By Anne Pharr

Teaching and Truth-telling

"Our course syllabus states that if I see or hear a phone during a class session, I will ask the owner to leave. Because I have seen your cell phone out during today’s class, you need to leave immediately and quietly, and you will receive an absence for today. Before returning to our next class session, you must meet with me during my office hours. Please email or call to set an appointment time.”

This message is on a slip of paper I handed to a student yesterday. It was our third class meeting.

On day one, we reviewed the course syllabus. I made sure to emphasize the importance of students leaving their cell phones off and stored away. Despite these instructions, this student kept his iPhone in plain sight — alternating between setting it on his desk and making good use of it. At one point during class, I spoke with him privately about needing to put it in his backpack.

On day three, he repeatedly composed text messages during our class-wide discussion.

He announced that this was his second time to take the course, since he stopped attending last semester after three weeks. On his student information form, he listed one of his other teachers as “witch.”

And I lost count of how many times he said, “I don’t really care” during class.

But as his fellow students were moving into groups, I discreetly gave him the above-mentioned slip of paper.

Suddenly, he started caring.

I’m not certain of all he said, but I definitely heard “drop this class,” before he slammed the door — hard. We all heard it.

Later, I received an email saying how unfair I am. The subject line for his parting words? 666.

That was yesterday.

Today, do I regret my actions?

Should I regret them?

Earlier in my teaching career, it’s likely I would have said “yes.”

If someone had described yesterday’s events to the teacher I was two decades ago, I might have said I had sympathy for her. Secretly, though, I would’ve believed that the teacher could have — no, should have — handled the situation differently. I would have thought that her inability to engage the student, shown clearly by his unwillingness to comply with her expectations, was an obvious indicator of her need to significantly adjust her approach.

I would have believed she needed to be, well, more...

More welcoming.

More winsome.

More relatable.

More patient.

More articulate.

More flexible.

More willing to meet the student right where he was.

I would have viewed her as something other than the kind of teacher I wanted to be. And I would have worked hard — really hard — to avoid coming anywhere close to a situation that would call me to dismiss a student from my class.

That was then.

Now, I’ve taught off and on for around two decades, mostly at my current community college. And I love teaching. Love my students. Love challenging them to learn, grow, sharpen their skills. Love watching many of them do just that. Love the opportunity to perhaps make a small contribution to that process.

But I’ve certainly had my share of classroom challenges:

  • the student who seems fiercely committed to sabotaging my efforts at helping him learn
  • the student whose dogged determination to do good work is overbalanced by significant deficits in foundational academic skills
  • the student who mistakes my concern for her as a person with my intention to give her a good grade, regardless of the quality of her work
  • the student who resents the whole notion of needing a college degree in order to qualify for a job
  • the student whose general disenchantment with our educational system causes her to mistrust anyone claiming to possess knowledge that she might benefit from exploring, learning about, or developing

Such individuals appear in my classroom more rarely than those who are academically prepared, personally motivated, trusting of the educational system. But the more challenging students do arrive on a regular basis. And though their presence adds a level of difficulty to the experience of teaching, I also believe each one of them offers something important to the classroom.

Why? I suppose it has to do with my own conviction — rooted in Psalm 139 — that each of my students is fearfully and wonderfully made. Each of them has a Divine Creator’s fingerprints all over them. And each of them, regardless of abilities or attitude, has unique and vital gifts to offer their world. My world. So even during moments when a student’s actions make it difficult to view him or her from that perspective, I keep this in mind.

I’m sure the student I dismissed yesterday did not experience my actions as caring. The email he sent later made his perspective abundantly clear.

But that doesn’t mean his perspective is accurate.

I tell my classes each semester that I am charged with what I consider a hefty responsibility:  My role as their teacher is to nurture the knowledge and skills that will help them achieve their goals on the job and in life. And each student has something — often many things — that he or she will need to learn in order to reach those goals.

This need to learn more isn’t a deficiency. It’s merely a fact. And regardless of whatever “shortcomings” my students might have, I’m confident that they are capable of good things, that they have something valuable to offer their community. So when a student is selling himself short, or robbing herself (or others) of the opportunity to learn, I’d rather that student hear it from me now, instead of from a used-to-be-employer.

Some will suggest that I should have politely ignored his behavior. Twenty years ago, I might have said the same. And what if I had turned a blind eye?

Pretending along with this student that his actions are acceptable seems a bit like being an accomplice to a behavior that is likely to hurt him in the long run. By turning a blind eye, I’m not taking the high road; I’m taking the easy one — and at my student’s expense.

Sometimes telling the truth is going to create discomfort. For all of us.

It certainly did yesterday.

A few decades ago, I might have seen that discomfort as a cue that I needed to be more as a teacher, or perhaps expect less from my students.

Today, I see it differently. For the sake of my students, I need to tell the truth.

About the Author

A graduate of Baylor University, Anne Pharr has taught English and First Year Seminar at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, since 1998.  In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Anne serves as program coordinator for the First Year Seminar course and, along with some of her colleagues, developed a college-wide initiative, Partners for Student Potential (PSP), whose mission is to deepen and broaden faculty and staff awareness of the challenges and strengths represented by at-risk students.  PSP activities have included gathering and sharing PSCC student stories at the Walking the Hero's Journey blog as well as interviewing PSCC faculty and administrators about their own college struggles in the Partners for Student Potential podcast.  Besides enjoying family and friends, Anne's passions include writing, music, reading, exercise, Huckleberry the dog, and a great cup of coffee — preferably first thing each morning. More of her writing can be found at her two blogs: shadowwonder (on Christian spirituality) and gritology (exploring how educators and parents can cultivate grit, determination, resilience, and perseverance — and why we should).


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