When students wreck my fantasy of how awesome I am

A wise teacher once told me that when we get frustrated or irritated with others it is often because “they have failed to fulfill the function we have assigned to them.” In these waning weeks of the semester, as pressure escalates and tensions rise, I have ample occasion to ponder my own irritation. As the meager weeks tick by, and possibility once again morphs into constriction, it is almost irresistible to blame others and myself for whatever failures have begun to take shape.

Enter an email to me from a struggling student the other day expressing an anger so barely contained, it landed just on this side of civilly. So viscously did it boil with muted rage that I began searching for the previous, more measured, expressions of frustration (or cries for help) that, surely, must have preceded it. But no. Though her message suggested she had been vainly beating her head against my door for weeks, this was her first missive. She had not, in fact, responded even perfunctorily to the multiple concerned emails I’d sent her in the first weeks of the term. Frankly, I found her irritation, both the scale and timing of it, irritating.

In the service of my campaign to avoid empty loops of guilt, defensiveness and resentment, I seek value in moments like this. Can I move past mere venting to something constructive? My approach is both to try to be curious about what is happening and to avoid taking it too personally. It’s a deceptively simple strategy because it first requires that I find breathing room between myself and whatever sparks of emotion are pouring from my ears. If I can’t find at least a little distance between others’ insults and who I think myself to be, then all is lost.

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When I am able to step back, the student’s irritation is easy enough to conjure up and understand. From day one she has found my class to demand more consistent attention than her other online classes, and for weeks now she has been getting grades she does not like. Though its difficulty is carefully calibrated with terms laid out explicitly in the syllabus, she expected my class to be more casual, self-paced and rote than it is. She expected to succeed doing what she’d previously done in similar classes. My class was supposed to further bolster her self-image as a good student for whom learning comes easily. Her irate message to me was actually the latest installment in an internal conversation of deepening frustration she’s been having with me for weeks. What names has she been calling me in her head? I don’t want to know.

But, of course, I imagine that I do know, and it stokes my own internal rant about these struggling students who seem to blame me as they ignore almost every bit of advice or instruction. They add insult to injury, or so I persuade myself, by waiting until the last weeks of the semester to reach out to me. My indignation reveals my own implicit expectations: My students should be polite and appreciative of the opportunity to learn with me, responsible enough to read and follow basic instructions, and willing to take some responsibility for failure. They should make me feel better, not worse, about myself as a teacher. Though most students most semesters meet these expectations, each and every semester — for 30 years now, mind you! — some students never have. Why, then, do I persist in holding them?

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To clarify, there are two senses of “expectation” at play here, one of which expresses something like gentle hope or preference. It’s what I mean, for example, when I say I expect students to address me by something resembling my actual title. But a more pernicious, rigid sort of expectation rises up when we actually come to rely on an unfolding reality to match our already established mental picture of it. Consider the naive picture many of us form at the beginning of the semester: Students will arrive on time and we will complete our grading with clockwork regularity, the scent of newly sharpened pencils filling the air. Often, hapless students and professors do not merely feel disappointed, but duped and disillusioned by a present reality that does not match the previously painted picture of it.

Of course, such fantasy-based expectation all but guarantees that we will assign roles to others that they will inevitably fail to fulfill. Our disappointment, then, will be palpable and deep, for we will not merely have unpleasant situations to deal with but must repeatedly countenance these willful others who wreck our dream of who we are and what our professional lives are supposed to mean. In failing to fulfill the roles I have assigned to them — some of which they did not actually agree to and may not even know they have — students really wreck things for me as I do for them. Small wonder we get angry and irritated with one another out of all proportion to what’s actually happening here and now.

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