Disappointment and Hiding in the Classroom

I’ve been noticing lately my disappointment in students. I don’t want to feel disappointed in students. Honestly, I don’t want to feel disappointed in anyone. Who does? But you might argue that we have certain expectations for how the people around us will act, and that people don’t always meet those expectations. When they don’t, I am justified in feeling disappointed, at least provided that my expectations were reasonable. The trouble is that  disappointment is counterproductive, and for me it is part of an overall tendency I have to disconnect with people.

Let me look at this a little closer. I have certain expectations for my students. I set those out for the students by giving them specific assignments (“turn this worksheet in on Monday” or “write a blog post about your problem-solving process”), and I lay them out on the course syllabus by telling students to come to class, check their email regularly, participate, and so forth. There are also a collection of expectations that go unspoken by me. I expect that students will be thinking about what they need to do to prepare for upcoming exams, even if I don’t give them explicit assignments. I expect that students will ask for help and support when they don’t understand something after class. I expect that students will monitor what they do and don’t understand. I expect that students will give me their best work, and won’t piece together something at the last minute. I often say things which imply these expectations, but I’m not always explicit about them. Also notice that not all of these expectations are realistic.

If a student doesn’t meet these expectations, I get cranky. In between classes, if I am expecting work and participation from students that I don’t see, I start to worry, and to run my “disappointment tape.” Typically it involves me getting frustrated and making up a lot of things that I imagine to be happening with the students. I imagine them as uninterested in the course, not dedicated, not hard-working, wanting to get away with not doing work, not caring about thinking deeply, not caring about interacting with me or other students. Yes, there’s some really ugly stuff hiding in there. The thing is that I don’t know that any of that is really happening. Mostly, I think what is happening with me is that I want this connection with students, and most of what I have to connect with is their work. When the work isn’t there, I feel rejected. I imagine the students pulling away from me, and I rush to pull away from them first, by getting “disappointed” in them. Most of the time, I can get back my connection with the students simply by being around them — it is the time in between classes that provides a space for these feelings to grow.

Students don’t always do what we teachers what them to do. In fact, people in general don’t always do what other people what them to do. So we get anxious about our relationships and our standing with other people. In school, this means teachers get frustrated with and disappointed in students. What do students do? Students learn to hide from the disappointment of teachers. They hide and they lie so they can save themselves from the consequences of expectations unmet. Students hide so that they’re grades aren’t in jeopardy and they hide so that they can maintain positive relationships with the powerful people that are important to them. Students get into a habit of hiding, so that it seems as natural as breathing. I remember it well from the last time I was a student — doing work I wasn’t proud of and hoping it would slip by without notice, making up excuses for doing work late or stretching excuses that were technically true but not really accurate, trying to look good in order to get away with things. As a teacher, I know that students are doing these things, but I ignore it, acting as if students are going to meet all of my expectations, and then getting disappointed when they don’t. Because I am required to assign grades to students, I maintain and perpetuate the fiction that grades mean something objective, when the reality is that they’re just a somewhat arbitrary record of how well a student met my somewhat arbitrary standards about a somewhat arbitrary collection of activities and topics.

What if I stopped doing this? It’s hard to imagine. Could I stop having expectations of students? What would happen to me and to the students if I did? What if I kept having my expectations, but was more honest about the fact that I know students won’t always meet them? What’s so bad about the students not meeting them anyways? Could I keep the expectations, but let go of the disappointment, simply connecting with students about what happened and deciding what to do next? Could I let my students be honest with me about the unrealistic nature of my expectations and with what really happens for them in a class? Could I let students formulate their own expectations, help them to make those expectations realistic, and then help them to live up to those expectations? Could I create a classroom environment in which I helped my students evaluate themselves? Wouldn’t this cause the very foundation of objective and rational subjects like math and science crumble because students would start writing expressive poetry about how math makes them feel and giving themselves an A++ on every assignment?



5 thoughts on “Disappointment and Hiding in the Classroom

  1. Karen Young says:

    Angela, I adore your musings.

    I think the unspoken expectations that we have of our students and of others in general is one of the hardest parts of being human. I often build up an event in my mind and then the reality is such a let down. And the anger is not at myself but at the one who “let me down” even though they may have no idea of what I was expecting. It is the “read my mind” aspect of teaching (and human relationships) that is so poisonous. So, now I make sure I articulate what I would like to see in my class (and in my relationships). If I haven’t asked for it I can’t expect it. If I can’t show why they might need it, why would I have them do it?

