Bad News Bears: Breaking Bad News To Students
When it comes giving a negative message, Gerald Alred cites Francis Weeks in saying, “to be completely direct and forthright, striking to the heart of the matter immediately, is also to be blunt and perhaps offensive. To be direct is to be polite and considerate” then again she writes, “to be direct is to be efficient and to be indirect is to waste time.”
In the business world, the direct versus the indirect message is essential as a company’s livelihood is dependent on the way people conduct themselves; however, negative messages are an issue that adjuncts face as well. The difference is that adjuncts aren’t trained to tell a student you have to repeat a class or this paper is getting an F.
At LaGuardia Community College, an exit meeting with students is a mandatory activity that all faculty must partake in. However, I was so impressed with these final conferences that I decided to make it mandatory for every class I teach. I find it beneficial to the students as well as myself. After going over the final grade with the student as well as giving them time to appeal, there is usually never a problem once I submit my grades to registrar.
When the student has done well or understands the grade they earned, the conferences run smoothly. Many students stay a little longer and we chat about their academic plans for the next semester, or we go in depth on a subject we discussed in class but were unable to fully unravel.
These exit conferences become unsettling when I have to be the bearer of bad news. Instructing ENG 099, a course at LaGuardia designed to prepare students for the CATW exam, I’ve had to tell students that although they worked hard in my class, or even though this is the third time they’ve taken 099, they have to repeat the course because the they failed the exam. Needless to say after my students take the CATW, I’m a nervous wreck. For two weeks, I wait for the scores hoping that all my students passed and that I don’t have to tell anyone they won’t be moving on in their academic careers.
However, no matter how much I help them, it is up to them to focus and do well on the day of the exam. Sometimes, test jitters get the best of them or they simply blank out. Regardless, they don’t do well. Though it’s a city exam, the city isn’t the one who tells them if they passed or failed; no, the job goes to me.
How do I go about telling a student they haven’t passed? Students, understandably, will all take bad news in a different way. So what do I use to always run my exit conference smoothly? Should I be indirect or indirect?
Most students help me along, by asking me to be direct; they don’t want me to waste their time with niceties when they failed the exam. Though, I find that many of these students who ask for a blunt response sit in my office for a while trying to grasp what I’ve told them, which is when I have to bring out the niceties. There have been other times where I’ve been indirect with the message, but it only leads to the student begging me to change the grade when I can’t. I’ve gotten waves of anger, tears, and the vacant look on a student’s face when they don’t understand how they’ve failed. Given that I schedule only ten minutes with each student, I usually have an excuse as to why they need them to compose themselves and I can move on to my next student.
One would think that giving the news via email would be easier, but in fact a written negative message usually gets the messenger shot. I try to be as polite but firm in my e-mail interactions with students, especially if the message is negative. However, this way of conducting my exit conferences always leads to students making rude remarks, or a week of back and forth e-mails before the student fully understands that the grade is final. Rather than having ten minutes of discussion over the negative news, I have found myself sending a number of emails in explanation when I should be on Spring Break.
Sigh. I’ve never been trained to give bad messages; perhaps, this is a skill that should be taught around the time we learn multiplication. While there are always more good news meetings than bad ones, a good teacher will always feel anxious and upset over the students who didn’t pass, regardless of the circumstances. I want every one of my students to do well, which is why I agonize over the dilemma of how to talk to them during our last meeting. So my question for all of you is which is better the direct or the indirect method of giving bad news? As Freeway Flyers, we experience a variety of student personalities, so we’ve all seen the different ways students take bad news. How do you go about breaking bad news to your students?
About the Freeway Flyer: Jenny Ortiz is a quite serious 24-year-old New Yorker, except when unicorns (specifically chubby unicorns) are involved. When she isn’t pleading with Kurt Sutter via Twitter to be her mentor, she is teaching at St. John’s University, Adelphi University, and LaGuardia Community College (see, quite serious). When she isn’t teaching, she’s hanging out with her friends showing off earth and water bending skills (not serious, but super fun). When she is alone and it’s raining, she likes to read Haruki Murakami, or listen to the Broken Bells and daydream. If you want to be a fan, you can read Jenny’s work on fictionatwork.com, Blink-ink.com, Jersey Devil Press, dogeatcrow.com, Eighty Percent Magazine and InkSpill Magazine…or you can follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/jnylynn.