Should we be afraid?
How do we keep from being afraid?
In my second year teaching full time I handed out graded assignments for which several students had not done very well. But one of them was absolutely furious (I don't remember what assignment, how badly he did, or whether it was a plagiarism issue, although it might have been and therefore a zero on the assignments would have been the grade). He followed me back to my office, but I would not negotiate the grade and he walked off in absolute fury, looking to me like he wanted to hit the wall or something. When I got home that evening, to pack and leave for a flight, I had a message from a very angry male voice on my answering machine. As it was 21 years ago, I have finally lost the exact phrasing but it was something like "I want you to suck my ** you big fat slob" and some other not quite as pleasant things. This was my home phone number, which was listed, but not given out to students. And it was before caller ID was common, so I did not know who had called. But I could guess. I was so glad I was going to be out of town that night, as I would not have been safe staying at home (my address was listed next to my phone number in the phone book). I didn't know what to do. So I called my Dean, who was still at work, and who didn't like me very much. He was dismissive, and said something useful like "If it was a student, he will get over it by the time you get back to town," and he never reported it to anyone else. Several months later, when I was sharing the incident with a colleague, he said that I should have reported it to the Dean of Students, which my own Dean never had done or suggested that I do. I have had students angry with me since, but never felt as though I was being followed off campus with threats like that.
This came back with all the associated stress this morning upon hearing that the student in Colorado who took a shotgun to school may have been seeking revenge on a teacher who demoted him from the high school debate team.
Teachers of both school age children and college and university students are ever more aware of how we are vulnerable to angry and sometimes unstable students. By far the vast majority of even bitterly disappointed students are not violent. And if they are violent, tragically that violence is more likely to be directed at themselves (I have written about depression and suicide among students before and that is why I participated in a workshop on student mental health in late July). One of the things that is part of that, sadly, is what do we do when we have a student who is violent. The answer from the current Dean of Students was that this sort of thing is not related or at least can not be dealt with as a mental health issue. She said in this case the person was evil, not suffering from a mental disease we could deal with. I hate to think of these situations as being dismissed in such a way, in part because we talk about early intervention with students being a way of preventing massacres.
There were lots of warnings about the Virginia Tech shooter and he had been referred to authorities and for counseling, and the Aurora theatre shooter had also been identified as potentially dangerous, or at least that is the impression we get from what has been released about James Holmes, who is still awaiting trial. Obviously these are not typical students but how many other students are identified as potentially dangerous to themselves or others but we never hear about them because they never actualize their fantasies?
How do we as teachers deal with students who frighten us? Are we being reasonable if we allow our discomfort with particular students to affect us? There is no way we can avoid teaching students that make us uncomfortable, of course. There is the one with the default face that looks angry, the one whose frustration with the class or outside events shows in the way he sits in his chair, and the one who throws the exam on the desk and huffs out of the classroom, slamming the door on his exit (and why do I say "he"? Generally I am more inclusive, but the students who generally seem threatening in my classes are male, perhaps because I am female, perhaps because of the incident I talked about at the beginning of this diary).
I am always available to students, but my office door remains open, and last year, when I had a student who made me nervous, I arranged with my department chair to have him sit in on a conference if I thought it became necessary. It never did, because by that point the student had gotten what he thought would help him from me (I suppose, as he did not come back to talk with me). He might have found me as discomfiting as I found him, which is fine for me. I spent a lot of time last spring talking with the student support services of various sorts, and those offices were all wonderfully helpful for me. I don't know if they are as useful for students and of course a lot relies on what the students are willing to accept in terms of help and support.
In this example from last year, as with the few incidents over the years, I usually cannot exactly explain what was so uncomfortable. I can point to specific examples of things, but they are not necessarily clearly disturbing when taken out of context. There might be something wrong, but there also might be just a disconnect. I am, after all, some 30 years or more older than my students, and we do not communicate exactly the same way. Our vocabulary and eye contact is different (among other things, I do not put my phone on the desk in front of me when I talk with someone, and keep checking it for texts). I understand that I am not in their generation, and that might be part of the issue. But since I was threatened by someone I am sure was a disgruntled student more than twenty years ago, I pay attention to my gut feelings and try not to put myself in an unpleasantly confrontational setting whenever I can avoid it. I have not resorted to an unlisted number, and I still have a land line, but I have never shared that with students as a matter of course. And I try to keep my work life and home life very separate, with a few exceptions for small classes.
Have you had students who have made you uncomfortable? Does it ever go beyond discomfort; are you ever afraid? Or is it just me? What sort of support is provided to you in circumstances like this?