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Hello everyone, I am a TA for a lab course in which most of the enrolled students are part of my school's post-bac pre-med program. The other day a student forgot to turn in something after class and he submitted in my mailox the next day, sending me an email explaining he did it but just forgot to turn it it. I responded saying how I beleived it was a simple mistake but the late policy is what it is and he'd have to loose 10% for being 1 day late.

 

He responded with a lengthy email detailing a few things, one being that I apparently refer to the rules as laid out in the lab handbook and on the official lab course website (he claims I'm the first TA to ever refer to them) a lot and it seems out of touch. He told me some students in the lab feel that by going by the rules all the time I am simply being dismissive. Should I be making exceptions because a student has a good excuse for not doing something? Thats seems unreasonbale. His second point was that because this is a post-bac pre-med program most of the students are former professionals with highly respectable careers (Army special forces, Wall Street investment banker, and people with other advanced degrees, etc.) he said I shouldn't be treating everyone like students, but in the laboratory classroom they are students, they are learning nw things they don't understand as opposed to talking and interacting with them on a profesisonal level from their former professional careers. In the end the most disheartening part was they overall they feel like I don't respect them. This has never been a problem in previous course evaluations (excellent scores on that question) so do they have unrealistic expectations?

 

He made another comment about how it sometimes takes me 24-48 hours to respod to emails which is an understandable gripe but I hardly have time to eat meals so I do the best I can with responding and when there has been a time sensitive matter I've always given them an extra day or two since I took so long to respond. Still he says students see this as being unavailable and unreachable for help. This is a contrast to previous sections I TA'd for last semester who always said I was very avaialable and helpful whenever they needed it...

 

His last comment was that in the past the TA's this post-bac -pre-med group (they take all classes together so they are close) have had have all been very close to them on a personal and friendly level and it seems like I dont' take an effort to get to know them and become friendly on that level. I realize these students are closer in both age and current life-state than your typical sphopmore undergrad, but this is still a job and it doesn't seem right for me to be best friends with these students like he seems to be suggesting was previously the case.

 

Any suggestions for moving forward? I suspect this is a combination of the natural problems that come from working with very serious and dedicated future medical doctors and their personality which seeks excellence and perfection in everything they do, etc. but I would be open to trying to meet them halfway.

 

I know I plan to hand out a mid-semester evaluation next week to try and get some more comments rather than lots of he said she said stories and since I am apparently unapproachable with the problems in person... :(

Edited by Faraday
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I think that the big thing to remember is that everyone has different teaching styles and being friends with your students is not necesary or recommended to be a successful teacher. Your job is not to get these students to want to hangout with you, your job is to teach them. They dont need to feel like youre a cool person to hang with, they need to be learning the material they need for med school.

 

I would have done the same thing in taking off points. If an assignment is due on a certain date and turning it in late only results in 10 point reduction, then I think you are being easy going if anything. Many teachers would have given a 0 on the assignment. As far as the emails go, I think that it would be nice if you made more effort to repond by the end of the day. I totally get that you are busy but you should still make time to help the students. Other than that, it sounds to me that you are doing fine adn this student is mad that you reduced his grade. He is being incredibly rude and whether he likes you or not, you are his superior in this class and he has no right to critize your teaching methods. If it were me, I would not provide him with exaplantions, I would ignore an email that is that direspectful.

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Oof. Sorry you're going through this. Sounds like this guy is making every attempt to be manipulative. As the above poster mentioned, you're their teacher (and as a grad student you have responsibilities to yourself apart from these students), and you're under no obligation to make yourself additionally available to them.

 

24-48 hours is a perfectly reasonable time to respond to emails. You might just want to spell it out upfront, like on a syllabus or something.

 

Sometimes non-trads can be like this. I know a lot of people really enjoy teaching them--myself included--but there are always some who have a raging entitlement problem and believe that you're not providing good enough "customer service" or something. Just ignore this attitude. We TAs are not working in customer service; we're not supposed to be at their beck and call; we're not people at a freaking call center; we don't have to give out our private cell phone numbers.

 

The best you can do is just do your job, and it sounds like you've got it covered. Ignore this person.

Edited by hashslinger
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it usually seems to occur with a female TA and a male student. Is that the case here?

 

I was thinking the same thing. Just the emphasis on "approachability" alone--not to mention the attempt to pull rank ("I'm a successful professional and you're just a TA")--seems like a tip-off. This guy's got issues with certain individuals being in authority, whether that authority is perhaps female or younger.

