Wednesday, September 14, 2005

That invisible professional line

So, I've been teaching for 12 years now. And in that time, I've seen a lot of stuff, heard a lot of stories and met literally hundreds of students.

Today got me thinking quite a bit about class dynamics... and human interactions.

Today I had my first episode this year with a student. (And it's only the first week of classes!)

He came by the office to chat with me. As I do every semester, I tell my students that they can come by even when it's not official office hours. I give them my MSN address and tell them that whenever they find me on line, they can consider that I'm available for "virtual office hours". I give them my cell phone number and have, in the past, even given my home phone number. So far, no one's ever abused that privilege.

I have found that students have different ways of communicating. I’ve had a handful of students who’ve poured their hearts out to me on MSN at 11:00 p.m., but will never say a word to me outside class. I’ve had others call me on my cell in a panic before a test and others still who love my “open door policy” and will hang out in my office until I let them know that I have work to do.

I try to make myself available (within reason) to students in as many ways as I can, knowing that different humans have different ways of communicating and the more I can communicate with my students, the better teacher I’ll be.

My style of teaching and behaving around my students is generally relaxed and open. I tell them that they can address me by my first name unless that makes them uncomfortable. (And for some of them, it does… so then, they can call me Ms. Eaton or Professor – though I’m not really a professor – or whatever other term of respect they wish.) In general though, I’m flexible with such matters and my general philosophy is to be friendly and accessible, while still being professional, believing that respect is earned, not bestowed upon a person with a title.

Human nature is such that students are curious about their teachers. Hell, I always am. Today in my first Qualitative Research Methods course, the prof went around the room with introductions and he started us off by telling us his name, that he was married, with 3 kids, 5 grandkids and told us about some of the places he’d lived over the course of his career. He also told us about his professional and research interests.

Was there too much personal information there? I don’t think so. We were able to paint a picture of who this person is as a human being and in doing so, make a connection with him.

We each went around the room in turn, talking both about our professional and personal lives (a bit), and getting to know each other. Making human connections.

In my own classes, I have the same open attitude with my students, usually telling them where I’m from, how I came to study Spanish and try to work in some personal little details… that I have two cats, or 3 siblings, for example. I think students crave this “personal connection” with their teachers on a very human level – especially in an institution where some of their instructors will never, ever know their names.

It occurred to me today that as teachers, we get used to (but are never really trained in) reading our students. As I look back, there are some students with whom I’ve had excellent rapport from day one… and there’s no one profile of what that looks like. Often though, it includes a very “human” element…. Someone with a sense of humour, or who shows sincere interest (not the feigned kind that we teachers can see right through) or just someone, perhaps, who stands out from the others for some unique little reason that is hard to put a finger on.

There have even been a few (less than half a dozen perhaps, in all the years I’ve been teaching) who have become friends. In every single case, they’re people about my own age, or even a bit older than I am, with whom I probably would have cultivated a friendship regardless of the circumstances under which we met. We have similar interests or ways of seeing the world -- or both. But out of hundreds of students, that’s only a very, very small handful.

Occasionally there’s one who feels a need to test my knowledge of my subject matter, defiantly challenging me to prove every point I make. Lucky for me, (all modesty aside) I know my subject matter very well, and I have always (at least so far) been able to deflect these types by answering their questions in a matter-of-fact way that doesn’t distract too much from the class. In fact, sometimes it's an opportunity to add in useful information that never seems to make its way into first-year text books.

Then, there are the wise cracks. These have often been among my favorites, as I take it as a personal challenge to NOT let them run amok, but rather to use their antics to liven up the class, while still keeping things within the boundaries of good taste.

I had one student a few years ago who loved to push the boundaries on just about everything. For this guy, everything – absolutely everything – related to sex in some way. (Well, it may be that way for most guys, but this one particularly loved to flaunt his interest in the subject; if for no other reason than to get a reaction out of others.)

When I did my usual, “I will no longer answer the question, ‘How do you say…?’ From now on, I will only answer if you ask me in Spanish, ‘¿Cómo se dice?’” He immediately piped up with, “¿Cómo se dice ‘fetish’?”

