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Incivility and Self-Doubt in the Social Work Classroom: A Survivor’s Tale
By Sarabeth Leukefeld, MSW

Many social work doctoral students dream of teaching their own classes and having appreciative students capturing every erudite point, eagerly posing questions, and engaging in stimulating discussions.

Not me. In fact, for years, the thought of standing in front of a room full of students almost made me ill. I truly believed I would never teach; however, my advisor had other plans. He simply ordered me to teach. And in the spirit of extending my purview, I very reluctantly agreed that gaining teaching experience might be a good idea, especially if I were to decide to join a university faculty in the future.

That was how I found myself lying awake for hours, not only the night before my debut as “The Expert,” but for many hours on many nights during the summer leading up to “The Big Day.”

All summer I tried to prepare myself for the inevitable. I reasoned with myself that at least I was teaching an introductory policy course—something I might enjoy. At least I inherited a newly structured course with a complete syllabus and three signature assignments. And the list of “at leasts” went on.

I met with my teaching advisor multiple times during the summer. I asked everyone I knew for advice. “Don’t let them know you’re a doctoral student.” “Don’t tell them you’ve never taught before.” “Tell them you’re a doctoral student.” “Make them call you ‘professor.’” “Dress the part.” “Tell them to call you by your first name.” “Don’t lecture—ever.” “You’re the one in charge, so act like it!”

Alongside the intimidating and often conflicting pieces of advice everyone kindly offered me was a nagging voice in the back of my head: “You’re going to fail. You can’t manage a classroom. You don’t have the knowledge necessary to bestow grades on the poor, unsuspecting students who have the misfortune of being in your class. You certainly won’t be able to teach anyone anything and absolutely not in an effective way. You’re going to singlehandedly ruin an entire generation of social workers.”

As you can tell, I was well prepped for failure when I crossed the threshold of the classroom on my first day.

There I stood, suddenly (and inexplicably) anointed as The Expert, in front of a room full of inquisitive, bored, ambivalent, quizzical, suspecting students. And off I went into the abyss of horror that I had always known teaching would be. My worst nightmares were realized in the form of student athletes—three star basketball players—with serious entitlement issues. Their negative behavioral issues in the classroom were innumerable and included talking, laughing, inappropriate use of cell phones, throwing things, rolling things, doing bicep curls and leg lifts with desks, flipping the ponytail of the woman at the neighboring desk, shining watch-sunlight reflections on my rear end as I walked through the classroom lecturing, casually strolling to the trash can in the middle of class—not to mention sleeping and yelling during class.

It had never occurred to me that I would have the experience of dealing with middle and high school-level behaviors in a college classroom. In my wildest dreams, of all that could go wrong in the classroom, I did not for one second believe I would have to be a referee, Ms. Manners, and a teacher at the same time, but my first semester teaching I had to.

On the other hand, even though three students made me dread getting up every Tuesday and Thursday for months, there were 17 other students in the classroom, and they weren’t so bad. In fact, quite a few of them seemed interested and even, on occasion, engaged.

Right around midterm, the students seemed to warm up (17 of them, anyway), and we began having class discussions that weren’t like unanesthetized surgery. Students began questioning each other respectfully. They began calling me by name instead of saying “Excuse me” or, my personal favorite, “Hey!” And some students even solicited my advice.

But the biggest and most momentous change that occurred was the change within me. I began to believe in myself. Before then, I felt like an imposter every time I darkened the doorway of the classroom, prepared an activity, or graded an assignment. Once the shadows were gone, my view of the students and of the classroom changed. I no longer felt like I had to be somebody or something I wasn’t. I began referring to the class as “my class” instead of as “the class I am teaching.” I began to take ownership of the class, and I began to finally act more like myself. When I did, the students responded! As I became more genuine, they followed suit. It was as if a shroud of darkness had somehow been lifted, and it felt good.

As I reflect on the semester—the semester during which I believed I might actually die from a stress-related disorder—I am surprised at some of the things I find. I was able to uncover a part of me that actually enjoys teaching. Despite all the worry and physical pain I felt from the stress of teaching, I was able to connect with students in the classroom. I was able to reveal a bit of myself and in doing so, I became a good teacher.

Only after I began letting my personality, rather than my intellectual idea of The Expert, do the work, did I realize that I had been teaching effectively all along. When I saw every student in the classroom, all 20 of them, making eye contact with me as I told them how my high school friend had escaped near-certain death in the killing fields of Cambodia, I knew I was a teacher. It had only taken 28 class meetings for me to realize it.

Another discovery I made as I reflect on that semester is that I can get used to just about anything. When my teaching advisor came to observe me in class one day, she noted how distracting and disrespectful one of the student-athletes was as he did bicep curls with his desk. It occurred to me only then that it would seem very strange to an outside observer that I had done nothing to stop those behaviors while I lectured, led discussions, and answered questions.

