Carleen
The more I think about it, the angrier I become. I'm a very easy going and easy to get along with individual; I don't rile easily, nor am I quick to anger. In all the years that I have been teaching, I have never, ever had a confrontation with a student. Never, that is, until this afternoon.

As the end of the semester nears, students begin to feel the stress of catching up with readings, preparing for finals, and completing major projects. They want to start seeing the light at the end of the semester tunnel, as do I. We've still got three weeks of classes left, and most of that time will be filled with some heavy duty assignments -- the big ones that professors assign as a culmination of a semester's learning. My students have begun working on one such assignment for me.

My classes are built around the theme of censorship, particularly as it relates to textbooks and other reading materials used in the public school classrooms. It is designed to introduce future teachers to the types of challenges they will face as educators in the K-12 system. The course culminates in a complex research assignment modeled after the procedure that teachers commonly follow when forced to respond to a parental challenge requesting the removal of a book from the curriculum.

Because the research assignment is quite involved, students work in groups. As a group, they choose one book from a list that I have compiled based on two important factors: (1) it appears on the American Library Association's Most Frequently Challenged Books,and (2) I have verified that our school library has the resources needed to complete the required research. After choosing the book they want to work with, the group members divvy up the research sections, assigning one portion to each member. Students share their research with one another but write their own essays.

Last week, we went over this final assignment thoroughly. I offered a synopsis of each book on the list, indicated the grade in which it is typically read, and the reasons why it is most frequently challenged. A couple of groups asked to use books that were not on my list, which is fine. The books in question have, indeed, been challenged and would work quite well within the parameters of the assignment. All was right in the world at the conclusion of last Thursday's class. And then came today.

**Disclaimer: Because my blog is in the public sphere, I cannot divulge specific details about the incident that follows. I may be retiring in a few weeks, but I certainly don't want to end a career that I dearly love on a bad note and providing more specific information with the knowledge that some of my past and present students read my blog and might be able to identify the persons involved in "the incident," would be irresponsible of me.

One of the groups that had chosen a book not on my list had read their selection over the weekend. While the rest of the class was busily working on an activity, Student X began bullying the other group members for having suggested such a "disgusting" book for them to read. Suddenly, in what can only be described as the irony of ironies, Student X challenged the group's decision on a challenged book and sought to censor it, and them, in a class about censorship!

When their voices could be heard across the classroom where I was helping another group, I had to assess the situation and run interference if needed. Student X had staged a coup, and the group was, without notifying me or asking if it was even okay, scrambling to make another book selection. With a mind locked as securely as Fort Knox, Student X refused to hear anything about the literary quality of the book in question, even when its defense came from me. Despite my explanation that we are all adults, in college, and that we ought to expect sometimes to encounter ideas that make us uncomfortable, Student X remained steadfast and determined to control the situation. Rather than creating any greater discomfort for the other group members, I advised the students that changing their book selection to one not on the assignment's list meant that I could not guarantee they would find the required research materials and that I would not help them search for it. The group seemed to settle down, and I turned my attention back to the other students. When all was said and done, the group capitulated and chose another book. Chalk one up for the censors!

At the end of the class, Student X hung around until everyone had left the classroom and asked to talk to me. After requesting an extension on the essay that was due this evening, which I granted, Student X expressed upset with me for having interfered with the group dynamic. As our conversation continued and I let Student X know that it was my responsibility to maintain control in the classroom and to prevent any student from bullying another, Student X began to look like a deer in the headlights and slowly walked backwards -- yes, literally backwards!-- weaving through two rows of seats, complaining all the while about being "disadvantaged" by me and my interference, until backing out of the classroom completely. What had happened? A breakdown? A meltdown?

I headed off to the parking lot and the peace that leaving campus would surely bring. Incensed, confused about what I had just experienced, yet concerned about Student X's mental health, I wandered the parking lot in search of my car. And I do mean in search of -- in my confusion and upset, I could not find the darn thing anywhere! As I always do when in a state of panic, I called Ali. His reassuring voice calmed me enough so that I found the car and began to make my way to our business.

I knew that I needed to inform my department chair about the incident and attempted to call his office from my cell phone. But lucky for me, I had, just the night before, finally figured out how to sync my email contacts from the computer to my iPhone and in the process, unbeknown to me, erased phone numbers that were already in my phone but not in the computer's contacts. I had to wait to call until I could get to the office and look up the number on the school website. At least the time lapse would allow me to arrange my thoughts enough that I didn't sound like a complete unprofessional idiot when I did call.

While I was scouring the parking lot for my car, Student X was in my department chair's office reporting my wretched behavior. Before making the phone call, I had decided that since we have only three weeks left of class, it would be best if Student X, who travels quite a distance to get to the campus anyway and always arrives late for class as a result, did not return to the classroom and that any outstanding be turned in via email. My solution provided an out for an obviously stressed student and a reprieve for the other group members who wanted to complete the assignment with the book they had just purchased and read. The chair indicated that our stories were nearly identical, except that Student X claimed that I had behaved "aggressively." After discussing the situation with the chair, it was agreed that the group would use the new book with the understanding that I couldn't guarantee they would find the resources they needed nor would I help them locate any. Problem solved? Not really.

As the day turned into the evening, I began to hear from some of the other group members. They resented Student X's attitude and felt pressured to change the book selection, even though they didn't want to, because the thought of having to work so closely for the remainder of the semester with such hostility, anger, and bitterness was worse. Perhaps I should have insisted that Student X not return to the classroom after all. But, if I had done that, Student X's claim of being "disadvantaged" would become truth. On the other hand, I now have three students who are genuinely "disadvantaged" by the coup. Their day was every bit as terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad as mine.


Things are, however, looking up for me. It's the little things like this email I received a short time ago that make teaching a worthwhile career choice in spite of the nitwits:

You are THEE Coolest teacher ever..
Just hope you know that.
C u Thursday
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3 Responses
  1. Sherlock Says:

    Don't you just hate when this happens? Some students just feel entitled and will go over your head to complain just because they can. Sounds to me like you handled it well. If the other group members didn't want to switch books, they should have been more adamant about it. Student X could have read his own book and written his own essay without benefit of the group process.

    And don't you just love getting emails like that one? Glad the day ended on a happy note!


  2. Carleen Says:

    It doesn't bother me nearly as much that Student X complained as it does that this individual bullied three others into making an unauthorized change to the assignment. Student X's grade is not the only one that hangs in the balance now as a result, for if they can't find the resources needed to complete the assignment, they up crap creek with no paddles, and I will not be throwing out any life jackets!

    In speaking to two of the other group members, I learned that they felt intimidated by the fact that Student X is twice their age, bossy, and as one of them put it, "vehemently opinionated."

    It should make for a really interesting remaining three weeks!


  3. dance*love Says:

    I think you are an amazing professor and a lovely person in general. Some people suck but its people like you in life that make the world a better place :)
    See you tomorrow.


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