As a student and a type-A nerd, I have always been hesitant to break the rules. My cohort can attest to this. However, as a teacher I wanted to create a classroom ethos which was empathetic and friendly. My teaching style is mostly informal, so I assert my authority primarily by wearing dress clothes and towering (slightly) above my seated students. I want to be understanding, and above all I want to see my students succeed, so I had no idea how difficult it would be to enforce my rather strict classroom policies. Very early in the semester my resolve as a rule-enforcer was tested, and I failed miserably.
My course policies are a hodge-podge of instinctual rules, departmental mandates, and reflections of my personal pet peeves. Because most of my course policies were created before I stood in front of a classroom, I couldn’t know if they would be effective until I put them into practice. As the semester began, I found myself struggling to enforce these quasi-arbitrary rules, and eventually discovered that I had absolutely no ability to say “no.”
Late students. Late papers. Absent students. Absent papers. Plagiarized papers. These situations swirled around my head the first couple of months, which was disorienting because I was juggling 24 students with different agendas and expectations. To all of these situations (which were mostly requests for exceptions to deadlines) I said, “Okay, let’s make a deal,” and I would proceed to wildly improvise a new policy to fit this new situation. It left me stuttering, flustered, and doubting myself as an instructor.
Then, magically a new situation appeared about halfway through the semester. I won’t be specific, but let’s just say there was only one way to react to it: absolutely no. The student met with me in my office and tried to approach the situation in every way s/he knew how—appealing to my better nature, firmly looking me in the eye, confusedly looking at me as if to say “What is the problem?” All of these approaches would have probably worked had the situation not been so completely cut and dry.
To all of these things, I said, “no.” I said “no” so many times, I didn’t even know I had the capacity to keep saying “no.” Of course, it was much more diplomatic than a simple “no”: I repeated the course’s policies and the student’s only possible actions several times, but the underlying message rang loud and clear: no, no, definitely no.
When I began saying no, I felt bad. The weight of each denial came with an added bonus of doubt: was I treating this student fairly? Was there anything I could do? However, at some point the no’s became liberating, and I slowly began to feel the weight lift off. By the time the student had left my office, I had said no about a dozen different times and ways, and I felt great about it.
I won’t say that I magically began saying “no” to every late paper or tardy student. However, boundaries slowly began forming in my mind which will help me shape my course policies in the future. When I did manage to say “no,” I was able to say it with more conviction and less guilt. In the end, I want to be an empathetic teacher but I also need to care about myself as a teacher, scholar, and person. As I put my rules into practice this semester, they made more sense and became less arbitrary. The rules for which I have no reason or justification—well, they might not appear on the syllabus next semester.
Alisa Allkins is a PhD candidate in Literary & Cultural Studies who is currently teaching ENG 1020 and tutoring in the Writing Center.