My reply to him was, “You know… That is an excellent question. Now why don’t you learn to use your bilingual dictionary and look it up!”

I like to roll with the punches and use students' own interests to get them thinking about things. But it does require me to sometimes adapt quickly to the situation, while maintaining control over the class and an overall sense of decency.

There are typically more females than males in first-year language classes. Every now and then, there’s a fella who could be classified as an archetypical charmer… Thinking he can charm his way into an A, just for being a sweetie pie or for being good-looking.

Today I had a very blatant example of this. A male student came by and asked for some study tips. No problem. I have hundreds of them.

After I did a bit of a spiel, he said, “So… is there anything… um… you know… special… I can do… to get a good grade in this class?”

It wasn’t the question itself that indicated what he was suggesting, but rather the way he asked it… with seductive, pregnant pauses, a tilted head and a sly smile.

I thought, hell, this is the first time this has ever happened so directly! But OK, let’s just roll with it...

As my mind processed his question, I let a slow smile grow over my face and looked him straight in the eye, pausing before I answered… “Well, as a matter of fact… There is something you can do…”

I tilted my own head and met his gaze… “Study." Another pause. "In fact… study so hard that you legitimately earn such good grades that I forget we had this conversation, OK?”

I gently, but firmly, smiled through the entire response...

In that precise moment, he knew and I knew where we stood with each other.

Was he nuts? It made me wonder how many other instructors he’s tried this on. (I don’t even want to think about it!)

Despite my informal style with students, and being open with them on a variety of levels, there are some lines that never have – and never will – get crossed.

The whole thing made me laugh, really.

Do students really, seriously think that the majority of us would jeopardize our jobs on such a whim? Sadly, I’m sure there are those who would do so, without giving it a second thought, but I like to think that most of us wouldn’t even go there. Don't they know that we've seen hundreds of young, good-looking students, all competing for the same thing -- and that most of us are hopelessly geeky professionals who would rather our students actually learned the material? That we have lives outside the classroom that are really quite separate from who we are when we're teaching? Apparently not...

Well, I say flirt away, baby! You still need to learn to conjugate your verbs and write perfect Spanish in order to get that good grade you’re after! You just funnel all that energy into mastering your grammatical concepts and I’m sure you’ll do just fine.

¡Ay, caramba!


Anonymous said...

Way too funny!!! Is he cute at least??? LOL

You handled it so beautifully, lol, sorry can’t stop laughing…


Arrogant Polyglot said...

Brialliant post!

I've personally never had that happen to me (though I remember last year a certain student always wore these jeans with a giant whole in the crotch and I would absolutely leave him alone).

But how flattering!

I think you handled that very well. In fact, I almost thought you'd jump on the opportunity (ahem).

I so look forward to those meetings with my students in the future. And I've heard of a number of stories similar to yours ie. a girl I work with was approached by an exchange student at the end of her French class. He asked her out in front of about 6 different people standing in line to ask her a question!

Man... if only I could have see the smile on your face when you responded to him!!

Bast said...

I knew there was a reason I have stayed out of the classroom all these years - I am so very weak, you see. I would not have had your stamina, or forethought, and would have probably demanded the entire box CD set of series 4 of "Babylon 5" for an A.

So, has he had the nerve to ask a question in class yet, or is still living in the deluded hope that sitting there batting his eyelashes will do the trick!

Nice one.

cm said...

You can tell him who to contact if he wants a patent, and I am sure we can come to a 'special' arrangement. Oh wait, no, I have a boyfriend. How silly of me. Old habits die hard.

Yet another brilliant handling of a touchy situation (like those two who followed us from the bar...). You crack me up. Thanks for the smile today!

zouzou said...

You are disciplined!! Cute, young AND you said no. You're my hero. I would have been flipping through my daytimer for the nearest free few hours *smirk*

I may have actually graded the student by his proficiency in bed rather than in class - oops did I say that out loud? Kidding of course, good thing I'm not a teacher. You're so classy.