Refreshing the Teaching Spirit

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Coming back this fall after a year of difficult challenges, I was apprehensive about my ability to start fresh with my new classes.  But the first week of classes is over, and I feel that my efforts to offset the sense of burnout and frustration were effective (so far anyway….)

I knew that I was bringing emotions from past semesters into the new year, and I didn’t want to do that – clearly not fair to my students.  I worked hard to let go of that feeling of … to be honest it was dread … at  the possibility of having more severely troubled students.  While understanding that we are facing larger and larger numbers of students with varying degrees of mental illness helps keep me from ignorantly judging students with mental illness as big fat jerks, it doesn’t help me know how to help them, or even survive them with my love of teaching intact.

So, throughout the summer I just kept handing my concerns over to God.  Asked to be able to see these students clearly, not through the shadow of former students’ troubles.  I thought about their excitement, their uncertainty, their hopes and dreams.  And I learned techniques to ground myself and protect myself from others’ negative emotions.  I promised myself and God that I will stand in His Love as I face His children and pray to reflect that Love in my teaching.

Another component of the less-than-eager mindset was having taught the same class from the same textbook for the last eight years (goodness, I fell asleep just writing that sentence.)  We have new textbooks, and even though I don’t think I like the primary one very much, at least it is something new.  Hopefully it will trigger new and better teaching methods this semester.

So… fresh clean attitude, new books, hi ho here we go.  If anyone else has realistic techniques to refresh the teaching spirit, send them this way.  And I’ll let you know how my path progresses.

Sorry I Missed Class Yesterday, But … (first verse)

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The Dog Ate My Homework, Really

I wonder if my students have ever used the innocent excuses that peppered my school career.  I remember holding the thermometer against a nearby radiator to convince my mother I was too sick to go to school.  And of course the dog came in for more than her fair share of blame too.

Today I had a student come up to me after class to explain why he hadn’t been in class the last two days.  A friend had come down from the city and got sick and my student had to stay with him – first iteration of the story.

Then it turns out the friend had started showing signs of being mentally ill and my student was afraid to leave him.  I asked whether the friend was a danger to himself or others, and my student said he thought so, since he was from the city and was “into all that.”

Then my student told me that his friend had originally said he was coming down to check out the college, but it turns out he was on the run from someone.  And my student didn’t know what to do, so he called their high school dean back home, who called the police who came to get the student and take him to a hospital for evaluation.

So… he was sorry he had missed class, and could he get the assignment that is due tomorrow?

We so often have no idea how complex our students’ lives are and what they are wading through to get to class, much less to do the work.  Granted, there are parties and sleepy mornings, but this semester I have already had two arrests, a student with a bipolar parent off her meds, and the death of a sibling touch my students, my classes, and my heart.

photo © 2009 by apanoply, made available by Creative Commons license

Dealing with a Bipolar Student Not on Her Meds

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photo by rightbrainphotography on flickr, made available by Creative Commons license

FALL 2011:  I am struggling with a student whose written work is coherent and complete, whose attendance is consistent, but whose behavior in class has me ready to stand at the door of my classroom and physically bar her entry.  The ability of one student to destroy the classroom environment never fails to amaze me.

Although I am usually comfortable with establishing a well-behaved class, she has presented a defiant challenge.  She talks across the room to her friends in the middle of class, laughs loudly and long at the most inappropriate moments, fights me at full volume on my directions for every assignment or project, and challenges every single mark I make on her papers, without listening to my (reasoned and calm) explanations.

Or else she sits in the farthest corner of the room with a pout on her face and her arms tightly crossed, refusing to join her group and looking like a three-year-old in a sulk.  I do not know if she has been diagnosed with any type of mental disorder, but her mood flies from manic to comatose and back again within a single class session.

We went for almost a week with no major incident and I thought to myself, “Great, she’s back on her meds.”  But alas, the next day we landed right back in Chaos Land with my assignment of new groups to do our vocabulary project.  She refused to speak to her group members and continued to talk to her two buddies until I physically stood between the two groups and told everyone to work with their own groups, at which point she got up and walked out.

