Being the professional mean guy?

At the start of the semester for the course I TA, I get to wrap up the first week with a second semi-syllabus day, and cover some minor details that need covering but aren’t worth the instructor’s course time to cover. The material is mostly procedural, and very dry, things like how to get excused from the course for an interview so you don’t lose credit. One of the things I try to make abundantly clear to the students is that it is my intention to treat them as professionals, co-workers almost, but that I have certain expectations of them that they absolutely need to meet.

Overall I think they respond well to this. Inevitably even in a class of mostly seniors, they are not prepared for the notion that they will have to be proactive, I will not seek them out. I explain to them on this intro day, “tell me about issues when they happen so I can work with you” yet every class has a few students who wind up waiting until the days before grades are due to tell me about some computer issue that kept them from submitting things for the entire third and fourth weeks of the class and they need those points to make whatever grade.

It’s at that point I wind up being the mean guy in their eyes, because they want the grade they feel they’ve earned. (maybe there’s a conditioned behavior in there) But I won’t give in. I tend to stick very strictly to the classroom policies and become the mean guy who won’t budge.

I don’t necessarily enjoy denying the students the grades they want. But I also take the classroom environment very seriously, how is it fair to the students who followed policies I established (and have an attendance record for when I said them) to bend the rules “just this once” and what would that do to my credibility. So I guess that just makes me the professional mean guy, a role I think I am ok with, I just wish I didn’t have to deal with the disappointed students who don’t get the grades they feel they deserve.

12 Replies to “Being the professional mean guy?”

  1. I was faced with this situation the past few weeks in my class too. And I have also observed that some of senior and junior level students are not quite prepared to behave as professionals in their future work environments, based on their behavior as students. One of the things I want my students to remember about my teaching and classes is that I taught them and made them work on things that were applicable and useful to them, even if they didn’t see it at the time. I think that trying to teach professional behavior and personal responsibility is a truly valuable thing to teach to your students, maybe more than the subject matter sometimes. While I am affronted by rude student emails and demands, I won’t hold it against them personally for more than about a weekend and would completely forgive them for their inappropriate behavior if they learned through the experience. But their current and future bosses and coworkers may not be so forgiving, so I am hoping students are learning something from having to follow the rules in my class and in your class too, the “professional mean guy who won’t fire you”.

    1. Hopefully one day they process the benefit of the “professional mean guy who wont fire you” I think thats an excellent description

  2. It’s OK to be a ‘mean’ teacher as long as you made everything clear in advance. There are always students have all kinds of excuses about the missed deadline, like printer not working and submission not going through. But deadline is deadline. If the teachers just give these students the points, it’s unfair to the rest of the class. Also, I think to take the classroom environment seriously sometime involves students more because most of students worry about losing points by not following the rules.

    1. Some do step up, but an alarming number of them continue business as usual. It can be a little disheartening, like the number of emails i got the night before demanding points from a trivial assignment when I’m trying to stay on top of email outside of normal business hours for exam questions.

  3. I had a professor who was well-known for his strict grading and class policies. He won’t let go any unsatisfied situation. And eventually, we all respect him and followed his rules because, in his class, rules mean rules.

  4. Hi Ethan, I think your post resonates with many of us. It is always uncomfortable to deal with unprofessional behaviors of the students, whether being strict or being very nice. The same thing happens if they just rely on asking the teacher or the TA for whatever obstacle they have without thinking. Should we reject or should we hold their hands? Maybe we can give it a try to play nice and excuse them for the first time. And then talk about the rules again in front of the overall class after the first week. To be honest, I don’t think the students will relate well to class policies, awards, or penalties during the first introduction class for the semester, and it is very time-consuming. They will relate much better when there is an outcome from their own behaviors or their classmates’. After this, they will respect the rules better and accept that there will be no more excuses.

  5. I also fall into the ‘mean-b**tard’ category of teachers, nice to meet another!
    I wouldn’t (and don’t) feel bad about these kinds of situations; learning from your mistakes is one of the most efficient learning methods available. I have several undergraduate technicians working for me, and each pay-period they must submit a timesheet with all of the hours that they worked that month. It is amazing how difficult some find this task. If I try to be a nice guy, week after week some students don’t bother turning anything in, some hand me a sheet with more mistakes than seems physically possible, etc. However, don’t pay them for one pay period, and for the rest of eternity they submit their hours on time with no errors. Go figure.

    1. True, when they lose more points than they wanted once, they never seem to miss out again

      Really glad Im not alone in this mentality with students

  6. I am really, really bad at being the mean guy. It seems to me like this is much more difficult than being the nice guy for almost everybody. I think age and year actually make a difference here — I teach mostly freshmen and sophomores, most of whom are still getting used to college. A little bit of hand holding with them strikes me as more appropriate than for a graduating senior. I’ll echo Kaisen here — whether you’re “nice” or “mean,” making your expectations clear in advance is the most important part. You need to be transparent and follow through on what you say you’ll do if you expect students to do this, too.

  7. I like your expression – “professional mean guy” hahaha. I think that is a really difficult task to be mean. I heard many stories about students who came to the TA crying or being angry because of their grades. I didn’t have those experiences yet, but I have no idea how I should react to that kinds of situations if it happens to me. Specifically, if a student says he or she will lose the scholarship because of 1 point in my class, that would be a hard situation to conclude.

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