It also occurred to me that every time students did presentations, every time we watched videos, had a guest speaker, or did other activities that required me to sit down and observe, I sat next to the bicep enhancer to continuously monitor and curb his behaviors. I had begun doing so consciously at the beginning of the semester to stem the flow of rudeness, and it became second nature pretty quickly.

I told my teaching advisor that I had chosen to ignore the mostly innocuous bicep curl and leg press with the desk behaviors because it did not disturb other students, it allowed the student some freedom to move his 6-foot 11-inch frame and, at the same time, it allowed me the freedom from constant verbal behavior correction.

All in all, that semester was a painful introduction to the world of teaching that turned out better than I could have ever anticipated. Much like the diminutive David who fought Goliath and put an end to his unrelenting insults and disrespect, I won my fight against the three Goliaths who permeated my classroom with apathy, insolence, and disinterest. I was able to conquer the lethargy and indifference of the rest of the class as well, and I did so by letting go of my insecurities and letting my true self come to the forefront. For the majority of the semester I had fooled myself into believing that I was acting like myself in the classroom but not until the 25 class meeting when I found myself semiyodeling “Heeellloooo!” to get the students’ attention after small group work did I fully understand that I had not been myself at all.

Thus, I would like to offer some words of advice to first-time college instructors. First and foremost, try not to psych yourself out before you even walk through your classroom door. Make no mistake: It is your classroom. Remind yourself that you’re teaching for a reason. Maybe it’s to reach a lifelong goal you’ve had since you were a child, and maybe it is, like me, to fulfill an expectation someone else has of you. Whatever the reason, you are there because someone, whether it’s you, your advisor, your mentor, or your dad, believes in you. Rely on those who do have faith and confidence in your abilities. They’ll help you get through your darkest hours. Believe me, you’ll begin to have faith in yourself soon enough.

Another bit of advice I wish I had heeded sooner is that once you walk into the classroom as the instructor, remember that you’re in charge. You have the authority. The students look at you as the “Grand Poobah of the Classroom.” There is no need for you to be intimidated since you hold all the cards. However, wield those aces carefully. Be respectful of students. Listen to them and be kind. But, in the end, remember that you are in charge.

A two-part question I always ask myself when faced with a decision about, for example, make-up exams or whether to explain something during a test to a student whose second language is English is this: Would you do this for every other student in the class and would you feel comfortable telling everyone in the class what you have done for the student? If the answer is yes, I feel free to proceed. But if the answer is no, I stop short and tell the student no. As long as you have a defensible argument for the decisions you make, you will be fine.

Rest assured that you are imparting knowledge to students who are hungry for it. Of course, not all students are interested or are even mentally present in class. But for the students who are interested, you are the bearer of facts and wisdom. Revel in that. Impart information to your students utilizing the most interesting, stimulating, and engaging methods you can put together. Make the classroom environment fun and interactive. Show films, use YouTube and other Internet videos to stimulate interest, invite guest speakers, and most of all, use yourself, your insight, your knowledge, and your humor to guide the students and help them see that the history of the social work profession is exciting and relevant.

Finally, it is important, especially as a new instructor, to become intimately acquainted with your inner state of calmness. When you look up during your lecture to see a giant basketball player who is the subject of national news reports twirling his neighbor’s pink umbrella in the aisle, picture him, as I did, in your beginning ballet class twirling a pink parasol alongside your 4-year-old self and laugh. When a student says his tutor wasn’t there so he couldn’t watch the assigned film outside class, simply remind him that the assignment has been on the syllabus since the first day of class. When a student stays after class, stands a little too close, looks you up and down while smirking, and asks a question you’ve answered explicitly at least three times during class, just smile, maintain eye contact, and reiterate your response. When a student asks for an extension on an assignment because he was in jail the day it was due, simply explain that being in jail does not count as an excused absence.

The most important advice I can offer to new college instructors is simple: Be yourself. Use your inner confidence to relax and let your personality shine through. Students respond well to genuineness. They can sense an instructor’s thin veneer of fakeness from three paces outside the classroom door, even if the instructor cannot see it for himself or herself. Your corny sense of humor will induce groans, but it will also elicit grins. Your habit of always turning off the wrong set of lights when you’re about to use the projector will be the subject of eye rolls, but it will also provoke laughs.

As instructors, we don’t need to be anything but the fallible human beings we are. We don’t have to be otherworldly experts who float around nefariously above the heads of our students. We need to be in charge, down to earth, approachable, and genuine. When we are, students will respond in kind.

— Sarabeth Leukefeld, MSW, is a doctoral student in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky and coordinates a program for students who receive Temporary Assistant for Needy Families benefits.