Tough Love

I’m sitting here trying to calm down after a particularly annoying session with the students. Now you know that I love students on the whole. I think they are fun and interesting and full of a delightful verve, even if they are occasionally misguided, defeatist or gauche. Usually I can excuse or find sympathy for their quirks and errors. But there is one thing that really irritates me, and that’s when a group session is disrupted by the actions of one individual. Today I had an hour booked with the first year geographers who wanted to discuss ways to improve their essay writing. This worried me a bit at first, as I hadn’t done any geography since I was sixteen, but a little research indicated that in fact all was well. Human geography is a subject concerned with issues of social, cultural and political organization; its main preoccupations are power relations, concepts of space and different means of political intervention. Effectively, it’s the issues at the heart of post-colonial or political literature, without the literature. So that was okay, I could deal with that. There were six students, three girls and three boys, a good group number, and I was armed with a previous year’s exam paper to strike the right note of dread and necessity in their feckless hearts.

To be fair we got through quite a lot of material. But one young woman seemed determined to infect the group with her attitude. If I asked a general question she would quickly intervene (the others seemed to rely on her to answer first) and trot off the most orthodox, obvious response, as if that would close the discussion. She followed this up with a stream of silly, frivolous comments at which she would laugh gratingly. So for instance, we were talking about borderlines and her contribution was ‘Who needs borderlines anyway? They’re pointless.’ The general undercurrent was that geography was boring and dull and she knew all the standard issue answers and was not about to push herself any further; she sapped the energy and commitment of the other students, although they obviously knew her well and weren’t manifestly bothered by it. Well, you’ll all have been in classes with someone like that at some point. I’m sure it was down to insecurity and defensiveness and I will eventually find some sympathy in my cold, closed heart. But not right this moment. Needless to say – although I will say it anyway for my personal satisfaction – I was extremely unamused at her tedious antics and deeply unimpressed by her mind

Now crowd control is an interesting problem at university level. The girl wasn’t so very rude that I could really call her out, and I would have attempted to avoid that in any case as it would have ruined any other group dynamics we had working. Reprimanding one member of a group tends to shut up all the others very quickly indeed. My response is always to up the tempo. I grow very stern, throw questions at them much faster, and try to work them harder. I figure if they are concentrating, there’ll be less wriggle-room for messing about. And I ignore the base elements and openly praise anyone who responds well. But it’s hard to keep a fast class going for an entire hour. Meetings have their own internal rhythm and work best if you can mix it up a bit, with slower patches for reflection and thought in between tougher pressure on them for answers and creativity. If a group gets into the rhythm, concentrates, gets behind the topic, it’s amazing what you can do. But one student, scrambling the airwaves, well, it’s hard to get into, and keep, the zone. The question now is whether I do anything about it. I think there’s nothing to be done but let the situation go. I won’t be seeing those students again, the session was a one-off, and it is probably the only time that all those first year geographers will ever work together. I’m tempted to complain to her director of studies but, in the way of these things, it only rebounds on me and makes me look like I can’t keep a group in harmony. Does anyone know of a good book that discusses ways to handle group dynamics? I could use more strategies if I’m going to have to do this sort of thing more often.

Most students so far this term have been fine – straightforward problems easily solved. But there’s another student who’s worrying me. This particular person worked twenty-three hours a day for the first six weeks of their time in Cambridge. That’s right: one hour a night for sleep. This was always going to end in disaster, and eventually he had a complete breakdown. He returned this term, unable to work at all and still, as far as I could tell, unwell. All he did was sit through his lectures and play snooker in the college bar. I set him the exercise of attempting to work for fifteen minute sessions, one a day. It didn’t matter if he didn’t achieve anything, he simply had to try, and if he did start working, he should stop promptly when the time was up. Daily he would send me an email saying he hadn’t been able to work even one minute. And then, after he’d had a decisive meeting with the college authorities, who told him he had to go home and take the rest of the year off to get well, he suddenly declared that he could work a little. Of course, the situation is more complicated than it appears as there are relationship problems at home, and he desperately wants to stay in Cambridge. But let me show you another aspect of it: his tutor had suggested he find a job and rent a place, gaining himself a measure of independence while he sorted himself out. College would help him with all these arrangements if he wanted. But the one thing that really worried him was how he would fend for himself. In college, he explained, he could go to the buttery for food, and at home his parents would cook. But how could he possibly manage to find food for himself on his own? He keeps coming up with questions like this, but then, when I suggest he could either learn to prepare simple meals or buy microwave dinners, he backs down so fast, it’s as if he never quite believed in his own position anyway. The last time I saw him, he wanted to persuade me that he was capable of getting through the exams, in the hope that I would advocate for him with the college council. It’s an impossible situation but I had to say no. Until he gets to the bottom of his issues, he is destined to repeat them. I wished so much I had a solution to offer him, but finding one out may well be his first step towards growing up.

