My worst student

Somewhere, in a class past or future, your nemesis awaits. John Kaag on the existential terror of a pedagogical puzzle

May 16, 2013

Source: Corbis/Kobal

Your worth as a teacher is not bound up with the success or failure of one student, even if it’s your worst. This may seem like quietism. It’s not

Anyone who tells you that you “get one every term” doesn’t understand how superlatives work. Worst. Most inconsiderate. Meanest. This isn’t your garden-variety annoyance. Meeting your worst student is a once-in-a-career encounter. Thankfully, many terms can pass without anyone interviewing for this position, but when a viable candidate takes your class, you know it. And so do the rest of your students. I’m pretty sure I’ve yet to meet mine (the designation of “worst student” can be made only in hindsight) but a few students have made a go of it. And so they have given me a bit of practice in facing the worst.

I know. You think that there’s no such thing as a worst student - only more or less challenging ones. You think that only professors who don’t care about their students have worsts and bests. You’d be wrong, but the mistake is an honest one. In truth, academics who don’t care about their students or about teaching are generally the ones that never encounter a “worst” student. To their way of thinking, every student is a bothersome distraction and the best that one can do is ignore these distractions and stay on task. These academics don’t lose sleep over their students. And trust me, if you face your worst, you will lose quite a bit.

So what do I mean by “worst”? Well, let’s begin with what I don’t mean. I’m not referring to the motivationally challenged ones that congregate in the back of class, or the overly anxious ones in the front. I am also not talking about the ones who have genuine difficulty grasping a subject. None of these are viable candidates. Your worst student, in my experience, is one that runs counter to your deepest care as a teacher. That’s the real reason why bad teachers don’t have worst students. Care. Yes, that virtue of all pedagogical virtues is the thing that makes the mere existence of a certain type of student so excruciatingly painful.

Let me explain.

Perhaps you remember the story that Albert Camus tells us in The Stranger about Meursault and the priest? No? Let me remind you. The priest, like any good priest, has dedicated his life to God (the way we not-so-secretly dedicate our lives to our studies). And like any good priest, he visits Meursault in prison in order to urge him to confess his sins and be reconciled with the Almighty. But Meursault doesn’t believe in the Almighty. He just doesn’t. Period. And here’s the rub. Meursault’s atheism denies the very thing that makes the priest tick. If the priest did not care about God, Meursault wouldn’t pose an existential affront to the core of his being.

But the priest does care - deeply, passionately, unflaggingly - and so Meursault is his worst student.

This tells us something important about our worst students, namely that they come in all shapes and sizes and are uniquely suited to terrorise one person, and one person alone: you. Your worst may be only moderately bothersome to me, and my worst may be one of your best. It just depends on what you truly care about, what you really believe in, and how a fateful student jeopardises that belief.

So what should you do when you meet your version of Meursault?

For starters, don’t be like the priest from The Stranger and shake your crucifix at them. Unfortunately, this approach, while temporarily satisfying, is exactly as desperate as it is comical: desperate for the priest who needs to reaffirm his belief; comical for the student who refuses to grant that belief is a big deal. Trust me, the gulf between desperation and comedy is not one that you want to explore.

Even the most secular among us have our crucifixes, those signs and icons of our abiding care for a subject. Maybe you’re a professor of English literature who has a particular hatred of plagiarism, or a historian who has a fervent passion for the civil rights movement, or an evolutionary biologist who insists with religious conviction on laboratory protocol. In any event, you might be inclined to brandish the incriminating paper, or umpteenth bigoted comment, or safety manual, at your Meursault. If at all possible, refrain from doing this. Do this only if you’ve reached the point of no return with a student, the point at which they will have to leave your class, or college, or university for their worst-ness. But if this isn’t the case (and usually it’s not), perhaps you would consider four plans of action that may at first seem deeply counter-intuitive.

First, care less. If care is what got you into this mess, it’s good idea to put a lid on it. Your worth as a teacher is not bound up with the success or failure of one student, even if it’s your worst student. Why do you need to be assured of this fact by a newly minted assistant professor? You don’t. It’s common sense. But then again, common sense is in scarce supply when you come face to face with your Meursault. So let me state the obvious. You aren’t going to eradicate plagiarism or bigotry or laboratory recklessness by making a point with a single student. This may seem like quietism or apathy to you. It’s not. It is an appeal for perspective, that valuable attribute that is typically lost in facing your worst.

Second, care more. Care more about the actual human being who’s currently trying out for the role of worst student. In my experience, you will discover that they are just trying out. Once I start caring less about my crucifix, I can usually care more about the life that is giving me and my precious symbols such trouble.

