West vs. East – part 3 – Hostile Student

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I started teaching college English in 1986, as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of New Mexico. My world changed. I was a good teacher, inspired in my own scholarship and interests as I strove to do well for my students. I immediately embraced teaching as a lifetime career choice. But what gave way was my first love – writing. With the heavy load of grading, I couldn’t afford the time commitment for my own writing. And thus, a dream deferred. But here we are.

The many experiences a teacher goes through is enough to fill, and has filled, many books. Some of my experiences were extraordinary, some outrageous, some run of the mill, experiences that most teachers have. One of the last experiences I had as a teacher helped me make the decision to switch careers and leave teaching for good.

I had moved from San Diego to New Haven, CT, leaving behind an Adjunct Professor position that paid my health insurance and gave me a stable part-time income that I could supplement with online teaching and other Adjunct teaching assignments. I landed jobs at two schools in New England, one at a community college, which I wrote about in West vs. East – Part 2, and one at a state college, two sections of freshman composition with a focus on argument writing and analysis of op-eds.

In one section, I had mostly first-year freshman, but with a contingent of disruptive students that proved more headache than not. In the other late afternoon section, I had a group of mostly older students, non-traditional students returning to school. In this section, one particular student took an immediate dislike to me. She self-identified as a veteran, and she was often late and unprepared. She didn’t understand my “academic jargon” and would wrinkle here nose and ask her classmates, “What did he say?” And they’d “translate” for her and she’d say, “Oh, that’s what he meant! Why didn’t he say so?” – All said during class and right in front of me.

Then near the middle of the semester, this student became hostile three days in a row. First, she turned in a single sentence as a “draft” of a major essay. When she placed the paper on my desk, I said, “this isn’t a draft,” and she got verbally hostile – “it’s MY draft. Who says this can’t be a draft? ….” a diatribe that went on right near the end of class as students were filing out. It was disconcerting to say the last. The next class period, she didn’t show up. As I was leaving class, she shows up with her book in hand and said, “I have the assignment. I’ll be right back.” And then she turned around to leave, saying something about the copies being broken at the library and she had to print out her assignment. I said, “class was over and the assignment was late,” which set her off. She starts yelling through the empty hall toward me as she’s practically running the other direction! I waited for a few minutes and then thought, “wait, what? No…she missed class. She can turn her assignment in like any other student during class.” And I left. She placed the assignment into my mailbox later that day. On the third day, she was late and didn’t have time to finish the quiz. She wrote on the quiz a single sentence – “I’m here not because I want to be but because I have to be.” Having worked with many students who were veterans, I understood that many of them weren’t invested in their studies but took college courses so they could receive their base housing allowance. During class, she bad-mouthed me to her classmates during group work. After class, I asked her about her quiz, and she merely repeated the sentence she wrote and then said, “I don’t like you.” I told her that was plain to see, and that I didn’t appreciate her bad-mouthing me to the other students, that if she has something to talk with me about, she should talk to me directly.” Well, that set her off.

She went into full angry mode, wouldn’t let me talk or respond and wouldn’t calm down. I put a desk between me and her because she was getting awfully close and looked like she was going to hit me. In over 30 years in the classroom, I’ve never had a student become hostile like this, especially three days in a row. Her friends tried to calm her down and escort her out. One student took video of the encounter because it was out of hand. One of my students emailed me after class to ask if I was all right because it was clear that I was upset by the encounter.

As the professional I am, I did my best not to personalize the encounter but it was clear that she had a negative influence on the class and was out of control. I contacted the Office of Student Conduct. I spoke with the Chair of the department and the Director of the writing program as well.

The Office of Student Conduct took my statement, said she was clearly out of line and would be kept out of class on the next class period, which was a Monday. He said he would keep me in the loop and contact me and let me know what he found out and what would happen going forward.

The student wasn’t in class the next Monday, but I also had not heard from the Office of Student Conduct. On Wednesday, I received an email an hour before class saying the student had been cleared to return to class. I told the director, “Absolutely not. She is not allowed back in the class.” He heard that I was serious, and he had me cancel class and contacted the Dean to see what our options were. In the meantime, we set up a meeting with me, the Chair, the Director, and the student that would occur after the next class meeting.

Before that class meeting, the Director communicated that the student would have to be allowed back in class because she had paid for it. I thought that was absurd. So I prepared to have her back in class.

She indicated that she wanted to speak with me before class. There were two minutes before class. She was immediately confrontational – “When have I ever been disruptive in class?” she asked. Sensing the unwinnable question – it’s kind of like “when did you stop beating your spouse?” – I deferred and said, “I’m about to teach class and can’t really have this conversation right now, but I’d be happy to make an appointment with you to talk about this issue.” She refused to let it go. I had to tell her three times that I couldn’t answer her question right then. She stormed into class and grabbed her books and said, “This fuckin’ Professor won’t even answer my question!” and stormed out. The entire class was witness to this latest outburst. Everyone was quiet that day, and I let them all go 10 minutes early.

The student had contacted the Chair, who showed up 5 minutes later but had missed me.

The next week, we had a meeting set up with the Chair, the Director, the student, and me. We all showed up at the appointed time, except for the student.

The Chair and Director and I, all seasoned professors, talked shop a bit, and then they told me that I had to let the student back in the classroom. I was livid. They said if I didn’t agree with this determination, that I should go to HR and file Hostile Workplace report, which I did directly following that meeting.

The student never showed up in class again. And I waited. And I waited. The semester ended.

Not once did the Office of Student Conduct nor did HR ever contact me about this issue. Never. I taught the next semester to a class that was largely mute. I kept looking over my shoulder in the halls for the student. I never saw the hostile student again. I also never saw the Chair nor the Director again, nor did they follow up with me at all.

The spring semester went by with very little in the way of drama, which was fine with me. But still, the entire situation felt unresolved.

During the summer, I decided not to teach for that institution anymore. They didn’t have my back. Inevitably, teachers will have problems with the occasional student. But in all the places I have ever taught, I’ve always had the full support of administration. Classroom instructors are in the trenches, and most administrators have once been instructors themselves and understand the hard work it is to deal with so many different personalities. And whenever a problem occurs with a student, there is a concerted effort to resolve the situation in a way that also supports the efforts of the teacher, as long as the teacher has not egregiously abused his or her position. Which I had not.

I wrote a letter to the President of the University, the Dean, the Chair, and the Director, decrying their lack of institutional support in this instance and explaining that they are opening their institution up to potential violence. I reiterated that I did not feel supported because NO ONE EVER CONTACTED ME from the Office of Student Conduct nor from HR.

The weak letter I got back from the Dean indicated that they had clear the student as a threat and that was that. He never addressed the lack of follow-up.

So I’m glad to be done with that institution. After almost 25 years of classroom teaching, and well over 100 class taught, I feel free from the shackles of teaching. No more grading. I now have time to write and pursue the dreams that I first had when I jumped into this profession.

I’ll find another way to support the efforts of students, I’m sure. But at this point, I’m enjoying my newfound freedoms.

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