What Doesn`t Kill Us, Makes Us Stronger

It is an English speaking test and I am about to listen to a student who I secretly call the boar because he is extremely intelligent and downright rude. I feel tense anticipating a disaster as it seems that smoke is coming out of his nostrils and he is about to explode.

What a stupid task!” he roars, his eyes as red as his pimples. “Speaking about a place with a healthy environment is so stupid!”

The classroom falls into dead silence.

I am not going to tolerate this kind of behavior in my class,” I say, my voice tremulous and low. I try to take a deep breath, but I can`t.

Upon saying that what he is not going to tolerate is this task, he is politely asked to leave, which he hesitantly obeys. My heart is pounding as I feel like a pathetic loser for not having found the right words at that critical moment when he humiliated me in front of the whole class. Shocked and dizzy, I have no idea what the next student is saying because all I hear is the recurring deafening sound of the boar`s hoarse voice: “What a stupid task!”

***

Image: Getty

Our first encounters with difficult students always leave a lasting impression on us, teachers. But it turns out we can benefit from them by getting more emotionally resilient.

In their optimistic article Language Teacher Immunity: A Double-Edged Sword, Hiver and Dörnyei use the term “teacher immunity,” meaning a mechanism that makes teachers more resilient to the impacts of working in a stressful environment, especially with high demands but little support. Comparable to biological immunity to disease, they explain that teachers acquire immunity towards the stresses of the job due to repeated exposure to difficult situations. Teachers develop effective strategies based on these experiences.

The emergence of teacher immunity is said to undergo four key phases:

· triggering — a destabilizing event that leads to a necessity to develop

· linking specific coping strategies to specific triggers where they have shown to be helpful

· realignment — a sense of regaining control over a teaching situation

· stabilization — confirming linked strategies as part of professional identity and becoming immune.

***

I am dreading the next class with the boar because the conflict has gone out of hand. My suppressed reaction to his reckless outburst in the exam gave way to frustration that he might do this again or, what’s worse, instigate others. By avoiding confrontation on the spot, I`d dug myself an early grave — these were my thoughts that brought me straight to the dean`s office to report on him. Despite feeling like a rat for not having it out with him face-to-face, I`ve prepared to behave with the class as if nothing had happened.

***

In her fascinating podcast episode “How to respond to rude, disrespectful students attitudes,” Angela Watson interviews Robyn Jackson, an expert in teacher leadership, to figure out some of the strategies teachers could adopt to create the culture of respect in a classroom. Jackson argues that there is no universal strategy because all sorts of factors come into play, with the personality of the teacher and the students being the most salient ones. What always works, though, is remaining calm because being in control enables the teacher to make the right decision. Whether you decide to ignore, to settle it in a follow-up conversation, or to make a statement in front of the whole class will all depend on your circumstances. However, there is no way that you should take it close to heart because by being rude people reveal who they are, not who you are.

***

The class is about to start and, to my surprise, the boar is at his usual spot in the midst of the first row, right in front of me. He looks sullen, his greasy disheveled hair standing on his head like prickles on a hedgehog. I`m wondering what`s on his mind and feeling guilty for my immature reaction to a bad-tempered, uncouth youth half my age.

When the class is dismissed, the boar takes his time to pack his bag and lingers on until everybody leaves.

“I feel sorry for shouting at the woman, but I am not sorry for expressing my views to the teacher,” he asserts looking me straight in the eye, his fists clenched, preparing for a fight.

“Apology accepted,” I say unable to hide my smile.

It was at this turning point that I resolved to never take my students` behavior personally.

By Evgeniya Lubennikova

HSE English language instructor

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.

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