One of my former students, now a sophomore, visited the other day and reminisced about last year’s econ class. It was a hard class for him, but he pulled through with a B-.
Out of the blue, he said: “I wasn’t afraid of you.”
I was a little taken aback. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “Are other students afraid of me?”
“No, no,” he said. “But I am afraid to ask teachers questions in other classes. I wasn’t afraid to ask you because you didn’t make me feel stupid.”
Well, good. I do remember him asking lots of questions, even repeating back to me things I had just said, like, “So when interest rates rise, investment falls? Do I have that right?”
But now my curiosity was piqued.
I didn’t want to know who, exactly, is making students feel stupid for asking questions. I don’t encourage students to complain about other teachers. But I wanted to know how teachers are making kids feel stupid. What is it they say or do?
Because I can’t imagine any of my colleagues doing so intentionally.
The student explained that sometimes teachers get visibly impatient with student questions. The classic case is when a student asks a question that the teacher just answered, so the teacher naturally responds, “I just said that! Were you even listening?”
I get that. I told him: You know, I’ve been in those shoes many times, and I’m sure I’ve said those exact words to a few exasperating students. Especially when I’ve just given specific instructions, and someone pipes up, “What do you want us to do?”
Then he added that sometimes, teachers also laugh at questions. Students might even laugh along, realizing how absurd the question was.
But deep down they’re not laughing, he said. They’re shutting down. Once any student has been embarrassed in front of the class, most kids won’t risk it happening to them.
By this time, I was feeling pretty bad. I know I’ve done that too. Some questions are just so absurd, and so are some answers.
I remember the kid years ago who raised his hand when I asked: What gives our money value? He answered: “God! It says in God we trust!”
I admit it. I started laughing. I wonder how he felt?
My former student’s observations were a good reminder, as we start a new semester, that our students are constantly observing us, gauging whether it is safe to ask us questions, whether it’s safe to answer our questions, whether they’re going to lose face by participating in our class.
As annoying as it can be, we have to be as patient as we possibly can, because snapping at them or laughing at them or ignoring them are all bad options — they send a loud signal to all of the students that we can’t be trusted.
Perhaps the best thing to do, if you really can’t stand one more dumb question, is to talk privately with the offending student and explain that it’s frustrating for you to constantly repeat yourself. Listening is important, too. Respecting your teacher’s time is important, too.
But not embarrassing or intimidating students? That has to be #1.
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