Last year while teaching, I got a truly terrible email from a student. For the sake of privacy and confidentiality, I’m not going to post the entire letter here, but I’ll do my best to give you a sense of the dread and hurt I felt when reading it.
Setting the Scene
I had met the student in question once, and only once, at our second tutorial. After not showing up for multiple weeks, or hearing from him, I followed the school procedure and emailed him, his personal tutor, and the department within the school responsible for engagement. I should add, that the student had no adjustments on record. As far as I knew, nothing was wrong. I sent a very matter of fact email, as I myself am – I outlined the number of absences, reminded the student that 20% of their grade depended on attendance and participation and that if they could not attend class for a legitimate reason I should be told. I informed the student who else I had copied in, and I sent the email.
Early in the morning, a week after I sent the email, on the day of our tutorial that week, the student responded. The response was about 5 times as long as the one I had sent, and it made me feel awful. It accused me of being uncaring, and inconsiderate (being caring and considerate are two things I pride myself on in my personal life and in my tutoring). The student listed in detail a large number of things he was struggling with and blamed me for not noticing. I was apparently ‘passive aggressive’ and lacked empathy. I read the email, finished my coffee, and then I had to go teach back to back classes, from 9-11 am. To this day they are the worst tutorials I have ever had to teach. The email had thrown me off completely, and in unexpected ways. I like to think I am a difficult person to faze, and while I still think that is true, this email fazed me a lot.
The student in question, mercifully, did not go to class.
After I finished teaching, I reread the email. It took reading it at least 10 times before I realized that I did not know how to respond and that as awful as the email made me feel, it probably was not an accurate reflection on my teaching. The more I read it, the more I noticed, and the angrier I got. The student called me ‘staff’, inverted commas and all. The email was inappropriate and aggressive, but I still had to respond.
Below is what I did to navigate the situation, and what I took away from it.
Advice for The Aftermath
- Do not respond immediately. I’m not saying you should leave the student waiting for weeks, absolutely do not do that either. But they can wait a few hours for you to respond. The initial sense of concern, self-doubt, followed by rage and extreme annoyance is not conducive to you replying in a meaningful or helpful way. Take a while, soak it in, clear your head, and then respond.
- If you are unsure about your response, or how to respond, or even if you should ask someone. Emails like this can cause a whole host of problems for you, the student, and the university. Especially for relatively new tutors, it is very important that you talk to someone with more teaching experience than you on how to respond. I went to my supervisor. My supervisor happens to focus quite heavily on student pastoral care, which helped a lot. I let him read through everything – emails I had sent, what the student had sent. From there we tried to get more information on the student himself – was he going to other classes? Were there adjustments being processed that just hadn’t gone through? After a long conversation with him, and consultations with the academic responsible for the student’s pastoral care, we drafted a response together (my supervisor blind copied into it). I wouldn’t have been able to do this without him talking me through the potential ramifications of various phrases.
- Acknowledge the difficulty – Responding to the student’s personal struggles and apologize for potentially making them worse is important. Even though the email sent to me was deeply unacceptable, the student was clearly struggling. Acknowledging that and my potential role in making it worse on that day was important. Mental health problems are serious – I do not think they excuse his email, but they certainly played a role.
- Point out any potential misunderstandings – The way my university system works is that pastoral care advisors do not often tell academic tutors when a student is struggling if that student does not already have an adjustment. This means that students are responsible for keeping academic tutors informed. Depending on the severity of the issue, students sometimes assume that isn’t the case. Pointing this out for future and by way of explanation, was a good thing to do.
- Correct the behaviour – My supervisor and I had a long discussion about this part. He thought it would be okay for me to leave out, I was adamant that the student needed to be told his email was unacceptable. Especially as I suspect, though cannot prove, that a male tutor in my position would not have gotten a similar email from this student. We compromised, and I added a short two sentences at the end informing him that such an email and tone was unacceptable to all university staff. No inverted commas around staff this time.
- My ‘You’ve missed class this many times’ emails are slightly less rigid now. I’m a straightforward person and I see that it could come across in the initial email as being cold, and impersonal. I now always add a sentence or two letting the students know I am available to talk about anything they need if something is wrong. I think it is problematic to assume everyone misses class because something is wrong, however, often things are. Giving students an option to talk about those wrongs is important.
- Talk and listen to others. Other people’s experience is perhaps the most valuable teaching tool you will have for specific teaching tools, and also reassurance. My supervisor and various friends that read the email, instantly reassured me that while could have done things better, I didn’t do anything wrong. I wasn’t an awful tutor.
I hope this never happens to you. Or, if it does, I hope this will help. When in doubt just breathe and take a step back – reflection always helps. Once you are really removed from the situation, let Pubs and Pubs know – they’ll let you reflect on it to a wider audience.
This post was kept anonymous the tutor, the student and the institution. If you’d like to get in touch with the author, please contact us on twitter @pubsandpubs or by email and we will pass your message along.
Image – The Blue Diamond Gallery