The Meanest Teacher In All The World

“Man!  Why you gotta hate?!”

“I’m not hating.  You’re missing a period,” I calmly replied.

“It’s just one period!  Can’t you accept it?”

“No. Plus your headers not the right size.  It’s supposed to be 12 point font.”  My student looked like he was for sure going to clobber me now, which he could have easily done since he towered over me.

“It IS 12 point font!”

“No.  No, it’s not.  Once you fix both of the problems, I’ll accept your essay.”  He let out a cross between a growl and a groan.  He was so pleased that he was going to turn in his essay early, but that’s one thing that was in his favor.  Since I caught those errors, he was able to fix them (and conceded that  his header was in 11 point font) and became one of the five students out of my 33 whose essay I accepted the day it was due.

Essay due dates are stressful for both me and my students.  My students want to unload this essay that they’ve been spending their time on, but first it has to pass inspection of its MLA format, font, overall formatting, and works cited page.  If it is not perfect, I don’t accept it until they fix it.  The thing is, I warn them.  I tell them exactly what I’m going to do on the day they turn it in.  In addition to this, I also give them the resources they need to do it correctly.  I provide tutoring, feedback, and often spend my prep helping a student with his or her essay.  They have everything they need to do it correctly.

They, however, do not believe me.  They do not believe I will reject their essay.  They do not believe my resources and opt to use impostors that lead them astray. They do not believe me when I say, “Do it just like this one,” nor do they believe me when I walk them through it. They do believe that I will “let it slide” or capitulate at their sob story or story of heroics that they “tried”.  They always have a rude awakening.  Their response to my refusal of their “best effort” is anger and frustration– while I believe it’s often at themselves, it’s taken out on me: The Meanest Teacher In All The World.  One boy refused to believe me when I said his works cited page was wrong and implied that my version of the 7th edition MLA handbook was wrong, while his computer generated works cited was correct.  He would not budge from his position, and it nearly escalated into a shouting match until I remembered that I was the grown up.  One girl made snide remarks to me about how much money it was costing her to print out numerous copies of her essay until I replied, “Do it right the first time and then you don’t have to spend so much money.”  Some students, to avoid my wrath, started double-checking their work (what a concept!), and were prepared for me, “Ms. L, I put the wrong date, my works cited is not in alphabetical order, and I messed up on the punctuation.”  Acknowledging their mistakes left them a bit more unscathed.

The problems with formatting and the works cited page reflects a greater problem of students: not using resources, not paying attention to detail, and using short-cuts.  This is bolstered by students who toe the line of acceptance and/or are used to just turning in “effort”.  Many students think they can do the bare minimum and get away with it; they don’t realize that they need to be an advocate for themselves when it comes to knowledge and learning.  One boy today didn’t advocate for himself at all when I totally forgot to check his paper yesterday.  What did he do?  He left class with his essay and went home.  Today, he turned it in late for half credit blaming me.  I apologized for over-looking him, but then asked him whose responsibility it is to make sure his essay’s turned in. Did he ever call my name so I could look at his essay?  Did he stay after class to make sure it got done?  Nope. He went home.  Today he stayed after class and fixed his mistakes.

This phenomena of not advocating for oneself and taking short cuts played out in my history class on a recent exam.  The exam was very fair, and I was quite sure they’d do well on it.  Their study guide also covered the material on the exam. The result?  My highest score was an 80% and it went down, down, downhill from there.  The results befuddled me.  How could my bright, engaged students do so poorly?  There were no trick questions.  Their scores were unacceptable, and I allowed (demanded is probably the correct term) them to retake it.  In preparation for the retake, they started to study and make flash cards and quiz each other. One of my girls reviewed her failing test and asked about one of the questions; she thought she knew the answer, but it wasn’t in the glossary.  This stopped me in my tracks, “Did you just use the glossary to study?”  She nodded her head.  I called out to the rest of my class, “Did you all use the glossary to study the first time?”  Everyone nodded their heads.  Everything made sense.  My test questions asked them to apply their knowledge and the glossary just provides the who, what, when, and where.  It neglects the hows and whys.  Their short cuts lead to failing grades and having to retake the test.  Fortunately, fourteen of them came in to retake it and all did much better.

I remember being a high school student and studying fervently for exams.  When it came to history exams, I re-read the chapters and quizzed myself. No one taught me how to create a works cited page; I had to use a handbook to figure it out.  I followed the directions and double-checked my work against the examples. My student population is more diverse and mostly impoverished, so I understand that they don’t have the resources at home, but where is the disconnect?  Where is the initiative?  Do teachers (including me) with all of their scaffolding and second chances take away the motivation for kids to learn how to do things on their own?  Is this a result of No Child Left Behind that passed failing kids along?  When is the onus taken from teachers and given to the students?  What’s frustrating is that they can all do it.  If they sat down and took their time, each and every one of them can do it.  So how do we get them there?

24 thoughts on “The Meanest Teacher In All The World

  1. I’m just thrilled you’re teaching them MLA format. At least half the incoming freshmen at both the schools I tutored at just looked at you funny when asked about MLA.

    1. I can’t make any guarantees that mine will remember it when they get to college! It’s so simple, but teaching it is a pain. They have to make it difficult.

      1. There’s no guarantee they’ll remember to bring their books to class, much less remember anything you tell them.

        Have you read Mike Rose’s “Lives on the Boundary”? His story is so great and his pedagogy so empowering. I highly recommend it. It could even be used as a book for your classes, since his experience as a working class student might resonate with your students.

