I'm A Young College Professor And Sometimes Commanding The Respect Of My Students Is My Biggest Challenge

At the end of my first semester, when a consistently absent male student who hadn’t done a lick of work over the last fifteen weeks marched into my chair’s office with his parents to complain about his bad grade, I took it personally. Like, I cried.

Oct 7, 2013 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

During my very first year of graduate school, which also happened to be my first year teaching college, I spent a few hours a week in a class designed to teach me how to be a teacher. Our sessions—two-hour blocks of time built around semi-useful information—were radical, in that they were either very, very helpful, or very, very mundane. We went over ideas for lesson plans and threw around academic buzzwords like “pedagogy” and “curriculum,” and spent only a few, blessed moments of each meeting discussing the one thing (or, depending on the week, several things) that consistently plagued each and every one of us: student problems.
 
Now, there are hundreds of things that fall into the category of “student problems,” and most of them are, in all honesty, more like cute little nuisances than real, tough-to-tackle problems. Most of them can be solved with a simple chit chat after class: Please keep your cell phone in your backpack. Please make it more of a priority to not walk in thirty minutes late. Please do not chew tobacco during class. And, being the newbie teachers that we were, our conversations about student issues revolved around these types of problems, for the most part. 
 
I’ll confess here and now that my memory isn’t the sharpest, but as I sit here now, five years into this college-teaching gig, I can only recall having one conversation in that entire class about what it meant to be in a position of authority in a young, female body. One of my colleagues voiced a concern about how it felt to have to be assertive with students not much younger than she, and in some cases, several years older. Our well-meaning male professor sighed, and admitted that in our case—that being the case of being young, female, and in a position of some authority—we may have to go to certain lengths in order to command our students’ respect. We may have to dress more “professionally.” We may have to be less kind.
 
image

You can tell I’m enthused about this idea.
 

I took both of these suggestions fairly seriously. At the very least, I made it a point to dress crisply and seriously, in order to command all of the respect. But I had a far more difficult time implementing the second part of his advice: be less kind. You see, I don’t like to be an asshole. Sometimes I put on my asshole hat just for fun, just to try it out and see how it feels. But I don’t like it much. It doesn’t suit me, particularly in the classroom. I have no problem being an asshole to a drunk guy at a bar who’s insistent on pushing the boundaries of basic consideration and taste, but I have a huge problem being an asshole to my students. 
 
I realize, of course, that the advice was not explicitly given as if you’re female, be an asshole to your students, but when it comes to general kindness, I suppose I deal in terms of all or nothing. I have an admittedly exhausting time trying to locate the middle ground between “nice” and “not nice”—I know it exists, and I know people who walk that fence gracefully—but I’m not one of them.
 
So at the end of my first semester, when a consistently absent male student who hadn’t done a lick of work over the last fifteen weeks marched into my chair’s office with his parents to complain about his bad grade, I took it personally. Like, I cried. I hadn’t failed anyone in my life, much less an athlete, and I felt as though I’d done something wrong. As if his failure was somehow my fault. I heard later that his parents had demanded to know why it was that I, a “little girl,” had the audacity and authority to fail their son. 
 
Of course, this incident was a better lesson than any I’d sat through in my class on how to be a teacher. You simply can’t teach that sort of thing. I’d like to say that I learned something concrete, but in hindsight, it only caused me to become hyper-aware of my students, especially the fellas.
 
The next semester, another male student approached me in the middle of class to ask about a tattoo on my wrist. After I explained its meaning (the Greek letter phi), he countered with, “Well, when the weather gets warmer, you’ll see all of my tattoos and I’ll be looking so good, you won’t be able to teach.” I was rendered speechless, which doesn’t happen often, and unable to think of anything teacher-like to say in response. To this day I can’t think of a good comeback, though I sincerely wish I’d said anything at all instead of letting him just smirk at me and walk away.
 
And I’d like to say that I’ve gotten better at this sort of thing—but I haven’t. Last semester, one of my students, an older man who often “joked” with me about my age and gender, came to class one morning and told me that I looked just like his ex-wife, except that she had “bigger boobs.” He even gestured circularly in the general region of his chest, as if to show me just how big her boobs were.
 
What do you say to that? What do you do? I know the correct answer is to reprimand in some way, but how? By kicking him out of class? For what, being an ignorant misogynist? It’s college; I can’t exactly send him to the principal’s office, or to a corner or swatch of carpet to think about what he’s done. And I can’t do what I’d do as my non-teacher-self, because, well, my teacher-self can’t call students douchebags, as much as she might want to. So again, I was silent, and let him smirk and walk away.
 
I’d also like to be able to say that this sort of thing only happens in the classroom, except that it doesn’t. Three years post-graduate school, I teach philosophy and English at a local community college, and I frequent a convenience store near campus every morning for my daily act of restocking on cigarettes and coffee.
 
When I began my job, the cashiers would eye my attire and book bag and ask what it was that I did for a living, or where I was headed. The sad majority of the time, after I answered what it was that I did and where exactly I was headed, the dialogue followed (and still tends to follow) as such:
“You’re a teacher?”
“Yes.”
“At the college?”
“Yes.”
“No!”
“Yes.”
“No, you don’t!”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you’re so young!”
“Yes, according to some.”
“But are you really a teacher?”
“Yes.”
And so forth.
 
At the time of this article, I have been teaching for roughly five years. Every few weeks a new incident occurs. Last week, it was a male student in my philosophy class who “corrected” a question I wrote on their exam, assuming it wasn’t that he got the answer wrong — it was that I had made a mistake. The week before that, a student called me “darlin’.” Some weeks before that, another male student told me I was the “prettiest teacher [he’d] ever had.”
 
Some more weeks before that, when the semester began, several students in each of my four classes asked how old I was, and glared suspiciously in my direction as they awaited my answer. I asked my roommate, a 25-year-old guy who teaches at the same institution I do, if his students ever ask him how old he is as soon as the semester begins. Not surprisingly, his answer was “no.”
 
I wish I knew how to solve the problem, but as of this moment, I don’t have any solutions. I know, rationally, that they’re out there—but I find myself spending very little time searching for a resolution, and markedly more time trying to decide which is worse: the fact that my students are adults and, in a perfect world, should understand how to talk to women as if they’re real people, or the fact that five years in, I still feel the need to be nice. I still feel the need to be caring and concerned and easy-going so as not to step on any toes, the very idea of which I disagree with—hard—but can’t seem to shake out of my own behavior.
 
The only thing I do know is this: that navigating this body in that particular space is nothing I could have learned in someone else’s classroom. It’s one that I have to learn in my own, over and over and over again, until I finally feel comfortable possessing any real sense of authority.