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The way we diagnose our students’ condition will determine the kind of remedy we offer…The common diagnosis, to put it bluntly, is that our “patients” are brain-dead…That caricature highlights a truth: our assumption that students are brain-dead leads to pedagogies that deaden their brains.  When we teach by dripping information into their passive forms, students who arrive in the classroom alive and well become passive consumers of knowledge and are dead on departure when they graduate.  But the power of this self-fulfilling prophecy seems to elude us: we rarely consider that our students may die in the classroom because we use methods that assume they are dead.  –Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

The Early Career Faculty Professional Development Circle is currently working through Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach.  This week, we discussed “The Student from Hell.”  We read Palmer’s description–the seemingly unreachable student in the back corner–and then discussed how we view that student.  Some descriptions included the hecklers and attention seekers, the sleepers, the texters or surfers in addition to the simply disengaged or those not showing up for class.  I pointed out to them that they will encounter, on more than one occasion, these students that cause us to question our ability to teach.

Then we explored Parker’s assertion that our students may be behaving the way they are out of fear.  Us old cogers may slip into viewing our students as stereotypes rather than as young people wracked with fear.   We made a list of stereotypes regarding today’s students and another list of fear’s they may have due to today’s society.  We rounded things out by also creating a list of our students’ positive attributes.

Stereotypes or negative images of students:
  • Stupid
  • Lazy
  • Self-consumed
  • Unimaginative
  • Entitled/spoiled
  • Don’t care
  • Want to follow
  • Can’t write
  • Can’t do math
  • Expect to be spoon-fed: “Tell me what is on the test”
  • Expect an A
  • Multi-task too much in class
  • Not equipped/not fit for the curriculum
  • Low motivation to learn
  • Job/employment (both future and current)
  • Paying off student loans
  • Their love life
  • Their social life
  • Being rejected
  • Looking silly or embarrassed
  • Isolated
  • Failure
  • That their wasting their time/money being in a class or college
  • Dangerous world
  • Money (both short term and long term)
  • Time issues (balancing work and school, for example)
  • Being arrested for drinking
  • Being wrong
  • Their grades
  • Wanting to please their instructors
  • Feeling overwhelmed
Positive Attributes:
  • They’re here!
  • Ability to navigate the world
  • Confident
  • Brave
  • Passionate
  • Busy/Hard working/work ethic
  • Enthusiastic (if it relates to them or their future)
  • Outgoing and friendly
  • Generally work well together
  • Tech savvy
  • Have a plan
  • Motivated
  • Family duties

We don’t leave who we are at the door of the classroom.  Neither do our students.  Just like we have concerns and cares, so do they.  But their fears often get in the way of their ability to focus on learning or to buy into what you are trying to teach to them.

After our discussion, one faculty member had her students write down their fears related to the course or what was going on in their lives.  She reminded them that she was there to help them succeed and then they either threw away  or shredded their fears.  She said it was a powerful moment and the class session was amazing because everyone felt supported.  Most telling of all, though, was that this professor’s own Student from Hell made an appointment with her to share what was going on her life and impeding her ability to learn.
Abraham Maslow tell’s us that two of our basic needs, once we move beyond the physical, is to feel safe and to feel like we belong.  If we create a safe and inclusive environment in our classrooms, our students from Hell will be few and far between.

One thing I’d like to add: During our discussion, we noted that most of us aren’t trained therapists.  Sometimes referring a student to Student Counseling Services is the most appropriate action to help them be successful in your course.