    I also know what I am like. I do procrastinate. I don’t always hand in my best work. I hate being given one choice for an assignment (because what if it is boring or something) and tests? Please! I feel like I’m a human guinea pig with the number of test I’ve taken in my life. I am not perfect. So why expect it? I may shut down if I receive harsh criticism or I can’t do something, so I’ve learned to push through that. But I am older and wiser now and much more forgiving too.

    So I give my students options for assignments/tests. Life happens so one assignment can be late. Goofed one assignment up? Didn’t understand it? Okay so redo it. We can work it out together. And it won’t impact your grade. If they’re willing to put the effort in I’m willing to mark it again. I believe you can’t learn if you can’t apply what you’ve learned from your mistakes. A lot of scientific discoveries come from mistakes. Learning happens from failure as much as success. So it’s all about how you approach failure as a positive rather than a negative. I have had some help along the way with developing this philosophy.

    I became a school board trustee in my late 20s and we had an incident. A principal had thrown out some office furniture that was still in good condition and it had been taken to the dump. Someone reported it and it was on the news. All of the trustees were getting phone calls about wasting taxpayer dollars. So of course there was a board meeting to discuss the issue. One of the trustees suggested firing the principal. The superintendent of the board replied, “He made a mistake. I think our employees are allowed to make one mistake.” So we just changed the policy and articulated our expectations of our employees.No more problems.

    So share what you expect. Explain your issues.Negotiate a balance between what you need to feel comfortable in your teaching environment, what is required for students to learn so they can move to the next level and what will allow you to “#@$% this ^&*( up” as you mentioned in an earlier video. Ten to one if you explain to your students where you’re trying to go they’ll be willing to come along for the ride.

    But don’t share your disappointment. That’s one of the nastiest words in the English language because you can’t fight disappointment.

  2. Angela Vierling-Claassen says:

    You are right that it is so key to share expectations. I think that, as a person, I have a tendency to hoard my expectations and wait, rather than really sharing them. There’s risk in sharing your expectations because then if they are not met, everyone knows. Private disappointment becomes public failure. So perhaps if I hide my expectations I’m more likely to be disappointed, but less likely to feel humiliated.

    I think your point about “I also know what I am like. I do procrastinate. I don’t always hand in my best work.” — is so key. That’s what makes me see that I’m doing something really off. I am the same, of course, as are we all. So why do I expect my students to be different than I am? What is it that I really want.

    I do need to figure out how to better communicate my expectations, but I also think I need to figure out how to not have absurd expectations. I like what you said about “Negotiate a balance between what you need to feel comfortable in your teaching environment, what is required for students to learn so they can move to the next level and what will allow you to “#@$% this ^&*( up” ” — there is something real here in what I need, and if I can pinpoint it, I can communicate it to students, explaining what I need in a classroom for my safety and comfort, and being up front about it.

    I also think you are right about not sharing disappointment, especially since I clearly have all my own crap wrapped up in it!

    • Karen Young says:

      Hi Angela,

      I admire you so much because you are honest about how you feel. And if you can be this honest in this environment, then you can definitely be honest with your students in person. And why should you feel humiliation if your students don’t meet your expectations? Tell them that you want to try something new and ask them to be on board. If you look at what you expect, determine that it is realistic, share those expectations and revise and review those expectations both with and without your students as the course progresses, then you’ve been more than fair. You’ve been flexible! And since we both know no one is perfect, expect imperfection.

      At the higher ed level, the onus is on the student to be self regulating (a skill we work on all our life!). Maybe we should have a prep class on that! Often our students are still growing up. We should also be practicing self regulation in elementary school and teaching them time and project management skills at that level.

      The disappointment lesson I got from my mother and I’ve made sure to never use it with my students, my children or my family. My mother never used that word while I was growing up. So I can be disappointed about not going on a trip, about missing an event, etc. but never about another human being. Once or twice it has almost tumbled across my lips, but I’ve never let it out. I’ve seen too many of my friends who have been hurt by being labelled a “disappointment.”

      Finally, and this is totally unrelated to this conversation, but I was thinking this morning about how blind I am (very) and how it was discovered in Grade 3 math class because I copied every question down wrong! Hmmmm maybe my problems with math started there!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s