Difficult Student

Not all teachers were good students, but most of us regard ourselves as models. Our expectations for students arise partly from our own schooling: a former shirker might anticipate students who want nothing more than to elude work, and former grinds might focus on each student’s responsibility to study relentlessly. Of course, school is complicated—intellectually we know each class is a collection of individuals—but, emotionally, we teachers start with the dubious assumption we’re normal.

I haven’t been a student in any context for ten years, and I was the age of my students thirty-five years ago. Still, as the student in an NEH Shakespeare Institute over the last couple of weeks, a question kept jumping into my brain, “What’s it like to teach a horse’s ass like me?”

My goal wasn’t to be an ass, but my teachers’ assertions invariably inspired me to amend, refine, counter, adjust, contradict. So much of what I said needed the subtitle, “Yes, but…” and I could not shut up. Every day I started by writing “QUIET,” at the top of that page of notes, and, every day, I heard myself speaking. My teachers started calling others before me. I think they hoped I’d give up. I felt that unmistakable unwelcome vibe.

And I didn’t blame them. I do talk too much and rate my perceptions too highly. In classes I’ve taught, students like me sometimes need a gentle conversation after class about ‘”giving others a chance” and “the value of hearing different voices.” Even when students have something valuable to say, sometimes they say too much. Offering too many comments seems selfish, an assertion this class is really all about me, not us.

My rationalization is that I have to handle ideas to understand them. If you tell me that most of what we know about Shakespeare’s women comes from conversations between men, I will go searching for other applications or examples. If you tell me Shakespeare presents no positive examples of lasting marriages, something in me recoils and readies itself for a dispute. When a question elicits silence, I feel an overwhelming urge to fill it. I can’t just copy interpretations because I want to participate. To me, teachers are rivals as well as guides. I envy what they do. Believe me, I know that’s hard to take.

Our instructors at the NEH program were brilliant college professors, well-versed in critical theory and the consensus about the plays we studied. They were very persuasive in presenting their thinking. They know so much more than I do, which at times made my remarks especially naïve and/or dense. And I could see their expressions and demeanor shift. They would ask me, “Really? What makes you think that?” As a teacher, I heard traps springing.

I was making a fool of myself. I wrote another “QUIET” at the top of the page.

In my classes, I’ve found ways to compensate for students like me… and my nature. I seldom walk into a class with a thesis to suggest, support, or establish, and I try instead to lead an investigation of a question that everyone, including me, can participate in equally. If what I know (that they don’t) comes in handy, I’ll use it, but I try to avoid the easy and popular game of “Guess What The Teacher Is Thinking.” I suppress questions like, “Any other ideas?” that often mean “That’s not it, try again.”

My classes don’t always cover as much as they ought, but I console myself by hoping the experience—the brain training—is plenty. I try not to worry too much about being off the subject because, I tell myself, the subject is whatever arises from our investigations.

And I sympathize with “difficult” students who won’t go along and won’t buy what I’m consciously or unconsciously selling. Though they can be annoying and occasionally get under my skin, I try not to take their objections personally. Maybe—as a student or as a teacher—I just like to be shaken. After years of leading discussions of works I’ve read so many times, I love a changed sense of what I understand and believe.

Last fall, after a particularly disputatious conversation about a passage in Macbeth, one of my students apologized for getting so emotional, and I told him, “Nothing to apologize for.” Any other response would be hypocrisy.

Let me offer a similar apology to my teachers and classmates over the last couple of weeks. I’m sorry I’m such an ass. I hope you can say, “Nothing to apologize for.” I know myself—it appears there is no better answer.


Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Shakespeare, Teaching, Thoughts, Worry

4 responses to “Difficult Student

  1. garvoille

    Putting aside the implication of deviant sexuality between Mercutio and Romeo, there was a clear moment on one of the last days when a teacher was presenting an argument about Romeo and Juliet when your, “But what about — ” comment stopped him in his tracks, and, quietly, his argument was over. That was a great moment for all of this, though it’s a shame I don’t remember the idea.

    I suppose that’s key, though. Regardless of the ideas our students debate over, they will remember instead the feeling of engagement, the exhilaration of putting together a seamless argument that sometimes makes the teacher stop in his tracks. That intellectual high is all we can hope to give them.

    You’re too nice. I remember that moment, though perhaps not the same way. I’d hate for any of our teachers to interpret my behavior as disrespect, as I have nothing but gratitude and admiration for all they know and all they taught me. The challenge is attaining engagement, exhilaration, and those intellectual highs while maintaining the receptivity and mutual respect that’s just as essential to learning. I never want to throw any teacher off his or her game, yet, somehow, I always flirt with doing so.

    We talked about the two ways of seeing Shakespeare—critically (where every interpretation needs to be grounded in the text) and theatrically (where the text is a playground of possibilities). Maybe Shakespeare is particularly troublesome to teach because his work inspires both meticulous fidelity and wild innovation. The statement about Romeo’s confused sexuality was a little too wild, but unsettling ideas are sometimes too fun for me to pass up.

    Thanks for visiting!

  2. Marcia Simmons

    Let me be the first to say it, as I did many times while we were there: Nothing to apologize for! And great blog!

    Thank you, and thanks for including me in your plans in NYC. I think the theater I saw will still with me as long as the institute itself.

  3. Claudia

    Nothing to apologize for! This is a fabulous post. It encapsulated so much of what I was feeling in the mornings at the institute. Instructors were brilliant, yes, but they did enter the room each day, thesis in hand with little room or desire for input. I see that as an enormous lost opportunity as the room was filled with accomplished educators, hungry for collaboration. You were one of the brave ones. I loved your comments. Kudos to you and R. Your comments sparked some of the most interesting moments in the institute I cowered to the authoratative tone in the room, and did not participate or engage on the level I ordinarily would; I think many didn’t – again, lost opportunity. The brain training, inquiry-based teaching you spoke of is absolutely central to engaging students and fostering critical thinking. As teachers of those entering the 21st century workplace we can hold ourselves to no less.

    I like to think of teaching as all training. Any thought that you can anticipate what knowledge will be necessary in the workplace seems silly to me, but a well-exercised and nimble brain will be useful always and everywhere. I got a great deal out of our mornings, but I especially enjoyed some of the discussions they inspired outside class.

    One big difference between teaching high school and college, it seems to me, is that we expect all the foment to happen in our classrooms. In college, a lot happens in dorm rooms and cafeterias. I’m still thinking about some of the ideas we discussed and will look for a chance to explore them further in my own classroom. Perhaps that was the point—just to start our thinking.

  4. hhstheater

    I sympathize with all that you wrote, David. While I didn’t literally write “Quiet!” in my notes, as the institute went on I found an internal voice more and more loudly saying things like, “Is that comment really worth sharing?” and “Do you need to ask another question?” Like you, I find it hard to stop myself when a question springs to mind. It gnaws at me. It colors what I hear. It’s like an itch that wants scratching. Like you, I had the self-conscious sense that my interjections were likely an annoyance to some. Be assured that I, for one, was happy for your presence, your thoughtful queries, your engaging conversation, and your easy camaraderie. And I’m grateful that your blog has allowed me to continue hearing your voice in my head!


    “Itch” is exactly the right word. You are smart though–questions occur to you. Students who ask questions are the best sort. My trouble is feeling I know the answers to questions when sometimes, clearly, I don’t.

    I wouldn’t think hearing my voice in your head would be such a good thing, but I’ll enjoy thinking about you out in cyberspace looking at my blog. I wish we’d had even more of a chance to hang-out, and I hope we can keep in touch.

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