miss carrots is back, or, my plans to become a Mean Teacher

The film industry has led us to believe that the best teachers are the quirkiest.  The outsiders.  The misunderstood jesters who make us stand on our desks, or the shrewd upper-middle-class educators who tame inner city classrooms with nothing but tousled haircuts and sharp tongues.  We are encouraged to admire the unorthodox types whose wide-eyed virtues are offset by a school administration that is always married to outdated policies and sometimes borderline barbaric.

When we’re sitting on the couch with our bowl of hot popcorn, we like teachers who stick it to the man.

Viola Swamp, from Allard & Marshall

But I realized something this afternoon as I began calculating final grades for the undergraduates in my survey of children’s literature course.  I realized that while, in the abstract, I admire teachers and professors who bend the rules — because really, I love Dead Poet’s Society –I really admire the mean ones.  I like professors who threaten expulsion at the slightest hint of plagiarism.  I like those who aren’t afraid to stick to merciless attendance policies and who can hand back, without flinching, writing assignments dripping with red pen gore.

I don’t mean the senselessly cruel or irresponsible teachers, but those who have seemingly thorny exteriors tempered by an open-office-door policy.  A touch of hostility balanced by a willingness to help.

I’m sure that my love of mean teachers stems in part from my nerd-dom.  I always did my work on time and followed the rules, and I appreciated professors who punished the sniveling, excuse-giving slackers who submitted late, poorly organized papers filled with irresponsible research on uninteresting topics.  But I think I love mean teachers more because they want you to earn it.  They respect you too much to hand out cookies and movies in class and easy As.  In college, when I finally got to the place where I had friendly and constructive relationships with these professors, I felt like I had arrived.  And then I went back to the library.

All of this is a preface to one of Carrots’ Summer Projects: Project Mean Teacher.  I can be a total softie.  I am sometimes a marshmallow in the classroom.  This is a problem.  I need to figure out a way to be the sort of mean teacher that inspires hard work, attention in class, and a little bit of fear.  I have my successful strategies, but they can always use some polishing.  My friend Sasha has volunteered to give me a few new ideas about establishing my unbending and Mean Teacher authority on the first day of class, and in the meantime I’m going to be tweaking airtight syllabi and devising thoughtful but fair responses to awkward student encounters.  And boy oh boy, after this semester I’m drafting an “email etiquette” handout to distribute on Day One.

As I’m writing this I’m wondering if it’s ill-advised to discuss my classroom challenges online.  What if a potential employer finds The Blog?  But I think it’s responsible and important to reflect on my pedagogy at the end of the semester — to measure my performance against those professors I admire most — and to formulate a plan to begin bridging the gap.

What?  You need an extension?  The printer in the lab is out of ink?  You left the assignment sheet in your ex-boyfriend’s dorm room?  In the famous words of my favorite high school English teacher, poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.

[How did I sound?  Convincing?]

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14 thoughts on “miss carrots is back, or, my plans to become a Mean Teacher

  1. I’m also too nice. I have to set out stricter policies for next year to prevent students from taking advantage of said niceness, but I don’t have grades to hang over their heads, so I guess I’m afraid that they’ll simply quit coming to me. Which would be counter-productive.

    You could do as Tommy does, of course. Give a six-hour final. They sure hated him for that. And when they got drunk enough at the farewell, started accosting him about it. It was kind of funny. And sad.

    • A six-hour final! But I suppose that makes sense, if he’s preparing students for the bar. I’m not sure I have the patience and fortitude to GRADE a six-hour final.

  2. Eric loves to call me “Mean Professor Fong”–mostly because I’m not very understanding to students who expect me to bend over backwards to make their lives easier. I refer to them as the “Ninny-Twits,” This leads to some pretty spiteful evals, but at least I know the context to not take those individual ones too seriously. I do, as you importantly note, have a big open door policy. I even tell students on the first day if you have the foresight to come in an say “I’m having a tough time with this paper, can I have a couple more days” a week or even two days in advance–then I’m more than happy to work with them. But go MIA for three weeks and then come skulking in with an excuse about mono, car trouble, anxiety disorders, 3 dead relatives and 2 dead pets, no dice.

    • Ryan, if I could somehow spin it as a research expense — and if I was still eligible for research funding from Rice — I would travel to California to observe you mean professorness, which I greatly admire.

    • I remember the Wayside books were ALWAYS checked out from the library. I seem to remember one story in particular about a girl deciding on a tattoo and finally choosing a potato.

  3. Well first establish you policy in writing. What the rules are. What happens if they don’t turn in papers. Make them sign it keep a copy. Then enforce what you have written. If they argue with it you now have a way to prove they agreed to it. Secondly be careful about the line between holding someone accountable and just out and out meaness. Being held accountable to what you do makes us excel. However life does happen. Not every exscuse is based in fantasy.

    • I do have the writing policies included in the syllabus and on every assignment, but using it as a contract is pretty awesome. I’ll have to try that.

      And I don’t think out and out meanness is my problem.

  4. hahaha i totally loved mean teachers who punished people who didn’t follow the rules bc i was such a friggin nerd! you must be mean for the future generation of nerds who always hand in their homework on time!

  5. I LOVE your new philosophy! 🙂 Embrace it! You should totes call Mrs. Baker and get tips. Especially now, I appreciate Mrs. B’s M.O. If I were to file something with a court that had the wrong font or format or margin, it would be rejected. I were to file something late (which I never would because, you know, Mrs. B and all that), same. You can call the court clerk and cry all you want and give any lame excuse, but you’re screwed since the rules were right there in black and white. Of course, I am also in the most rule-following profession imaginable, but still. Mrs. B helped prep me for that. When you penalize your students for failing to follow rules, you are merely preparing them for the rest of their lives, where no one cares that their printer broke and there are real consequences. I say go for it! Yay Vee!

    Also, you should buy a ewe sweater. That is all.

    • I also want to emulate Mrs. Baker’s grammar lessons. Probably at least half of my undergraduates need them. But undergrads get restless when you talk grammar.

      And the court sounds a lot like the Office of Graduate Studies, which is rumored to break out the ruler and deny you a degree if your margins are wrong.

  6. Actually, that’s one of the (many) reasons I won’t homeschool: because I’m a nice mommy but a mean teacher and I like it that way. Someone else can be my kids’ mean teacher who they later learn taught them more than all their other teachers combined.

    • I suppose that’s why I’ve seen so many books about the fraught relationships between parents and kids born of homeschooling. My cousin homeschools her kids, and I admire it, but I know I couldn’t handle it myself.

      Besides, Meg. You already are a birth guru. You grow food you can eat. You are a superwoman!

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