 

OP: Looking back at some of the things you wrote about his complaints, I would be tempted to not believe any of them. "First TA to refer to the rules as laid out in the handbook"--yeah right. I call bullshit on that one. "Some students feel I'm dismissive"--which students? "They feel I don't respect them"--again, who are these people? Did he manage to take a poll? Classic manipulative behavior. "most of the students are former professionals with highly respectable careers"--So what? Does this mean they're better than the other students at the university and deserve special treatment? Better than you? Sounds like that's what he's implying.

 

Personally, I think you should take all this accusations with a big fat grain and move on. If you haven't replied to the email yet, I'd recommend just giving a very cursory reply: "I'm sorry you feel this way, but as the TA I'm required to enforce the standards set forth by the class and department. If you're dissatisfied by the curriculum or other instructional issues, feel free to take it up with [course director/department head/whatever.]" I do think you have to respond to him in some way or another just to cover your ass. Give your supervisor a heads-up about it. Keep the emails.

 

Don't even engage with him on the personality issues. That stuff just doesn't even deserve to be dignified.

 

I don't think you need to meet anyone "half way" or change your teaching style. You're not doing anything wrong by treating these professional people as students, and your previous course evaluations have been fine.

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This dude's a bitter jerk. If he wanted you to treat him as a professional, you should probably just go ahead and fire him for turning in his work late. I don't know of many jobs where the boss doesn't mind if you miss a big deadline and then let their employee berate them for not being nicer.

 

Don't respond and, more importantly, don't let this get to you. It almost certainly is NOT the general opinion and I highly doubt that someone with such a winning personality is really hanging out often with his peers.

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Personally, I think you should take all this accusations with a big fat grain and move on. If you haven't replied to the email yet, I'd recommend just giving a very cursory reply: "I'm sorry you feel this way, but as the TA I'm required to enforce the standards set forth by the class and department. If you're dissatisfied by the curriculum or other instructional issues, feel free to take it up with [course director/department head/whatever.]" I do think you have to respond to him in some way or another just to cover your ass. Give your supervisor a heads-up about it. Keep the emails.

 

I really like this advice on how to respond to the email. I also agree that you should discuss this with your supervisor since it is definitely disrrespectful and id even say approaching emotionally abusive and manipulative. I would talk to your boss and then considering CCing him on your response to the student to make it clear to the student that this is not appropriate and that your supervisor is on your side.

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Thanks for all of the feedback.

 

Unfortunately I do know the comments should not be taken with quite as large grain as some of you are suggesting. I'm very good at reading people and the attude this students has I can tell is shared in at least a handful of other students based on their attitudes and body language, or the one student who didn't realize I was walking behind them in the hall and made an offhand remark suggesting this. I think the majority of students in the lab (especially those not in the post-bac program) don't feel this way but the elitism and superiority is definately not isolated with this one student. Furthermore I don't think you realize how close this group is. They have 3 classes together every day, and labs all week long together. This is the second year of this program so they do virtually everything together. While he might be exaggerating in light of the assignment that was late to vent on me I know there is definately some truth in what he says.

 

Considering this I thanked him for telling me his concerns and then I politely dismissed his rude criticism by mentioning how I was planning to do mid-semester evaluations and I would use opinions from the class as a whole to framing future pedagogy this semester. The harsh response suggested above would certainly exasserbate the problem due to how close these students are (as mentoned previously) and how they immidiately go talk to other students about things these things. Handing back papers becomes a class-wide whisperfest to see who was graded fairly and unfairly and what criticisms I am worthy of...

 

I still don't plan to become their friends, that doesn't see right, and I'll make more of an effort to highlight when they can come to me for help outside of the class. As for addressing them as professionals instead of students, that's not going to happen but I will try to include some useful medical applications to the lab work we are doing on a weekly basis to cater to things they will find interesting and hopefully help in the learning process (since they are students) while creating a seemingly more professional environment. The survey will mainly be a way to gauge the exact number of students who feel the same way he does (I have around a handful in my mind) to make sure it is a small contingent.

 

I'll report back as to how the mid-semester evaluations look. I was pretty bummed out about this before but I've moved on and I am not really phased by it anymore. My recitation stidents always say they enjoy haivng me as their TA so I know it's not a problem with me.