Sometimes, this job is not as easy as it looks on paper.

16 thoughts on “Tough Love

  1. It sounds like a tough day. The first student was an obnoxious brat and it’s too bad she ruined the time for the others who might have learned something, and that they let her. I’m not sure that you could have done anything about it, other than to tell her that she’d had enough air time and the other students would need to have theirs. But by the time she had made her attitude known, the atmosphere was already set. Sometimes group dynamics just is what it is and you can’t change it. As for the second student, it sounds as though he needs a therapist, not just a tutor or adviser. I hope he is getting that kind of help. You did your best all around and as much as anyone could do.

  2. I can see why the last student you discussed is worrisome. (I take it you are a professor at Cambridge. That is quite an achievement!) The young man sounds as though he is deeply troubled, litlove. Most of us floundered a bit standing on the cusp between youth and adulthood; but, he might need some professional counseling. If he were my son, his behavior would be keeping me up at night until I got him some help. The young woman, on the other hand, was simply being a pill. Happily, most of those kids grow up and have kids who are just like they were! Sweet revenge. Thanks for being a teacher. After college I taught for 3 days – after which my head hurt, my throat hurt, my feet hurt, my back hurt, and I was broke from buying school supplies for the kids who had none.

  3. Litlove, like the others here, I think you did a good job in two tough circumstances. The geographers aren’t going to be together again, you say, so let that go, and let her go; she may have had 1,000 reasons for being like she was, but it’s her problem, and at some point she’ll run into a wall. You don’t have to construct one for her. But that would be a tough situation.

    As for 15-minute man, his difficulty is beyond you, and beyond him at this point. Not to be to blunt, but he sounds like a sinkhole who could suck all the good energy from people helping him. Clearly he is throwing up obstacles to solutions, for some unfathomed reason(s). A therapist is better suited for him, so leave him to his own devices after making whatever recommendations you can.

    You’ve done very well with so many others, and you’ll will do so with others not yet seen. There are always going to be ones who go their own way. Maybe that’s what’s meant to be.

    Good luck in whatever you do.

  4. Ditto above. The only effective way I know to deal with situations such as the first one is to avoid asking general questions, and ask specific other members of the group to respond, though that sometimes feels like you’re putting them on the spot. I’m chuckling to myself rembering a group of business networkers I used to be in charge of, and with whom I had to use this technique because one of the members of the group was incredibly obnoxious.

    At one point, she asked me point blank: “You’re trying to keep me quiet, aren’t you?”

    To which I replied: “Yes, and perhaps it would be useful for you to think about why I might be doing that.”

    She left the group, which was a great relief to me. 🙂

  5. My blogging friends – I’m on my way to bed now but I wanted just to say a big thank you to your comments that have made me smile and been tremendously comforting. I’ll be answering properly in the morning, but big hugs to you all now.

  6. That sounds intense, but I’m sure you’re a marvelous teacher and the students really appreciate you.🙂 And at least that geography student isn’t a lit student!😉 The second student sounds a lot more difficult; I went to a small, residential college, so I saw some students go through break downs. It wasn’t pretty, but they got through them, and I think they’re better people now.

  7. Hmm, I’m thinkig about those two young people and what their adult lives will be like unless they learn different attitudes about relationships, proper behavior, and finding some balance in your lifestyle. Scary.

    That said, there is only so much that you, as their teacher, can do about those things. They aren’t babies after all. But how frustrating it must be!

    Hope you’ve had a good sleep, and come to the table refreshed for the new day.

