One Small Part of Teaching I’ve Come to Dislike

another aloe rauhii's babyI’m teaching a course this semester called “How to Get a Job.” I enjoy prepping for class, teaching the class, and chatting with students after class. I like having students and I like being a teacher.

As a rule, my students are inspiring, hardworking, smart people. Each of them does Carnegie Mellon proud in his and her own way. What surprised me is how much of my time as a teacher I spend on exceptions. Students missing class, being late for class, missing assignments, needing to pick up corrections early or late. Because I am a student, I remember that life happens. But as a teacher, I can see how distracting these exceptions are and how they negatively effect my class.

I think what I dislike about these negatively exceptional students is the power imbalance. If we were friends, or work colleagues and they asked for an exception to a deadline or more help on a project, I would have no problem. And, as friends or colleagues, I would expect them to remember that favor and help me out at some point. Because we’re equals, and equally capable of helping and harming each other.

The teacher-student dynamic is different. Though I have intentionally set up my class to be as equal as possible (I don’t stand and lecture at sitting students, I call them “Miss” and “Mr,” I do all of the assignments I give them) I am constantly aware of the institutional power differential. I’m the one who gives grades, sets up the classroom, grades the homework, and introduces the guest speakers. It is neither expected nor appropriate for my students to see asking for an exception as a repayable favor.

This leaves me without a model to understand our interactions. With my friends, if one never follows up on a professional contact I make for her, I don’t try too hard to make her any more contacts. That feels fair. But if my student misses a class, isn’t it still part of my duty as a teacher (particularly of a class titled “How to Get a Job”) to continue to help her?

I’m struggling with the feeling that good teachers don’t play favorites (meaning I should treat all of my students with the same respect), and that some of my students are wasting my time (meaning I still want to treat them with respect, but spend a little less time reviewing their resumes).

One solution I know I will not choose for next semester’s iteration of this class will be the legalistic one. Many of my professors write excruciatingly detailed and punitively-worded syllabi I believe to avoid having this dilemma. They lay out when and how they will fail students, attendance and homework submission policies which include deadlines accurate to the second, all (I think) in the hope that being clear on the first day of class will free them from the time-sinks that are negatively exceptional students. When I read one of those syllabi as a student, I feel talked-down-to and untrusted. I never want to make one of my students feel that way.

Perhaps this is just a fact of teaching. I’ll ask my professors and my teacher-friends not how they’ve modified their syllabi to limit negative exceptions, but how they’ve modified their inner understandings of their relationships with their students so they don’t feel betrayed at every absence.

Inspirational Quote:

“The only people with whom you should try to get even are those who have helped you.”–John E. Southard


  1. I would take a utilitarian approach and say you have to do the greatest good for the greatest number of your students. If some students sap your energy and deprive your other students of your best efforts, I don’t see any problem with taking a legalistic or other approach to minimize the damage that they do. Think of it as an engineering tradeoff – you want to maximize the benefits your students as a whole receive, but if you spend too much time dealing with negative students, that can reduce your effectiveness with other students. Also, you have to look out for your own personal energy. I have coached youth sports for many years, and I have found that you have to draw a line with how much of your energy that you will allow some of the more negative kids to suck from you. I am not saying that you shouldn’t be fair, but you will find that your time and energy are not infinite, and you will need to find ways to minimize spending your efforts dealing with negative people.

  2. That makes a lot of sense. It is particularly frustrating when the negative stuff is coming from friends or acquaintances. I’m wondering whether I might be able to screen out some of the negative behaviors by asking students to submit something before they are let into the class. A fellow teacher uses this as his strategy to weed out folks who aren’t committed to getting into the class. I’m just not sure it’s the right approach,

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