 

EDIT: For the record this is not a female TA problem. :P

Edited by Faraday
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As for addressing them as professionals instead of students

 

Well, by addressing them as students, you ARE treating them like professionals. I'm not exactly sure how they want to be treated, or what they think "professional" treatment might look like? Your professional role here is to be the TA, and whether they like it or not, you're in a position of authority over them. I'm sorry, but if these students can't accept that particular arrangement, then they shouldn't have decided to enroll in this program. Part of going back to school means that you will likely have to deal with TAs and instructors--maybe even professors--who are younger or less experienced than you are but still in a position to judge your work. And as another above poster pointed out, this kind of behavior is anything but professional. In the professional world you do not get to miss a deadline and then bitch out your boss because you don't like his personality. You do not get to sit around and complain about your boss to other coworkers and then go to the boss and say, "We all feel that you suck as a boss." Or, if you do, you don't get to expect good results. Quite frankly, I think this student is a bit of a bully, and not too bright for 1) bringing all this to your attention, and 2) putting it in writing. There's probably a reason this guy is back in school and not burning up the track in the work force.

 

Even if a whole gaggle of students don't like you--and even if they happen to be "professional" non-traditional students--that doesn't mean that you should change your teaching style, back down, or let this person make you feel bad about the way you're running the recitation. You are running the lab section the way you see fit because it's YOUR LAB SECTION. You're a PhD student in chemistry; obviously these students don't have the expertise you have because they're the ones who need to take the class. There are always students who don't like you, and who disapprove of your teaching--and yes, sometimes these students may be older or more seasoned. I've also had older students who feel I'm not "serving them adequately" because I don't jump to answer their emails immediately or hand out my personal phone number for the purpose of late-night "troubleshooting" (as is more customary in a profit-driven workforce)--too bad. Moreover, your students' behavior seems very unprofessional and beyond rude. Whispering when they get their papers back? Criticizing you when you're within earshot? These are adults? Perhaps if they want to be treated more like professionals, they should start acting that way. Frankly, I'd be tempted to tell them that! (But I understand that you don't want to exacerbate the issue.)

 

Personally, if I were you, I don't know if I'd even do a midterm evaluation. Why make it seem like you care a great deal about their opinions? I know that midterm evaluations are useful pedagogically, but I find them a double-edged sword.  They can definitely let you know what's working or not, but they can also give students the impression that you're incredibly  interested in their opinions, and this can make you seem a little wishy-washy. FWIW, I've noticed over the years that students uniformly don't like a lot of things (difficult assignments, honest grading, a lot of reading)--but they absolutely lose respect for an instructor who seems ambivalent or willing to backpedal or eager to please. You can get away with giving the harshest grades ever if you do so with utter detachment and conviction. They won't like your grades (and probably not you), but they'll stick around. The minute you seem to cater to the whispering peanut gallery--or allow them to have sway--you lose the whole class.

 

[i don't think that midterm evaluations are bad or that we shouldn't listen to the feedback that students give us. On the contrary, evals can be very valuable. I just think that you have to get a read on certain classes. If a class is just a crummy mix of people, then I forgo the midterm evaluation.]

 

If I were you, the only thing I'd change is when I had back papers--and that should be at the end of class. I'd pass them back their papers with a big fat smile and then saunter out of the room.

 

Anyway, good luck with the rest of the semester. Just trust that this issue is probably an isolated one, and it doesn't have to do with your merit as a teacher. I can guarantee you that other students in the class are probably as fed up as you are with this contingent of "professional" students. (You might want to keep that in mind as you go forward.)

Edited by hashslinger
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I like the others' suggestions about how to move forward and address the email etc. If they want to go the "professional" route, then they should understand that as a professional scientist/academic, you have duties as a TA. You can't give people special treatment no matter how much you may like/sympathise with their issues. It sounds like these students believe that somehow you and the professor are not "professionals".

