So today, I’m going to take a different tack. I am going to talk from the student’s perspective. This isn’t hard because, like most of us, I have spent more time as a student than a teacher. (I believe the term is “Apprenticeship of Observation.”) Respect is an issue I struggle with everyday because I have had some very negative experiences with teachers and while I know I can’t avoid all such experiences with my students, I would like to lessen them and give those negative experiences that do happen happier endings than some of mine.

My senior year of college, I decided to do a thesis project with a creative writing professor of mine. I spent an entire summer writing daily and throwing everything away the next day because nothing I wrote seemed good in any way. It was the opposite of writer’s block. It was the Wernicke’s Aphasia of writing. I wrote pages and pages but didn’t actually say anything. So I told myself I wasn’t interested in the project, scrapped it, decided to work on something else with my teacher as an independent study. Same thing happened. Write every day, throw it away the next. Nothing is good. I turned too little in, and my teacher said I should stop, which wouldn’t have been so big a deal. I was already fighting with stopping. But he used the phrase “you don’t care.”

Now, I don’t think that “you don’t care” is an appropriate response from any teacher, no matter what the context. I was in the 8th grade when I first heard a teacher tell a student that, and back then I thought it was totally out of line. I don’t care if the student has failed to buy the textbook, attended only one day of class, and drew pictures of Batman all over the first test. Telling a student “you don’t care” is tactless. Because you have no idea what might be going on in that student’s life to affect the behavior you see in class, and saying “you don’t care” not only shows you’re assuming that you do know, but it sends the signal that you think your class is most important thing in your student’s life. News flash: The biggest complaint I ever heard about in high school and college from students was “I feel like my teacher thinks his/her class is the only thing I should care about in my life.”

In my case, I wasn’t suffering from a severe family tragedy, medical emergency, or similarly very big issue which negatively affected the time that I could spend on homework. I was having a self-esteem malfunction. But I was a high achieving student. One of those straight A, full-ride scholarship, overachiever types. I had a full plate of extracurriculars, a sweet job as an RA, and was working with this teacher on my favorite thing that I had ever written. So “you don’t care” couldn’t have missed the mark more. And when he said it, my self-esteem went from malfunction to haywire. I stopped writing for pleasure, I avoided the building where his office was (a tough job, as all of my other teachers had offices in the same building) and cried uncontrollably for hours. Even when things got better, the wound never healed entirely, and even after I started writing again, six months later, I still couldn’t get this teacher’s voice out of my head.

This is the point where most people tell me “you can’t take things to heart” and “don’t be so sensitive,” but in that state, that just sounds like “what is wrong with you? Normal people don’t act like this,” and only makes everything hurt more. Whether or not I should have been upset didn’t change the fact that I was. I was upset for two years. And I needed closure so I could move on with my life. So I wrote him a letter. I wrote him a very long letter detailing everything that I had felt because of what he said. I also mentioned that quite frankly, I had been stupid to pick him as an advisor because I had taken his class two years earlier and had gone through the same thing back then–I was convinced that everything I wrote was crap. But my stupid decision, I said, did not excuse his behavior. He wrote back. He said, more or less, “I’m sorry… but that’s not what I meant.”

Now I am toying with whether or not to respond to him. The tactful part of me wants to ignore it, to let it lie, to “get over it,” and “move on with my life.” The enraged part of me tells me I tried that strategy for two years. But the enraged part of me also wants to tell him something really rude in response to what I felt was a series of several rude comments. It wants to write back with “Excuse me?! No teacher has a right to tell any student they don’t care. Ever. And when your words have that kind of impact on another person’s life, what you meant is no longer of consequence. That message should have ended at ‘I’m sorry.'” I know this is the general way in which we apologize because we have a need to save face (that’s a technical term by the way), but we all need to learn to admit we are wrong sometimes. It’s something I have been working on for a while, and something I know I will continue to work on for a long long while. I know there’s nothing he can do to change what happened, but I want to be confident that he understands how his actions have affected me and uses this information to re-evaluate his decisions as a teacher. I’m not there yet.

The second story I have already mentioned in my July 27 post, and while I could go into considerably more detail about the specific things this teacher said to me, it has a similar ending. I was negatively affected by her rude language so much so that it sent me spiraling into an emotional black hole, and I considered quitting the program because of it. But my friends tell me that to let a nasty teacher hold me back is letting incivility win. And I want to finish the program anyway. And the tactless part of me wants to graduate and then tell her that I did so without any help from her and she has no right being a teacher. Of course, this also, is probably letting incivility win.

So two stories, two teachers, both of them neglecting to show a student the respect which (I think anyway) any student deserves. In one story, the incident is past, meaning I am free to speak as I wish without any threats from the teacher. In the other, I still have to take a class with the teacher. I would like to communicate with her in some way about how rude she has been, but I am under her thumb for another year. The teacher-student power-play makes telling her anything negative difficult. If I say I think she was rude to me and she takes offense, she can make my life a living Hell in her class. So I must choose between risking my grade and being miserable but keeping my head down. One of my fellow teachers has a motto: “They won’t remember what you taught them, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.” That goes for positive and negative emotions alike.

Thus, I ask, what do you do in this situation?

  • As a student, what do you do to receive closure about an altercation you had with a teacher in the past?
  • As a student, how do deal with a current teacher who is disrespectful to you?
  • As a teacher, what do you do when a student approaches you about something you have said or done which offended him/her?
  • As a teacher, do you have any strategies for altering the student-teacher power-play in such a way that students feel comfortable approaching you about such a problem in the first place?

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