  2. What a great post! I think I once told you that I wished you had been my history teacher. Well, now I want you to teach my child. I am not a teacher, nor do I work in education, so I really have no place having an opinion. But I would bet teachers not holding their ground (like you do) contribute to the problem. I’m not saying that’s the entirety of the problem, but I’ll bet it happens and I’ll bet it doesn’t help.

    This reminds me of when I coached cheerleading. I used a points system for attendance that I spelled out quite plainly from the beginning. If you showed up late you lost points. It didn’t matter why. I didn’t want to have to choose between a “good” excuse and a “bad” excuse for being late. I didn’t want to get blamed for favoritism. So, late was late. I also explained that I didn’t expect them to have 100% of the points by the end of the season because, well, things happen.

    Inevitably, the first few weeks (until they started believing me) were filled with a million excuses and cries of, “This isn’t fair!!!” My favorite was the calls from the parents. “Why did you mark my daughter late?” “Well, because she was late.” “But she was on time, she just went to the wrong gym.” “The gym is and will always be posted on the web. I went over this with the girls, and I’d be happy to show you too.” I think I just discovered another part of the problem – PARENTS.

    Okay, I’ve just written a post in your comment box. Sorry about that.

    1. Thank you for the kinds words!

      Kids, in my opinion, know too much about adult life and have too much leniency. Many of them think they’re one of “us”, and this is often the fault of their parents who let them think that they are one of them. I remember when I grew up, my parents never told me about their issues or included me in household decisions. I just followed their rules and expectations. It seems that a lot of parents want to be their kid’s friend instead of parent, and that is detrimental. Their needs to be a clear line between parents and kids (and teachers and kids).

      You would have loved one of my classes today where three boys strolled into class just a few seconds after the bell, like it was acceptable to do so. I think they had decided that they would make a grand entrance into class, since they were right outside my door and chose to saunter in. I sent them back out to get a tardy pass, which automatically gets them a Saturday School. They got mad at me and told me they were just a couple of seconds late. I said, as you did, “Late is late.”

  3. Kids will rise to the standard of your expectation so yaaay for you!. What job would ever except work that is “mostly right” and “kinda followed directions?” We do them a disservice when we let them slack and our whole “teaching to the test” for school,teacher and kid evaluations is so harmful for everyone and I know the teachers hate it too. Reading “The Shame of the Nation” by Jonathan Kozol and it is breaking my heart

    1. I sure do hope they rise to expectations. I talk to them all of the time about “kinda finished” work and how it can cost them their job or cause them to be overlooked for a promotion. As for testing and using them for evaluations, they would be fair if all things (schools, levels of English speakers, ethnicity, socio-economic levels, neighborhoods) were equal. But why am I expected to meet the same test scores of teacher who teaches at an affluent school where everyone speaks English and has resources at home and in the community? I could have my students improve and still have low scores. While I like the idea of merit pay, I don’t like it in fact. There’s too many factors riding on tests that do not reflect what happens in the classroom, plus it puts more pressure on teachers, as can be seen from schools changing test answers to boost their scores. It’s all very frustrating, especially hearing from non-teachers in the media stating what teachers should be doing.

  4. That’s really nice that you let them take another exam to improve their grades. We had no such system and our grades were always final….no second chances.
    We had very strict teachers and we couldn’t argue about anything otherwise we wud be thrown out of the class! 🙂

    1. There are some days when I wish I could be like your teachers! I let them retake the exam because I was so baffled by their scores– it was really unacceptable that they do that poorly. The good things that came out of it, besides better grades, was that they learned how to study for my exams and I learned why they did so poorly. I’m definitely guilty of giving kids second chances, but I feel that if a student really wants to improve and redeem themselves, they should have that chance. I also let them know that if their retake score was worse than their original score, they’d receive that one. So they better study!

  5. You “get them there” by continuing to do what you are now, you believe in them, and you force them – through setting standards – to believe in themselves as well. I’m very proud of you – good job!

    1. Thank you! That means a lot to me. Getting kids to believe in themselves and trust their instincts is a challenge– they often seek affirmation from others before themselves.

  6. Welcome to the Age of Entitlement — and the “self-esteem” movement in the lower grades. The kids have had things handed to them for so long they come to expect it. And they are increasingly being told they are terrific simply because they show up and breathe in and out on a fairly regular basis. I saw it happening in my 40 years of college teaching. It was gradual, but it was evident.

    1. It’s really unfortunate, because it debilitates kids beyond attitude. It puts them on anti-anxiety meds because they don’t know how to deal with stuff when it doesn’t go their way (ie. life) and it takes away any self-empowerment. I have to help kids problem solve basic things like getting up to sharpen their pencil when the lead breaks. It’s ridiculous sometimes.

  7. I really don’t think it’s NCLB…that’s its own little beast. But in an era when absolutely everything is easy, and anything that requires WORK and ATTENTION SPAN, students tend to get very upset when they have to spend actual time and brain power to PERFECT something. One of the things we are demanded (through the nature of the curriculum) to do at our school is to push for excellence. That’s such a new concept for some of the kids that they get frustrated for a time… Then they adjust. Thanks for the posting!

    1. Very true. I’ve had a few students not do major projects b/c they were “hard”. Strangely enough, they didn’t see me for help, either. We just finished reading Othello, and many complained how hard it is. I agreed with them and told them they were going to read it anyway, because this was not the last text they would encounter that is hard and they need to practice strategies to understand the text. NCLB, however, is part of the problem. The more emphasis on testing there is, the less emphasis we have for critical thinking. And the multitude of standards are geared for breadth, not depth.

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