 

It might be too late for this class, but I generally try to not just tell the class "you should have read the rules" I usually go over the rules with them and get feedback on the rules on the first day. If I was TAing a class like this, I would probably be slightly more understanding and structure the rules/policies accordingly. I think 10% penalty for 1 day late is pretty generous. My usual policy that I go over with the class is that I will check for assignments handed in two times. I will check at noon on Wednesday, which is the due date. The second time I check will be at noon on Friday and any assignments I find here will receive a 25% penalty. It doesn't matter if it's 1pm on Wednesday or 10am on Friday, there's no time to date stamp everyone's work. I set the dates like this so that I can do my marking on the weekend and get the work back to the students by Monday, so they have it back before they have to hand in their next assignment. I explain this to them and see if they agree with the strict deadlines in return for swiftly marked assignments. If they don't like it, we can discuss something that works for my schedule as well as what they want (e.g. maybe due to other deadlines, they prefer Tuesday and Thursdays). I would have to be careful on how I arrange this though, because it can look like I am easy to bend. Instead, what I would want to happen out of this is for them to understand my constraints, to understand that rules are not arbitrary, and for them to take responsibility/ownership of the rules we decided.

 

Finally, as for the emails thing, I always just show the students my TA contract (usually not literally show it, just mention int) if they ask me why I cannot reply immediately, or why I cannot have three times the office hours etc. I explain them them that I have a limited number of hours to work with and that the professor and I have decided that the current distribution is the best use of the hours. If they are still concerned--perhaps having office hours every week is indeed useless and it would be better if I skipped some weeks and added extra hours at the end of the term--then I will listen to their suggestions, and if the suggestions are sound, I will tell them that I will advocate their request to the professor, since he/she is my boss. If they think I should spend more hours working as a TA, then I agree with them because I really enjoy working as a TA and helping students learn, but ultimately it is the department's decision on how much they want to spend on TAs and I would suggest they note this request in the course evaluation (and I will bring this up too if I agree with them).

Edited by TakeruK
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That guy is a manipulative piece of crap. If the late penalty is in the syllabus, you have to enforce it. Don't let him get away with this "professional" garbage. If this student actually is a professional then he should be more familiar with deadlines than regular undergrads. 

 

Also, it's perfectly acceptable to respond to e-mails in that time frame. If you're busy, you're busy. You don't have to be on-call every minute of the day.

 

He's just mad about losing 10%, don't let him get to you.

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I am going to offer a totally different response here. (preface --- I am not faulting the students or you or fellow posters)

Yes, you're going to be slammed on the evaluations, but you can easily take it in stride as a learning experience - so don't worry about that.

Because of your inexperience, you read this group wrong from Day 1 and didn't have the skill sets as an teacher to pivot expectations and adapt your teaching style early on. This is normal from an inexperienced teacher and you just got unlucky getting this group.

I would have gone lenient with this group from Day 1 ......and I find ALL of my current grad school peers (young enough to be my kids) will take many years before (if) they can teach well and connect with their students

teaching is what most phds do, but but most fresh (age 22 with 3 months student teaching experience) bach. education degree holders can teach better than TAs....if you're a TA with a career of teaching in front of you, you have to realize you have a steep learning curve ahead of you

And yes I have over 20 years experience teaching in corporate, college and grade school and am returning to grad school for another degree.....

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I am going to offer a totally different response here. (preface --- I am not faulting the students or you or fellow posters)

Yes, you're going to be slammed on the evaluations, but you can easily take it in stride as a learning experience - so don't worry about that.

Because of your inexperience, you read this group wrong from Day 1 and didn't have the skill sets as an teacher to pivot expectations and adapt your teaching style early on. This is normal from an inexperienced teacher and you just got unlucky getting this group.

I would have gone lenient with this group from Day 1 ......and I find ALL of my current grad school peers (young enough to be my kids) will take many years before (if) they can teach well and connect with their students

teaching is what most phds do, but but most fresh (age 22 with 3 months student teaching experience) bach. education degree holders can teach better than TAs....if you're a TA with a career of teaching in front of you, you have to realize you have a steep learning curve ahead of you

And yes I have over 20 years experience teaching in corporate, college and grade school and am returning to grad school for another degree.....

 

I also worked in the professional world before returning to grad school, and I find this "professional" student's behavior appalling and not really worth entertaining.

 

Everyone has a degree of inexperience in their lives. The OP here is probably (relatively) inexperienced with dealing with this type of thing or these types of students. Obviously the non-traditional students are inexperienced with chemistry (or they wouldn't be taking the class). However, I find that the older students have behaved much more egregiously here. If you're a mature adult, and if you're dealing with an inexperienced TA, then have a little compassion and deal with it. Rolling your eyes, whispering, and flying off the handle over a missing 10% are not ways that mature adults should navigate this kind of situation. (I think that maybe they're the ones that need a "skill set.") Even if the OP is inexperienced and not equipped to reach this particular demographic at this point in his life, it certainly doesn't give the non-trads a free pass to behave in this manner. 