Sea creature talking to students

Share your nightmare. You can always couch it in terms of developing effective teaching strategies. Pick a senior colleague with some clout

What does this saint-like care look like? I’m not exactly sure - probably because I haven’t managed it yet - but I imagine it would look like asking my worst student genuinely open questions about his or her life, about the beliefs and values that run counter to mine. I’d recommend doing this after a class in which you and your worst have not come to blows. This attempt to care, even if it isn’t wholly successful, tends to produce two rather helpful outcomes. First, it indicates that you aren’t scared to face the problem, even if you are, deep down, scared to face the problem. Second, it usually allows you to see the student in the best possible light - like a relatively normal young adult who’s almost certainly scared of you - instead of the nightmarish vision that keeps you up at night. If, under closer inspection, you discover that he or she is in fact nightmarish, go immediately to the next point.

Share your nightmare. Adults aren’t supposed to have nightmares and good teachers aren’t supposed to have worst students. And so we usually keep our nightmares and worst students to ourselves. We talk about our articles, books, conferences and student superstars, but it is very rare to share the disasters that occasionally beset or upset our classrooms. Doing so would be a sign of professorial weakness, or of not prioritising all of the “important stuff” that we love to talk about. I would recommend taking this risk. If it makes you feel better, you can always couch the discussion of your worst in terms of developing effective teaching strategies. So pick a senior colleague, preferably with some clout in your department, who is known for their teaching (yes, a rare breed, perhaps). And tell them about your nightmare. Even better, ask them how they handle theirs. You will very likely receive better advice than you’ll get by reading this.

But sharing your nightmare is not just about advice and catharsis. It is also about accountability and liability. This is why you pick a senior colleague or a teaching member of the administration. Yes, some administrators (chairs, deans, provosts) were at one point or another very good teachers. A few of them still are. And in my experience they like to take a break from administrating to talk about teaching.

As you talk, make sure that you mention your student by name and make sure that you understand the difference between mentioning and blackballing. Mentioning is a way of letting a colleague know that there is an actual student with an actual problem in your actual class. Blackballing is just a way of throwing a student under the academic bus and reveals that you have not given care a real shot. So try to avoid this - even if you desperately want to. And follow up with your colleague by sending a short “thank you” email for his or her time, of course mentioning the student’s name again. You have begun to cover yourself if facing your worst student begins to destroy your class or your career.

But don’t worry, it won’t come to that.

Finally, rediscover the rest of your class. You may have temporarily, perhaps irredeemably, lost a student (like the way the priest loses Meursault). That’s OK. Your other students are still reachable. Concentrate on them. This will be difficult since, in your near-obsession with one student, you’re probably on the verge of losing the rest. It is easy to assume that constant monitoring is the only way to keep your worst student from making this your worst class. As it turns out, your constant monitoring is the only thing that allows this to occur.

When you refocus on the rest of your class, you may discover two abiding truths about your students. First, most students want to be good - very good. This will come as a surprising relief since you had, in the face of your worst, almost given up hope on the entire cohort. But most students want to be good, which makes them very aware, and slightly embarrassed, by the presence of a Meursault in their midst. Ease their embarrassment by paying closer attention to them than to your would-be nemesis. This will give them the chance to become the good, even great, students that they secretly hope to be. This may also give your Meursault a little space to rethink his or her approach. Watching others thrive in the classroom setting that you have come to hate can be alienating, but also highly motivating.

So, in summary, worst students are still students. And as students, they usually want to fit in with their peers. If you can help to make this happen, you have a distinct chance of obviating disaster. At the very least, Meursault will want to come to class. If you get to their peers and make them care about the topic at hand, this care is usually infectious. Some students are more susceptible to pedagogical care than others, so start with the easy ones and move with increasing difficulty to your worst.

To test this hypothesis, pick a general, introductory question that might open a discussion or lecture. Pose it to one of your keeners in the front of the class, then turn to one of your motivationally challenged students, and finally turn to your worst. Notice the quality of answers. Of course, these answers will differ in quality from student to student. But hold on, because that’s not the point. The point becomes clear when you pick the next question and reverse the order of questioning: worst, motivationally challenged, keener. In my experience, the answers you get on this second round will be substantially worse than the first. Why? I suspect it has something to do with the peer pressure that the keener applies to the motivationally challenged, and that the motivationally challenged applies to your worst.

Use that peer pressure, but use it wisely. I don’t endorse public shaming, but there are ways to use your class to your advantage, as a type of mediator between yourself and your Meursault.

If none of this works, and the mere mention of your Meursault leaves you feeling gutted and hopeless, I am truly sorry. Perhaps there is some comfort in the fact that you will never again face this student. After all, you don’t get one every term.

Sea creature terrorising teacher

Worst students are still students, and they usually want to fit in with their peers. If you help to make this happen, you’ve a chance of obviating disaster

She had issues: ‘Too many blacks and homos’

I believe in the cultural studies “project”. And I persist in the belief - contrary to evidence - that universities can change the world. I want our classrooms to capture the extraordinary, passionate, enthusiastic and imaginative, rather than the ordinary, boring, banal and beige.

