Conflict, Anxiety, and Emotional Violence in Teaching

[CN: discussion of violence, emotional violence, sexual assault, emotional manipulation, anxiety, fear]

So as the semester wraps up, this is the last week of teaching German 101 for me. And I am so ridiculously pleased about that, because I hate teaching.

I want to get one thing straight: I hold the vocation of teaching in very high esteem. I admire teachers. My mother has worked in education for most of her career, either teaching teachers or helping create and sell software for teachers to use. Now she’s working as a school librarian and actually teaching kids directly, and she’s very good at it. I’ve had some good teachers over the course of my life. I have friends from my undergrad who are now teachers. I respect teachers and teaching. When I say that I hate teaching, I don’t mean that I think it’s worthless or that it’s a waste of time or that it’s beneath me. What I mean is, it’s a job that’s the culmination of several of my anxiety triggers in one neat little bundle. I hate speaking to small groups of people. Put me in front of a huge auditorium and I shine, but in front of less than 20 people, I want to collapse and cry. I hate putting a numeric number on someone’s performance, especially when I get to know them and find out they have stuff going on outside my class (like a relative with cancer, or a really nasty break-up with their SO). I hate all the work of preparing and trying to figure out how much time each activity will take (which I always get wrong, it either takes way more or way less time than I think). I hate it when students ask a question and I have no idea what the answer is. I hate being put on the spot in all the many ways a teacher is every day. The bottom line is that almost nothing about teaching is enjoyable for me. And it isn’t worth it to me to do a job that’s not the slightest bit enjoyable. Even at my last office job, which had a lot of problems, I could take pride and pleasure in doing a task efficiently, making sure everything was error-free, and being one of the fastest in my unit at what we did. The stress and anxiety that I get from teaching far outweighs the very occasional pleasure of having a student improve, or seeing one of them reach an “aha!” moment.

So what does any of that have to do with conflict? Well, it has to do with a very specific experience I had yesterday afternoon. It started a couple weeks before the midterm. One of my colleagues who teaches a German 102 section had a student who wasn’t doing well. She had tried to help them, but they were still struggling, so she told me they had decided to transfer to my 101 class, because they felt it would be easier, and they needed it to graduate. When the student transferred to my class, they proceeded to show up for class only about half the time, didn’t buy the textbook (which is necessary to do the online homework for the class), and didn’t make up any of the tests or quizzes they’d missed, and missed a few more on top of that. So when they came to my office yesterday to make up one of the quizzes they missed, they brought up their grade, and asked me if I could do anything to help them. Even though I hadn’t counted any of the in-class assignments before they transferred to my class, the fact that they’d done none of the homework and hadn’t made up any of the tests or quizzes meant that there was no way they could pass the class. And they were very upset, and said a lot of things about how they couldn’t afford the textbook to do the online homework, they felt they had been lied to about what was expected, they thought they hadn’t been given a fair chance to succeed, and how this was going to mess up everything because they needed this class to graduate this semester. They asked if there was any way we could make a deal, if they could do book work, I tried to give them some other options (retake the class, take an incomplete, etc) and they refused all of them. And every time I said “I’m sorry, but this is the reality” they would launch into another line about how it was unfair, how they needed to graduate, wasn’t there something I could do… And it made me more and more uncomfortable, because I had given them the only answer, and they wouldn’t leave, and I was getting more and more anxious, but finally, after I said I’d think about letting them do some book work, they left. But I was so upset by then that I could hardly compose myself, and it was time for class to start, and I hadn’t finished all my prep because they’d taken so much of my time, and the class didn’t go very well because I was feeling so anxious I was almost manic.

Afterward, when I was talking to my colleagues, I was so upset that I almost cried. Even just talking about it almost gave me a panic attack, and my colleagues didn’t understand why I was so upset. They asked me if the student had threatened me, which they hadn’t, and when I said no they said “then it’ll be fine, just be firm” and it made me feel like they hadn’t heard anything I said, because this wasn’t about being firm. This was about not feeling safe telling someone no.

What bothered me so much about this experience wasn’t that the student was being violent or combative. What bothered me was that the student wouldn’t accept my no. They kept pushing me, kept trying to get me to change my mind. They wouldn’t just accept what I had to say, and that made me feel anxious. Not just anxious, but unsafe.

