Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Sour-puss students

I mentioned the possibility of a querulously querying student last week, and Helen, for one, wanted to know if I have run across this situation much and how I handle it. See her comment on last week's blog where she describes witnessing such an incident.

The situation she describes -- a student actually stomping or storming or flouncing out of a course -- I have witnessed too. In fact, I've seen it happen at three residential writing events I have attended! It got so that I took it as routine and decided to re-assure myself: every residential WILL have a super-tender or super-ego participant. Seems to be a law, so if I ever lead one I should not blame myself for the outbreak/flounce/storm.

The question is what to do about it? If the person does leave, I say: breathe a sigh of relief and soothe your ruffled feathers and go on... you will probably have to soothe the bruises or worries of the other students too. DO remember NOT to feel guilty or act defensive. Writing courses, especially residentials, seem to attract some vulnerable people; they come loaded, primed to go off.

If the person doesn't leave, or if you are, like the example mentioned, attempting to smooth things with the student, try to stay clear of 'counselling' -- unless you are trained and qualified. I think you have to keep the talk to the writing and behaviour and the needs of others in the group. Good luck!

How about in regular weekly classes? I've never had a storm-out (that I know of, though of course some people cease attending without saying why -- private storms maybe). But I have indeed had the Questioner, the Doubter, the Success Maven, the Cynic, the Party Pooper... you can name some more. Usually one per year, not, thank goodness one per course.

Sometimes I pre-empt, especially with the more strange of my exercises (as last week; and the ones straying into psychological territory), and tell the class: 'this exercise does not work for about 1 out of 10 people. I have found that it does bear wonderful fruit for most people, but it's pefectly fine if it does not work for you... please put up with it, we'll soon be on to something else today. You might want to write to yourself about what you don't like about this exercise -- could be useful!'

When I get those 'what's the point' queries: sometimes there IS a point (to explore the character, to try other styles, to let go of perfection -- whatever). Sometimes I just ask them to trust me, they'll see why... or get something from it at the end.

Well I could go on and on... I have had two classes where somehow among the students a lot of bad feeling stirred; seemed to be one particular person who knocked or gossiped about others in the class. I only gradually became aware of this; then avoided it as long as I could, not wanting to get sucked into it. Seems to come from the student who is writing least, actually, and simmering with hostility -- all to do with being blocked. I did finally take aside this one I suspected of being the ringleader/meanie and ask her to be gentler in her criticisms (to readings out), suggested she did not realise how powerful an effect she had. And told her she wrote very well (which she did, WHEN she did) and had high standards. I stayed out of the 'bullying' problem as I only knew of it from hearsay, which in itself might have been poisoned. Don't know if it worked; things settled down; she did not join the class for term 2...

The joy of it is that most of our students most of the time are bright, warm, fun, eager to cooperate, supportive of each other and of the tutor. And several times I have had the reward, at the end of the course, of the Gadfly praising the course and my teaching -- sweet indeed!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, that's really useful stuff! I have not (yet!) as a tutor been faced with anyone storming out or bullying others in the group but in the very first term I taught (sensing, I think, a weakness!) I had a couple of slightly antagonistic women students, who had clearly not taken to me and whose attitude was, in a word, rather 'bitchy'! They questioned some of the tasks I set and queried why they had not been allowed to read out, etc (answer: because we didn't have time for everyone to read out that week!). My advice would be - smile sweetly, bring it back to the writing (as you say!) and don't show that your feathers are ruffled! (act, act, act!) One of the sourpusses did do an exercise she was resisting and then actually admitted at the end that she 'quite enjoyed it, actually'! Hurrah - one point to me. I am a much better teacher now but they don't have the benefit because neither of them came back after that term! Their loss, eh?