people can be persuaded to believe or know things, and why it’s worth trying to cooperate rather than stomp each other out. Yay! I love mutually respectful, stimulating conversation.
So here’s another Learner’s Right:
Learners have a right to make their own knowledge, when, how, and why they please. The teacher’s role is to support and teach careful thinking, not predetermined conclusions.
Hey! I just thought of another right:
Learners have the right to make mistakes, to take the consequences, and to have the opportunity to make new knowledge as a result of their mistakes.
That includes me. I’m a learner, too.
There. Now, maybe I’ll sleep tonight.