Teaching cultural studies was the greatest privilege of my life. Course after course, year after year, tutorials were filled with radical, challenging, stroppy and fascinating students. But there was one student who was a shocker. “Nicole” enrolled in a large first-year cultural studies class. She ridiculed me. No problem. She attacked other students. Problem.

I asked her to come to my office and chat about her studies. I probed that she seemed somewhat uncomfortable. She spat her reply: “There are too many homos and abos in that classroom. They smell weird. I don’t want to sit next to them. But there are so many, I can’t get away from them. And you seem to be supporting them. You must be a homo as well.”

I took a breath. My concern at this expression of overt homophobia and racism was flooded by…disappointment. I had a film running in my head of universities as places of acceptance that can provide a model for other institutions in society. Instead, sitting in my office was an agitated bundle of discrimination, enrolled in a cultural studies course. And I was her teacher.

Howard Zinn captured for me the best of what a teacher can be. He welcomed conflict. He welcomed argument. I decided to follow his example. I told her that - because we are exploring cultural studies - we would put her problem into our work. I would not identify her to fellow students. She had a right to privacy and her own thoughts. But we would discuss her “issues” in the next session.

At the start of the next lecture, I stated that a student had complained there were too many gay and black people in this course. This person did not like sitting next to them. I asked everyone in the classroom to pause, use everything we had learned so far in cultural studies, and consider a response to her complaint.

The auditorium was chaotic. The room exploded with sound. But I encouraged them to drill below the emotion and consider a solution. The group decided that an individual had a right to their views, but they did not have the right to discriminate against others. This student must not label, judge or undermine other people in the class. The group resolved that racism and homophobia are unacceptable in lectures or tutorials because of the damage to other students. They were pleased with themselves and applauded their resolution.

“Nicole” came to see me soon after this volatile teaching moment. She was smiling, pleased that I had taken her “complaint” about “the homos and the abos” seriously. She would “put up” with them for the semester. Problem solved? Not really.

This was my worst student. But the denouement of this tale betrays an even more worrying twist. “Nicole” left the cultural studies degree at the end of the semester and entered a teacher education programme. She is now a teacher. I often wonder what I could have done differently in that aching moment of racism, prejudice, denial and discrimination. Did she carry this hatred of others into her own classroom, still “smelling” differences?

Tara Brabazon is professor of education at Charles Sturt University, Australia.

Help The Weak: You’ll help them all

To paraphrase an ancient Greek proverb: call no one your worst student until you have retired. In fact I was lucky, and throughout my career, I never really had a student from hell. Nevertheless, I did have plenty of students who failed to respond to my teaching methods as I would have hoped.

Immanuel Kant advised that one should gear one’s teaching towards the large majority of students in the middle of the ability range. He argued that the very best students didn’t need teaching at all, because they were perfectly cap-able of learning for themselves. As for those at the bottom end, they were so incorrigibly hopeless that there was no point in wasting effort on them.

The first half of his advice is a much-needed corrective to those who hold that the sole function of universities is research, so that the only reason for teaching undergraduates is to bring on the next generation of university researchers - and the devil take the rest.

But the second half of Kant’s advice is more questionable. By coming to university at all, students have made a major commitment in terms of time and money, and it is immoral simply to write off the futures of a minority who don’t take readily to the teaching provided.

Despite the academic habit of grading students on a single linear scale, there are many respects in which a student can be good or bad; and characteristics that earn high marks on one course might be heavily marked down on another.

One of the challenges teachers face is to identify why certain students fail to achieve what is expected of them, and to devise ways of helping them to understand what they need to do, and how to achieve it. This requires treating them as individuals instead of delivering one-size-fits- all instruction - a varied and personalised approach essential for teaching to be a stimulating and rewarding profession.

To give just one example from my own experience. As a teacher of philosophy, I naturally laid great stress on students’ independent and critical thinking, and gave fail marks to those who didn’t display it. Paradoxically, some of my worst students (at least initially) were the most docile, in the original sense of “easy to teach”. That is to say, they had performed well at A level because they accepted what they were taught without question, memorised it thoroughly, and made all the right points in their exam answers. But they were completely at sea when expected to think independently. One of the most effective ways of getting them to develop their intellectual imaginations was to make them write dialogues instead of traditional essays. Not only were they unable to find relevant dialogues to copy from textbooks or on the internet, but they were forced to think of different possible positions and arguments for and against them, and to carry the debate through, with replies to replies.

In short, finding ways of helping the weakest students is key to improving the learning of all, and to making the teaching process more fulfilling.