I got the class going on the project, then waited outside the door and met her when she came back.  I asked her to get her belongings and told her that we needed to talk.  I was SO nervous, even though I had rehearsed what I was going to say with my dean the day before and had the Student Conduct Code in hand.  Start with the positive, then express concern about her mood swings, both for her sake and for the sake of the class.

It started out well.  She has a sweetness within her, and that came out as we started talking.  As soon as I broached the impact her behavior had on the class, however, she exploded, first claiming she was doing nothing out of the ordinary.  When I countered that with all the examples I had prepared, she then insisted that her classmates just needed to learn to deal with her behavior.

I admit I lost my temper somewhere right about here in our discussion.  It’s so disheartening to move from the high ground.

When I brought out the student conduct code, she said the class was stupid and I treated them all as if they were stupid by explaining words and text as we read.  This is a low-skill college reading class, and the majority of the students have written about how much they like the way I structure the class, so I started my spiel about how to behave in a class that teaches skills you already have.  This is a topic I have presented enough that I was able to calm down and help her find a way to approach the challenge.

That seemed to go well, and she moved from sitting three feet away from the table with arms crossed and fury in her eyes to explaining with tears in her eyes that she was exhausted and really stressed.  She had a lot going on in her life and had to work sixteen hour shifts on the weekends to pay for the apartment she chose because she didn’t like freshman housing.  I decided now was not the time to discuss choices and consequences!

When she came back to explaining that sometimes she just had bad days, I agreed that everyone has bad days (although her bad days appear as severe clinical depression with a side of fury).  I had a brainstorm and suggested that we come up with “safe words” – something she can say when she is having a particularly bad day and just needs to be left alone.  She wanted a phrase that to me sounded rude and hurtful, even though it was just asking me to go away.  So I suggested “I’m having a really bad day, I’m sorry.”  And I promised that if she said that, I would back off and leave her alone and not ask her to participate in the class discussions.

In return, she is going to not shout out at her friends during class or during group work when they are not in her group.  She is going to willingly work with her own group, and when we start to butt heads, either one of us can say “Let’s just stop here” and we will halt the confrontation before it starts.

She said she doesn’t want to be the person she is in my class.  I had been praying and turning this whole challenge over to God since I decided I had to call a halt to her behavior, so hopefully the result will be positive for her, for me, and for my class.

We are giving it a two week trial until mid-term conferences.  My fingers are crossed.  I will write a follow-up post at that time on our progress.

UPDATE:  We found a place of truce, although she didn’t show up for midterm or final conferences.  It never got easy, but we were able to keep from exploding, with one exception:

A few weeks after our meeting, she left class with about 20 minutes to go and missed the explanation of what I wanted them to do on their handouts.  When she came back in after class to collect her belongings, she said “This doesn’t make any sense!” about the handout.  I (relatively calmly…) said that she had missed the explanation and if she wanted to come by my office I would be happy to go over it with her.  She blew up and started screaming at me and I just walked out.  BUT, a miracle happened.  After I spent a sleepless night trying to figure out what it was about the way we connected that was so incendiary for her, she came to my office the next morning AND APOLOGIZED.  I was stunned, and so very very grateful.

She told me she shouldn’t have spoken to me as she did, that she didn’t like herself when she behaved that way, and that she was very sorry to have acted as she did.  I praised her so much for having the courage to come to me and apologize.  I also suggested that it must be exhausting to get so upset and that she should take care of herself.  What do you say, what do you do, when anything can trigger an explosion?  Hmm, I wonder if there were addiction issues??

Anyway, I survived the most difficult student I have ever had.  It was so so hard.  I reach out to all of you who are struggling with damaged students in your classes.  Being able to respond with love and the right kind of support when they push every button you have is beyond all of us at times, and we have to not spend nights beating ourselves up!  Whatever we do, let it be lovingly and bravely done.