Usually I am. My student population, and the vibe of my room don’t tend to drive me to having to be anything else. But last Monday, at the end of four days of midterm review, I found myself becoming a bit short with a few honors chemistry students who were not demonstrating what I would consider to be a level of understanding of certain, superficial, chemistry topics (things like what are and are not elements), commensurate with having been in my honors chemistry class for half a year.
For me, the corollary is to a coach who is dealing with a player who is forgetting bedrock fundamentals. I don’t know too many coaches who would be psyched by that prospect. As a teacher, how does one signal this sort of displeasure? Most (not all) of the coaches that I know would hoot and holler.
I don’t yell when I get testy. Instead, I modify my vocal tone to project the fact that I feel that the student(s) who are on the receiving end of my attentions are not meeting me half way in terms of doing the things that they need to be doing to stay on top of the material. I move from jovial joking to sarcastic quipping. My message is essentially “you should know better.” For the student(s), it can be an unpleasant experience. Some laugh it off. Some feel a bit less good about themselves. This seemed to be the case in one particular instance last Monday, when a student who was on the receiving end of such a quip took the opportunity to move into fully disgruntled mode, which necessitated two different personal conversations, an apology for any unintended generation of bad feelings, an explanation of intent, and a reinforcement of the fact that the student in question can always feel comfortable in discussing with me any time where I have made them feel less than pleasant.
I’m not the kind of teacher who ever wants a student to feel less good about him or herself based on their interactions with me or my course. Certainly, that’s not my intent, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Sometimes, a student is not going to be psyched to realize, after four days of midterm review, that they still don’t know how to navigate their way around a periodic table that has been staring them in the face for five months. Sometimes, that’s going to be a somewhat disappointing realization, made all the more disappointing by the fact that their typically kind and pleasant teacher is sounding like he is not pleased with the situation.
This is an issue that I struggle with: when, and where, and how to turn on displeased mode. Short of a health or safety issue, or an affront to interpersonal dignity, I’m never going to yell at a student. I’ll certainly never yell at a student for not knowing how to pull information off of a periodic table. But at some point, in some fashion, I have to convey the notion that a student is not developing in their learning on the level expected of them. Perhaps I can do it in other ways? I’m not sure what they are. What I do know is that teenagers being teenagers, I’m never going to find a universally agreeable mode of conveying the notion that students are not meeting their end of the deal in studying a course I’m teaching. And in those cases, when students are reacting to the fact that I am not nice momentarily, all I can do is make sure to touch base with them, explain where I’m coming from, and hope that the experience is enough to make them think about what they are doing in my course and how to avoid being in the situation again.