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Problem Students Aren’t The Only Problem

19 Apr

The recent shooting at VA Tech has taken me back to some of my more troubling teaching experiences, which, when I tell them to my teacher trainees seem almost unbelievable. It can be so easy to blame the teachers or faculty in cases like this, but the problem seems to be much more incidious and pervasive.

Having taught international students here in the States, I have seen some disturbing things happen throughout the years. Even though I have worked with hundreds of students and have been lucky enough to help so many great people further along in their academic careers, there have always been a few who stand out — mostly those who come from societies that are more socially conservative and demanding. These students are either those who are unsuccessful academically or overlooked and/or outcasts in their own cultures, and, because they don’t fit in, sometimes see studying in the States as a solution to their problems (or at least their families, do). Perhaps they are hoping that more cultural and social diversity might make their lives easier or that some element of our culture will help them fit into a social group better. Certainly this has been the case with many of my students who have become the most successful language learners. But, unfortunately there are always those students who are not accepted even by their fellow international students, those whose problems may not be initially apparent because of language barriers, but who, after a few class sessions, truly show that they have trouble interacting with others regardless of their language proficiency.

Unfortunately, most language teachers are not equipped to deal with such problems and, the university structure is such that there are few resources available to assist either the the student or teacher. One of the main problems, as I have seen it in at least a couple of cases, is a sense of indifference to the problems of international students. First off, there are few resources on campus for them in terms of counseling. Secondly, the paperwork required to get such students into the system is often so overwhelming that adminstrators and teachers often give up, and finally, many of these students do not have student loans, so, in essence, the upper eschelons of the adminstration are wont to suspend them for fear of losing revenue.

This is all sad, but, unfortunately true.

An example of how some of this played out in my career happened about 10 years ago when I was teaching at a small private university in central California. I had a student, Nori, we’ll call him, who showed up unequipped to communicate and interact in English. He came to our English as a Second Language (ESL) program in order to get his English up to speed enough to study in grad school. In fact, he was slated to be a TA for undergrads. We all noticed this student had problems. Other Japanese students would avoid him when doing groupwork. He was belligerent and sent nasty emails to many of his female instructors. With me, however, he acted differently.

Behind my back he’d tell the other students that he wanted to marry me, that I was the love of his life. I didn’t find out about this until several months later, after he, unfortunately, had attended a small gathering at my apartment for students at the end of the semester. Come Valentine’s Day, he appeared at my classroom with a big box of candy and a large bouquet of flowers, declaring to all the students his love for me. I refused the gift, said that his actions were not appropriate and that I had no interest in him and subsequently told the head of my department.

Despite being given a warning about his aggressive behavior and the inappropriate nature of his crush on me, my administrator did not take any disciplinary action, save to write him a letter telling him that he needed to change. Fast forward to four months later when I come home to find a gift on my doorstep and several emails in my inbox. Of course, I reported this right away, again to my supervisor, but nothing happened. This student was creeping me out. Somehow he’d found my phone number and started calling me. With no support from my department, what else was I supposed to do?

My decision to break the strange and inpenetrable wall of inaction in academia arose as a way to protect myself, for part of me knew that unless I did something, this student would never leave me alone and that his unrequitted love may turn into something far more dangerous. So, I went to the police and filed a report detailing that this student was stalking me, that my boss wouldn’t do anything. I wanted to have something on record outside of the school in case anything happened. I also wanted to have some protection for my own personal safety. It being a small city, the police were extremely responsive, putting out a restraining order on this guy and threatening to arrest him if he ever contacted me again.

Lucky me. Unfortunately, Nori wasn’t kicked out of the program and went onto a college in the Midwest to be a TA. My hope, much like Professor Roy at VA Tech, was to keep this guy out of the system, and like Dr. Roy, my boss wasn’t willing to even consider further action seriously (such as counseling) as an option.

At this particular school we also had a student from the United Arab Emirates threaten another student outside of class with a machete. The student from the UAE claimed it was done in jest, but what kind of joke is it to wield a knife at another student? This student also remained in our program for a year.

Neither student was dismissed because, it being a small school, losing them would mean losing money. Personal safety took a backseat to the almight dollar.

When I worked at a larger university here in Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to have some support for such students, although there was little we could do outside of our department. In past years we had had enough issues with student behavior to set up a system in which we reported each belligerent outburst to our Office of Judicial Affairs (known to us as Student Conduct). We employed such basic strategies as behavior contracts and a three strike rule (if students were reported 3 times, they automatically failed our classes). While this worked as an ex-post-fasto solution, it didn’t prevent problems in our classes nor did it mean that students were accountable for their behavior in their mainstream courses.

I’ve had students yell at me, one so loudly during a one-on-one writing conference, my whole building heard him. I remember a host of other students, like the one who tried to bribe me to either release her from a class or to change teachers. When things didn’t go her way, this particular student made her teacher (whom I supervised) and fellow students’ lives miserable. But, because there was nothing threatening or overtly distressing about her behavior, she had to remain in her class.

Then there was the case of another student who plagiarized, made a stink with the dean, calling in her fiance from another state. While en route to a class in her major, she had a mental breakdown and her advisor had to spend the evening with her at the hospital. She came into her ESL class the next day looking wild, doped up on tranquilizers, and with the IV feed still in her arm. Like the VA Tech student, we had decided that this student was distracting enough to the whole class, that I, as her teacher’s supervisor, would tutor her instead. Fortunately, we were able to prove that she plagiarized and she failed the class. Unfortunately, although she wasn’t allowed to teach without permission from our department and completion of her English requirements, she still got away with it — the next semester I saw her on campus. She had become a full-fledged TA.

It’s not only an ineffectively bureaucratic system that allows this to happen. There are also few resources that international students can turn to. Many of them come from cultures where counseling is considered taboo. Some of my students would never exhibit their problems openly in class, preferring instead to remain aloof and particpate sparingly. These students are the most difficult to help and to get help for. When one of my students in Japan wrote about the pressures she was under in a journal (an entry that seemed like a ‘red flag’ to me) there wasn’t any real way I could report it. I mean, what truly constitutes behavior that requires help? I could encourage her to go to a counselor, but aside from that, in Japan at least, my hands were tied.

More recently when a student who had failed an assignment wrote me an email threatening suicide two years ago, I had to decide what to do. In talking it over with the department’s student advisor, we realized that there was no system in place for this. Neither one of us was qualified to diagnose this student’s behavior in any way, such as whether or not it was a threat or an attempt at manipulation. We determined that the best course of action was to take her to a counselor and decided, even if it meant problems for us with the larger university adminstration, to personally escort her to the counselor after class with the rationale that her behavior could endanger herself and quite possibly others. Since this student’s English was limited, we were also limited in the amount of help we could provide — no one in the counseling center spoke Korean, despite the fact that a large percentage of the international student population were Korean native speakers.

Needless to say, this student continued in the program and did the same thing the following semester. I don’t know what happened to her, because soon after I resigned, in part because I was tired of coping with issues above and beyond the scope of my job and my capabilities.

I have such great empathy for not only the victims and their families, but also the faculty at VA Tech. We have this idea that teaching university-age students is a dream job, but in reality, many of the problems that exist in K-12 don’t just go away. Most of the identity and language troubles of international students and generation 1.5’ers are only viewed through the lens of their academic work (often writing) and not in terms of their own personal problems with socialization into the mainstream academic environment. Given the growing numbers of students from these populations, universities must own up to this fact and find a way to not only heal the wounds created by this incident but to prevent them from happening in the first place.

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