On Avoiding An Embarrassing Meltdown In The Classroom

A week or so ago, I sensed trouble was afoot, that danger was brewing–pick your favored cliché–in my teaching work. I was growing steadily irritated, being driven to apoplexy by an insidious irritant: a student’s behavior had gotten under my skin. He could do nothing right; I found myself handing out imaginary dressing-downs in class, in my office; I experienced surges of irritation at the mere thought of my last interaction with him. I found myself avoiding eye-contact in the classroom for fear of experiencing a potentially debilitating wave of anger while trying to work through a passage of philosophical argumentation.

I was coming dangerously close to that most embarrassing of occurrences for a teacher: a public eruption of temper at a student.

In the fall of 1997, during my first semester of teaching philosophy–then as a graduate student–I had the misfortune of encountering three extremely loquacious students in my night class. Their ringleader, a loud young woman, conducted their chorus with cheekiness and verve; she cared little for the disturbance caused to the students around them. I sent several warnings and rebukes their way but to no avail; I sensed some defiance in their responses but did not push any further. Finally, one night, matters came to a head; their chattering broke out again as I wrote on the blackboard. My inevitable reprimand was now responded to with an insolent suggestion that I change my tone. To put matters proverbially, I lost my shit. I shouted–loudly–at the offending miscreant that she needed to change her ways; rather gratifyingly, even if only for an instant, she looked shell-shocked. As did the rest of the class. In the awkward silence that followed–that seemed to last forever–I went back to writing on the blackboard, desperately trying to recover my equanimity. After class ended, my student came to me in tears. I had humiliated her, shown her up. We talked for a few minutes; I explained my reaction as best as I could, pointing out to her that her group’s behavior was a distraction and disrespectful. She apologized, and then left.

Later, I realized I could have handled things differently; I could have asked her to stay back after class and discussed many of the same topics we did after my outburst.

Many years later, at Brooklyn College, I lost my temper at a student again. This time, in my office, in the course of a conversation where a grade grubbing conversation had taken a turn into the realm of the absurd–my interlocutor had told me that I had graded his paper too harshly a few seconds after informing me that he had prioritized another class’ exam and therefore had been unable to devote any time or energy to my writing assignment. From this, he concluded that I was being ‘unfair.’ My patience and mental reserves had been worn thin by days of petulant badgering; I jumped out of my chair in indignation as I angrily told him to stop wasting my time. Then, I had felt undignified; my student had been shocked and had taken a step back, appalled by this visible display of frustration and irritation on my part. (It’s a long story, but our relationship did not improve until after he had graduated.)

I dodged a bullet this time. I sent out an email to my classes in which I said a debriefing with me about the grades in the first paper of the semester was a mandatory requirement for all. One of the students to meet with me was the repeat offender; I sat him down, told him he needed to get his act together; he seemed genuinely concerned about the impression he was making, and promised to turn over a new leaf. I breathed a sigh of relief once our meeting was over. That feeling persists; the next few weeks will show whether it was justified or not.

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