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Appropriate Responses to Frustrating Moments

Tests make me nervous.  not taking tests — I’ve always been a “school-head,” and found taking written tests to be pretty neutral.  It’s giving tests to my students that makes me nervous.  Did I teach them well enough?  Did they study at all?  How much are they going to argue with me when I mark their wrong answers wrong?

It is almost a sacred tradition that at least one student in every class will argue with the test, and with my marking of their test.  I hate confrontation, so I dread this moment.  I also dread this moment because I recognize how painfully strange the wording is for some of the test questions.  I feel guilty for not taking the initiative to change it.  But, in most cases, there is a correct answer, and I can find a way to explain to a student why their marked-wrong answer is not correct.  When this works, it is a moment where making and correcting the mistake start to insulate the brain circuitry and real learning happens.  (Read The Talent Code for more on this.)  When it doesn’t work, people sometimes drop their pants.

In one of my classes, I have a student, clearly (over)educated, who has a reputation for getting into intense circular arguments with all of his instructors.  He has been known to say things like “I can see you don’t like your job” or “Why are you so angry with your situation?” during these arguments — infuriating, unanswerable, ridiculous statements which are best handled by redirecting to the topic at hand or just ending the conversation.  During my class, he spent most of every lecture sitting quietly at his desk, reading some kind of philosophical tome.  (The Prince is the latest one.)  I largely ignored him because he wasn’t disturbing anyone else, and because I felt that he was trying to provoke one of his signature arguments.

I gave my first test to the class, and when I returned them, he had a question bout something I marked wrong.  I tried to explain it, but he wasn’t accepting anything I said.  He continued to ask about other questions, eventually devolving into statements along the lines of, “Well, isn’t it all relative anyway?  How can you be sure my answer isn’t just as correct as what’s in the book?”  I tried to remain calm and neutral, but I know I didn’t.  As we talked, I noticed his upper lip was sweating, the more sweat, the more pointed his disagreements.  Eventually it was clear that he would continue for as much time as I had, and that we would get nowhere, so I cut off the conversation.

I continued to go over the test with the rest of the class.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that he had grabbed his bag and retreated to a corner of the room.  I thought he was going to walk out or read his book, or something.  When I glanced over again, I saw a flash of red, which I realized was his underwear.  He was changing his pants, right there in the room, not even bothering to walk ten feet over to the curtains we have set up for just that purpose.

I told the story to a my colleagues, who all found it both hilarious, and unsurprising.  When I told the story to a friend who is also a teacher, he said, “What is he, three?”  Yes, apparently, I had just experienced the 20-something’s version of a toddler picking her nose and wiping it on me.  Frustration, and responses to it, are shockingly varied.  Nothing to do but drop your pants over it.

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