 

It seems to me that there might be some ego issues here. The older professional student seems to feel that his experience as a professional isn't being validated by the younger (I'm assuming) TA. He feels that the TA isn't deferring to him in all his professional achievements. And whose problem is that? The older guy's. I've actually seen this happen quite a bit to other TAs in my department (most of whom are quite young and don't have the work experience I have). One older woman accused a young friend of mine of being "just some rich girl" who didn't know anything about the real world.

 

I can understand that having to take orders from someone who is younger and less experienced can be an uncomfortable situation. However, being an adult also means navigating a world with different leadership styles and different personalities. By the time you're older, you should know that not every teacher is going to care about your weekend or want to have a beer with you or make you feel validated. Other professors might--because yes, they're older and have been in these situations before. But one can't fault a TA for just doing his job and not shifting his entire teaching style to make a certain group of people feel special.

Edited by hashslinger
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The most effective teachers I have known don't judge, blame or endlessly deconstruct .... they do what it takes at that moment to get the objective (learning and/or the creation of a learning environment) done.

A 'me versus them' mentality is destructive to such. 

Sometimes the easiest way to achieve learning is to suck it up as a teacher......in rare moments, we've got to keep OUR egos in check for the great goal.

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The most effective teachers I have known don't judge, blame or endlessly deconstruct .... they do what it takes at that moment to get the objective (learning and/or the creation of a learning environment) done.

A 'me versus them' mentality is destructive to such. 

Sometimes the easiest way to achieve learning is to suck it up as a teacher......in rare moments, we've got to keep OUR egos in check for the great goal.

 I guess I don't see what the great teaching moment would be if OP doesn't follow the grading guidelines?  Students don't have to turn in assignments on time if they feel the instructor is has slighted them?  Non-trad students shouldn't be held to the same standards as other undergrads?  I know that some people actually feel that way, but I don't think letting that slip into your teaching is a good thing.

Edited by raneck
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The most effective teachers I have known don't judge, blame or endlessly deconstruct .... they do what it takes at that moment to get the objective (learning and/or the creation of a learning environment) done.

A 'me versus them' mentality is destructive to such. 

Sometimes the easiest way to achieve learning is to suck it up as a teacher......in rare moments, we've got to keep OUR egos in check for the great goal.

I agree that teachers need to keep their egos in check, but being generous doesn't mean suffering fools gladly. No one has to turn themselves into a martyr--or allow a select group of students to make their own rules or sour the class atmosphere--in order to become a better teacher.

 

Quite frankly, the best teachers I know are reflective--what I guess you're calling "endlessly deconstructing." What good is teaching if you only teach for that specific moment?

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i started my comments with this line ----

I am going to offer a totally different response here. (preface --- I am not faulting the students or you or fellow posters)

 

my posts are from my perspective of 20 years in teaching - corporate (oh yes, i've taught entitled employee students ..... professional oil company workers who got their jobs by their connections and are only motivated to be assigned english classes for a while because the catered meals are good) , university (army soldiers deployed to a combat zone -  yes, i excused a young trooper from a class because she politely explained she had to do maintenance on her jeep before the convoy into iraq - what was i going to do - say no and quote the syllabus?) and grade school as a licensed state teacher (my license was first granted when you , my fellow posters, were too young for pimples)

so, yes, from my tone , i am a bit defensive at y our reaction to my posts .... let's all be civil

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so, yes, from my tone , i am a bit defensive at y our reaction to my posts .... let's all be civil

grade school as a licensed state teacher (my license was first granted when you , my fellow posters, were too young for pimples)

 

For the record, I highly doubt you know the age of all of those posting. Not everyone that posts here is a current undergrad or fresh out of undergrad. Quite a few people are returning to school after time in the workforce or doing other things. If you want people to take your comments seriously and remain civil, perhaps you should avoid dismissing their experience and opinions by saying they "were too young for pimples" when you started teaching. That line does nothing to foster civil discourse.

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yes, i excused a young trooper from a class because she politely explained she had to do maintenance on her jeep before the convoy into iraq - what was i going to do - say no and quote the syllabus?

 

Of course teachers should be reasonable, but I think it's pretty obvious that "I have to prepare for combat" (your example) and "I just forgot to turn it in" (the OP's situation) are fundamentally different, and that the former merits a special exemption while the latter does not. 

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