If you have taught for much time at all, you have encountered this type of student: she will come in, throw her books down, and sprawl in her desk.
She will sit just close enough to you for you to hear her muttered remarks to her peers. Perhaps she’ll challenge you and the class directly: why does she even have to be in this class when it so contrary to her goals and needs and personhood? The exercises in class are pointless, as far she is concerned. The odd thing is that you have done nothing to offend this student personally, as far as you know, although she acts almost as if you have. Of course you haven’t; you have just met the demanding and/or cynical student. There are a number of causes outside of the teacher that contribute to the behavior of this kind of student and different ways to address them.
Reasons for the Behavior of the Demanding/Cynical Student and Methods to Address Them
Not Intrinsically Motivated
The demanding/cynical student is not intrinsically motivated, to say the least, to be in your class. Of course most students have varying degrees of motivation outside of the innate love of learning: they are there for the grade, the degree, sometimes by court order, etc. Most, however, recognize their own agency in the situation: rarely does anyone hold a gun to a student’s head and tell him to register in a class. However, the demanding/cynical student behaves as if she does have a gun to her head, so much so that she feels resentment and a degree of victimization: some force outside of herself made her register for your class. Getting the student to accept her own agency in the situation—that she, ultimately, chose to come to class—may be a first step.
Not Seeing the Value of the Class
Many students are unable to make the connection of a specific class to long-range goals. That is indeed part of the nature of being a student or beginner in a field: not understanding enough of the field to see how one level progresses to another. Helping students then see this progression helps the student in a number of ways: they begin to value this first step and then also to develop understanding of the field and its breadth and depth.
Not Having a Personal or Professional Goal
Sometimes the problem with the demanding/cynical student is not having a real goal, or a realistic goal, to apply the class to. Therefore, the class seems like a waste of time—precious time she could be spending doing something else. Discussing with the student what brought her to class in the first place, and linking the class to that goal, might help, as does discussions with the class as a whole on their career aspirations and applications of the course.
Use These Ways to Address the Demanding or Cynical Student
Show Your Concern for the Student
One reason students can put up a defensive façade is feeling undervalued or underappreciated, their individuality not recognized. Therefore, show real concern for your student. “So why are you here? What do you hope to accomplish? What made you enroll in the class? What are your goals?” These questions should not be asked sarcastically but rather with genuine interest, as the more you show interest, the more students develop trust and the more you are able to serve them.
Show Your Knowledge of the Field
Students sometimes enter class with a real skepticism of the intelligence and competence of teachers—perhaps justifiably, having been exposed to more than one poor example. Talking to students about your background in the field, demonstrating your knowledge, not to show off—well, yes, maybe to show off, but with the ultimate good intent of demonstrating why you’re there, why you were chosen to teach the class, and in fact you do have something to teach—helps build trust with students.
Show Your Enthusiasm for Your Field
Discuss what your subject has done for you and your life: writing has opened doors for me, for example, not only in employment—employers actually need people who can write—but also personally: I have written, effectively, everything from love poems to bat mitzvah blessings to challenges to parking tickets to eulogies. I often begin a semester of developmental composition by asking who actually likes to write. Few raise their hands, but students usually visibly relax and actually laugh in some cases, realizing that no judgment is going to be passed on them for not liking it. And then this leads into a discussion of reasons to actual like writing and what it can do for you.
Make the Connections Explicit to the Student
From the general discussion of the value of writing, the teacher can then proceed to showing how writing will advance student goals. Talk about how the subject can be used outside of class, its real-life applications, whatever chance you get. This helps build student enthusiasm and motivation to learn.
Different Opportunities for Practice and Different Authentic Assignments
One of the problems with schooling in general is that students, even very young ones, usually sense when an assignment is “inauthentic,” that is not a “real” part of the field and nothing you’d ever actually do in the “real world.” Why should I care about writing or want to come to writing class if it’s all about the five-paragraph, or seven-paragraph, essay? When am I ever going to need this in the real world? But if students practice love letters, or persuasive speeches, letters of complaint, acceptance speeches, letters to the editor, wedding toasts, email messages to fundraise—all tasks people do in “real life”—well, the question becomes, who wouldn’t want to become a better writer?
Addressing the cynical or demanding student goes to the heart of teaching itself: it is really about helping students find their own goals and showing the value of education. Once the teacher is able to communicate some of that, often the cynical façade crumbles, and an enthusiastic student emerges.