George MacDonald Ross is senior lecturer (retired) in the School of Philosophy at the University of Leeds.

Mummy sitting with students

Stressed, anxious: more teaching support needed

I have never used the term “worst student” and I find it unhelpful.

It’s always a privilege to be involved in a young person’s development. Yes, some students can be more challenging than others when it comes to helping them realise their full academic potential, but experience has taught me that difficulties are usually cyclical and easily resolved.

In the first year, students need to adapt to the paradox of new freedoms but higher intellectual demands. This can be more difficult for students who are not middle class, or who have been used to being top of the class but now find themselves in the bottom half. They need and deserve a little extra TLC.

Then there is the “lastminute.com” bright student. Students in this category can become jittery and demanding as finals approach, wanting constant guidance and hints about papers. They can enter hyper panic mode when they realise there is a risk of being awarded a 2:2 in front of their long-suffering, deep-pocketed parents on graduation day. Managing that pressure and handling the tears can be hard.

What worries me is that the current job market, student debt and working long hours to earn money while studying full time, are producing increasing anxiety and frustration among our students. This is sad to witness. I have seen an upsetting increase in depression among male students in particular.

Until recently, I had never had a bad experience teaching in more than 15 years. Then, like buses, two came along at once. So if I had to choose a “worst” undergraduate student, it would be the undergraduate who was clever but did no work. So far, so harmless. But this was combined with a pathological tendency to hide from the looming reality and a massive sense of entitlement to a first. It was hell for me and for my support team.

At postgraduate level, someone bullied a seminar group, was negative about everything and terribly insecure.

My lack of experience in dealing with such cases meant I had few strategies to fall back on. But this then became a positive. I made contact with the London School of Economics’ Teaching and Learning Centre and received excellent advice. I felt I was not alone. Since then I have signed up for the teaching blog and have given my teaching a bit of a makeover. Also I have learned to turn to my support team for help with upsetting cases requiring special care. Thankfully, we can quickly refer students to the school’s counselling services and to workshops targeting areas such as stress management and building up resilience in the classroom.

When students miss deadlines, and then have to explain why this is happening and admit personal problems, I have learned that it is helpful and constructive to refocus quickly on their intellectual interests. The student then understands that - no matter what else is going on - I see them first and foremost as a person who is with me to learn, to get a degree and then move on, as a person of whom I have high expectations, and that I am interested in what they think.

Student stress, anxiety and expectations are set to rise further, requiring more attention to developing tailored teaching, support and examining packages. The disincentive for lecturers is that excellence in teaching rarely translates into promotion under the tyranny of the research excellence framework and the alpha-male model of career progression.

Joanna Lewis is lecturer in the history of Africa and the British Empire, London School of Economics.

Forget the ‘best’, the ‘worst’, the ‘second-class mind’: teaching is about becoming, not being

Recently, we heard of a former head of Somerville College, Oxford, who described a former student as having “a second-class mind”. Maybe Margaret Thatcher was a “worst student”; maybe just “ordinary”.

Now, I hold no candles for Thatcher and her intellectual capacities one way or another; however, I find it objectionable that any student is classed and categorised in this rather condescending and patronising way. It is the fixed and essential stability of such classification (“my ‘best’ student”; “my ‘worst’”) that is wrong. Teaching is about transformation, about becoming and not being; and there is no teaching situation without an opening to such dynamics. This, of course, is one reason why we might be suspicious of the panoply of “teaching quality” assurances: they depend on the false belief that all pedagogical dynamics can be controlled, their energy “contained” and restrained under quality descriptors. While there are always difficult pedagogical relationships, it is only then that we find how interesting - how unpredictable and uncontrollable - teaching actually is. Indeed, in one way, every good teaching relationship is “difficult”, for the task is to enliven students to the point where they start thinking things that make one’s own position difficult to sustain. To judge a student “the worst” is to assume the stability of one’s own intellectual certainties: a recipe, in my view, for bad teaching. My task as a teacher is to disconcert such certainty, wherever and whenever it occurs. When I hear a student suggesting that they are “on top of” an author’s writing, I worry - and start teaching again, to make the work more difficult, to free it from classification; I do the same whenever I find myself judging a student’s participation in the pedagogical situation. The task is to make it difficult. This way, we avoid the crass essentialism of condescension, and we allow teaching to happen.

Thomas Docherty is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick.

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Reader's comments (2)

Second, care more. Care more about the actual human being who’s currently trying out for the role of worst student. In my experience, you will discover that they are just trying out. Once I start caring less about my crucifix, I can usually care more about the life that is giving me and my precious symbols such trouble.
I love the idea of waving your crucifix angrily at someone who doesn't believe. It is a very hard thing to do - to accept that your biggest 'ta ta tan' moment is not being recognised. To rethink, regroup and try again is what separates a great teacher from the rest.

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