Spare the Rod, Spoil the Student

"I said, read the rubric . . . "

A while back, I had a student with a serious attitude problem. Let’s call her “Sue.” On the first day of an art course in which I first encountered Sue, my antennae shot up. At the end of my opening presentation, when I asked for questions, Sue responded by launching a missile. Due to her internship obligations, she would be late for several classes. I reiterated my policy on lateness (it’s strict) and suggested it might be best for her to drop my course. To this Sue responded that she needed to take my course to graduate (translation: “Your course is the course that suits my schedule”).

Once the course got underway, Sue proved to be an exceptional student—in terms of mastery of the content—in fact, one of the best in the class. Still, she made it a daily practice to launch little missiles directly at me. She arrived late for each class, always causing a ruckus. I chastised her publicly for this behavior, which led her to utter sotto voce remarks I never quite could make out. Sue’s comments in class very often amounted to talking back to me. She’d say such things as, “I don’t see how this is relevant,” or “This is boring,” to which I always replied that these weren’t topics for class discussion.

On the fourth day of my course, I knew enough was enough. Before entering the classroom, I put my own arsenal of missiles (which generally sit silently in their underground silos) on alert. (I keep them for cases just like Sue’s.) As usual, Sue arrived late, noisily bumbling about in her usual fashion. “Is there a place for me to sit?” she asked, interrupting my speaking, to which I replied, “Sue, I need to see you in my office immediately after class.” Alarm flickered across her face. She said this was impossible, as she had an appointment. “It will only take a minute,” I said, cutting her off before she could say anything more.

At the end of class, I swiftly headed to my office and seated myself behind my desk, waiting for Sue to show up. A few minutes later, she arrived and plopped herself down heavily in the chair I’d indicated. I looked her in the eye and said, “You are going to have to drop my class.” Dumbfounded, she asked me why. “Because your behavior is ruining my teaching, and therefore my course. That’s why,” I said.

Sue paused a moment before saying, “But I’m not doing anything,” to which I responded that she was doing a lot, offering my litany of complaints about the many disruptive things she was doing. I finished with, “I won’t allow any student to interfere with my teaching and destroy my class.”

Sue didn’t miss a beat. In a bold act of defiance, she blurted out that my personality was abrasive and offensive. Although it crossed my mind to wonder how she could possibly be holding down an internship position and be the kind of person who thought she could say such a thing to a professor, I merely shrugged. “Not every teacher is for every student. Clearly, I’m not for you.” I then leaned forward across my desk and said that I really didn’t care what she thought about me, or even what she said about me outside of class. What she couldn’t do was challenge my authority in the classroom or behave in ways that subverted my ability to teach my course.

I could see the wheels slowly grinding inside Sue’s by no means stupid head. “I need this course to graduate,” she said, to which I calmly responded, “That’s not my problem.” I added  that if she didn’t drop my course within the hour, I’d have her removed from the roster myself. I topped this off by saying I’d go all the way to the Provost, and that she could count on the university backing me up. (Dear University: You would have backed me up, wouldn’t you? Please, pretty please, say yes?)

I sat patiently in my chair waiting for Sue to respond. Her wheels had stopped grinding. Suddenly, she turned contrite. “OK, Professor [nice touch to add the honorific word], I’m sorry. I really do need to take this class.”

But I wasn’t through. I told her that being sorry was all very nice, but her “need” was really no more than desire, and that her desire did not translate into any obligation on my part to let her remain in my course. For this, she’d have to undergo a radical change in her behavior. No more late arrivals, no talking back to me, either in or out of class, no mumbling under her breath, and at this point, no absences. Sue was silent before saying, “I really want to take this course, Professor. I promise I will change.”

I reached out across my desk for a handshake. “OK,” I said. “Let’s start over.”

Happily, the end of this story falls into the “Kick-’em-in-the-ass-and-they’ll-ask-you-out-to-dinner” category. My use of a heavy rod led to a complete turnaround in Sue’s behavior. I can’t say she turned angelic—a few times, when I would criticize her work, she bristled. But resisting criticism, although a serious problem preventing students from improving, is not cause for dismissal from a class. Anyway, like I said, in terms of performance, Sue was actually an outstanding student. She went on to earn the grade of A- in a course of 22 students in which I awarded only two straight A’s and one A-.

After the final exam, Sue hung around until everyone had left. She told me she knew we had gotten off to a bad start, but she was really glad she had stuck it out and stayed in the course. I felt the warm glow of pedagogical gratification. The way I’d handled Sue had been a brilliant success.

As she was about to leave the room, Sue turned around and smiled at me. She then launched one last little missile. “You know,” she said, “You and I both have strong personalities.”






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