  8. Lilian – thank you for such a lovely, supportive comment. I was certainly thrown by the first young woman’s behaviour as I can’t ever recall a linguish in my French-teaching days being disruptive that way. The boy is a problem, yes, and I agree: therapy is the way forward for him. Grad – I did laugh at the thought of my young woman being confronted by a wilfull daughter! Ah yes, it will happen in time! I do worry about the boy because he has become dissociated from his own behaviour, which is always the indication of big trouble. And you are so right that teaching is physically demanding – last night I was tired!🙂 JB – what a wonderful comment from you, thank you. You are quite right that the young woman will hit a wall, or more likely a freight train will hit her, about mid-May, known as the examinations system! The young man needs to see a therapist, I completely agree, and I hope we can help to sort that out for him, if he’ll agree to it. You hit the nail on the head in many ways, as I don’t like even one student to slip the net. But they must some times, as it’s part of their own learning experience, one way or another. Hugs to you. David – your story is very funny. I tend to stubbornly persist on my little path and only think of witty retorts, cutting lines and good put-downs when I’m in my car driving home!🙂 I think I might be able to compile a dossier from your site, however, to aid me in future encounters…. Bloglily – love and sympathy much needed, gratefully received and warmly embraced! No ‘only’ about it.🙂 Eva – it was certainly tiring! But I could be thankful I only teach in hour-long sessions, rather than the three hours the average French lecturer clocks up. And my experience suggests that students of literature are far and away the sweetest and loveliest of souls.🙂 The boy is a worry – hopefully we can begin by getting him the kind of therapy he needs. Well, keep your fingers crossed. Emily – now isn’t that the truth? I find it very hard to accept I can’t somehow help them all, but it is just not possible. That’s something I’m going to have to get more accustomed to in this job, I think. Becca – you’re right. Every one comes to a point of reckoning, and it’s down to the individual how critical that point is. I think this is a lovely time to teach the young, just as they are stepping off into adult lives, but it is not without its problems. All sorts of rebellions and refusals bubble just below the surface but aren’t necessarily possessed in any useful way. Ah well. A night’s sleep and the prospect of not having to return to the fray until tomorrow is very helpful!🙂

  9. If only all students could be angels a teacher’s job would be so much easier. The girl geographer would have annoyed the heck out of me and I’m not sure I would have been able to avoid snapping at her by saying something in the vein of, why don’t you let one of the other students give an answer? I like David’s suggestion though of putting students on the spot. That way you get around the annoying one and force the others to participate.

    The other student is just a sad, sad case. There is only so much you can do and it sounds like you have done it. He needs to step up and make an effort to save himself. I agree with JB that the guy needs to see a therapist.

    Hang in there!

  10. Stefanie – it’s because I have it so easily generally! I’m spoiled.🙂 It is very rare to have a student be ‘difficult’ and so it surprised me, and then my biggest mistake was letting it get to me. Still, you live and learn, and yes, I have certainly stored David’s suggestion away for the right moment.

    Tomorrow will be better!

  11. It’s very hard to see students doing themselves in like that one student is. I sometimes find myself being foolishly optimistic and believing students when what they need is some tough love, and at other times I can feel hopeless about people’s ability to change. I’m just not sure, ultimately, about how often people do make difficult changes in their lives. Anyway, I could sure use a book about group dynamics too. The classroom is such a complicated place, and I’m constantly thinking about and agonizing over how I handle it.

  12. Dorothy – Most of the time my students are wonderful and so it’s only odd occasions like these that throw me. I think now I should have included the geography student more, that she was behaving like a silly child because she wanted good attention and wasn’t getting it. Well, I’ll probably change my mind again by tomorrow because like you, I do agonise over these things. I’ve ordered a book from Oxford University Press called Classroom Dynamics that apparently has lots of exercises for all situations – I’ll let you know if it’s any good!

  13. You and your commenters above have said it all but I’ll just add a couple of thoughts. There’s no easy answer to #1 but I might have tried to slow it down a little and to challenge her on her throwaway lines. And then broaden the topic to the group so that it wasn’t a dialogue between you and her but rather a broader discussion. Every time she tries to say something silly, you say “Ok, what do others think?” and look pointedly at the next person. I liked david’s answer though! As for #2, you’ve all said it above. It must be tempting to go into therapy mode though but I guess your role is slightly different. Perhaps kind and respectful honesty about what you see about his behaviour and then getting him to reflect on why he’s taking the route that he is. Good luck. The only book I was going to suggest was The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom. Great book. It’s also helpful (for me) to remember that the loudest pathology in the group tends to dominate. So your job is then to politely contain her (or challenge her) and try to make conversational room for the others.

  14. Pete – first of all thank you for the Yalom suggestion. That’s wonderful – you know I’m a big fan of his anyway. I’m trying to get case 2 moving towards therapy this morning – it’s all complicated admin and discussions now. And I like your suggestions very much for case 1. Up until now I realise that any group work I’ve done has been focused on a particular task. So it’s a new skill, as it turns out, to get productively through a general discussion. I’m thinking a couple of tasks back in the mix would be good, too.

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