As a woman, I’ve had to deal with men who won’t take no for an answer. I’ve had to deal with it my entire fucking life. I have the privilege of never having been assaulted, sexually or otherwise (threatened, yes, but not assaulted), so it’s not like I’ve ever actually experienced the worst, but I know, every woman knows, what the worst is. Every woman who lives in this world knows that she must always be vigilant, analyze every situation, because she is not safe. She is not safe out in public, she is not safe at home, she is not safe anywhere in between.

So when I’m dealing with a conflict like the one that happened yesterday, the fact of the conflict itself isn’t what makes me anxious, makes me panic, makes it hard for me to breathe. What made me feel unsafe was the fact that this student wouldn’t accept what I said. The fact that they kept pushing, kept trying to get me to change my mind, made me feel all the weight of the life I live as a woman. I felt like the entire world narrowed down to that one moment with them in my office and I felt trapped, I didn’t feel like I could stand up and ask them to leave, or stand up to get a colleague to help me, even. I didn’t feel safe.

It didn’t have anything to do with physical violence, or even the threat of physical violence. It had to do with the kind of emotional manipulation that I and other women have dealt with our entire lives. I sympathize with the student, I really do. I understand when they say they don’t have money, or time, or that they’ve had circumstances this semester that made it difficult for them to focus. But I can’t change the facts, and the fact that they want to manipulate me and try to do that makes me feel unsafe.

The student said they would come by to drop of a project today. I spent most of the afternoon in a state of heightened anxiety, hoping they wouldn’t. I knew that once they came in, I would feel trapped again, I would feel unsafe, and I don’t know how I would have dealt with that. The simple fact is that as a 6′ tall, 400 lb woman, I significantly outweigh and tower over almost all of my students (one of the other students is an inch or two taller than me, but I still outweigh them). But that doesn’t change the fact that I would have felt trapped and powerless. I probably wouldn’t have been able to call for my colleagues to help me, or ask the student to step outside.

Emotional violence is a reality, especially for people like me, who feel emotions deeply. When someone purposefully tries to manipulate my emotions, that’s a form of emotional violence. When someone won’t listen to what I tell them, tries to debate when I explain how I feel, that’s a form of emotional violence.

Emotional violence is experienced differently by everyone. Some people can shrug it off if it happens once or twice, and only start to feel the impact when it accumulates over time, like lead poisoning. Some people feel pain even if it only happens once or twice, like being stabbed with a short knife, not deep enough to put their life in danger, but enough to give them pain and leave a scar. That’s how it feels for me. Every time feels like a stab wound. I’ve learned over the years how to protect myself sometimes, but there are still times, like yesterday, when I’m totally unprepared, and the knife goes deep. There are certain situations where I have no choice, and I try to simply steel myself as best I can, preparing myself for the cuts. Sometimes I wonder how I’m not just a walking mass of scar tissue, and I wish I could just stop feeling emotions so deeply. Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth it, especially when I’m in pain.

I’m sure that the student didn’t intend to hurt me. They were likely doing something that has worked on other professors before, in hopes that it would work again. But this is what I mean when I talk about how teaching triggers my anxiety. This isn’t a situation that people in other professions usually have to deal with. I don’t remember ever having anything similar in any of the jobs I’ve worked. I’ve never been a manager or HR person, and don’t intend to be, which are the only other professions that come to mind that might have similar situations.

The student never showed up today, either to my office or to our last class meeting. Next week is the final exam, and I don’t know if they’ll be there for that, but even if they do, I’ll have support, as it’s a combined exam with my colleague who teaches the other German 101 class. I’m sorry for their situation, but I can’t do anything else for them, and I just don’t want to feel unsafe again. And once the final exam is over, I will be able to put teaching behind me, and that will be a great relief.

Edit, May 1, 2016: The student showed up unexpectedly at my office on Friday. I was completely unprepared, but I managed to send a message through Facebook to my colleague across the hall, and she came over and pretended to do some work on the computer while waiting for a break in the conversation to back me up. I had an appointment with another colleague to go somewhere, so when that colleague showed up we ended up leaving the first one to deal with the student, which we both felt rotten about. But after we left, one of the professors showed up and managed to help her and talked to the student briefly, then told them she’d talk to me about the situation and get back to them. So now the entire story is being laid out via email with the professor, and I feel a bit better because at least I now have some help, but at the same time I’m really anxious because I don’t want the student to show up at my office unannounced again (I didn’t even tell my students I was going to be there on Friday, I’m normally not) and I really just want this whole situation to be done with, because it’s causing me more anxiety the longer it draws out. I’ll post more updates if anything of note occurs.

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