Saturday, November 15, 2008
A disagreement between a student and a teacher
Last Wednesday there was a disagreement between a student and a faculty member. I know about it because I overheard part of the discussion. On Thursday night I went to a lecture discussing teenage behavior and this put a question in my mind as to who was more mature on Wednesday-- the student or the faculty member. I will do my best to explain the story, but keep in mind that most of what I know is from being an unwilling witness. Part of the time I was trying to ignore the discussion, but when security was called I found myself in the middle. This is an open discussion and I welcome your opinion.
One of the skills a reference librarian needs to learn is listening and trying to figure out not just what the reader says they want but also what they really need. This a skill that also applies to the supervision of employees and as I learned on Thursday listening is one skill needed within one's family. The expression of the skill varies with the situation. Within a family love and family relations are involved. This relationship do not exist in the work place.
Some background -- The Writing Center has its office in the library a few feet from the reference desk. It is staffed by writing "experts" who other than proximity have no connection with the library. Sometimes they send "clients" to the reference desk for research help. They see "clients" by appointment and on a walk-in basis, however, they encourage appointments. Frequently the library staff directs students to the Writing Center (I say this in jest -- the students can't seem to read the 18 inch letters on the Writing Center sign.) I will refer to the student as "S" and the teacher as "T."
S made an appointment for 6:00 for the Writing Center and was assigned to see T. They had never met before. S arrived at 6:06. T was meeting with another student. The next part of the story I am not sure about what really happened. I overheard them talking and was debating whether to ask them to talk quieter. I didn't approach them. Had another library user complained I would have acted immediately. T (evidently) told S that since S was late, T thought he wasn't coming. T started helping a walk-in. S didn't like that. The appointment was scheduled for 30 minutes and S was held up talking to another teacher in another part of the building. S was annoyed. ( I did not hear any shouting.) T accused S of being aggressive and combative. Faculty members are not supposed to fight with students. They are supposed to call security.
At this moment I stepped out of the library to visit the men's room. While I was gone T had the library staff call security because the Writing Center does not have a phone. I walked back into the library before security got there. I was wearing a black suit coat and a name tag. I am tall I can look very official or threatening. Seeing them at the circulation desk I though T was referring S to me for help. I said in my most helpful tone, "May I help you?" S thought I was security and began telling his story. I listened and told him that I was the reference librarian. Then security showed up and T told his side of the story. I retreated, but I could hear most of what when on.
The library director, who was also wearing a dark suit jacket, heard part of the discussion with S, T and security. In reviewing the events, the director said that he and I should have handled it as the "Men in Black." (But he was joking. )
What can you learn from this concerning reference? Learn to listen without making judgments. Validate what each person has to say without making judgments as to who was right and wrong. Learn to step aside when you do not own the problem and really have no way of solving the problem. Sometimes, just listening will help people solve their own problems.
What should have happened? First the student should have thought "Do I trust such a teacher to help me? Is there another person who can help?" There were three librarians nearby who may have been able to give just as much help. T should have thought how to help both students. The librarian should learn to stay out of disagreements that concern other departments. Choose which battles to fight. S should have retreated and reported the incident to the director of the Writing Center. (However -- here is my rant -- too often I have seen reactions from the administration that indicate a serious lack of understanding the faculty member. I would never say a faculty member or administrator made a mistake in front of a library user. In this case I was a witness and if asked I would give my opinion to the administration. I have witnessed at least two other incidents with T that indicate a lack of professionalism. One act could have even been potentially dangerous.)
Librarians deal with management issues. Based on what I learned on Thursday, we should listen to the people and validate that we are listening. Sometimes active listening will help the people solve their own problem. If a decision needs to be made, explain your case, listen, and make your decision. If you argue or nag the person may just turn you out. Sometimes you don't need to give a reason. If you don't give a reason, the other person has no grounds to wear you down with counter arguments.
I hope this does not sound preachy. I just think that the combination of the Wednesday event in the library and the Thursday lecture helped me understand the people's actions. In the words of Dr Phil, "Would you rather be happy or right?" S could have gotten much more help if he stopped arguing and invested his time in getting real help and then writing his paper. T could have saved a lot of time if he just stopped the arguing and figured out a way to give S and the other student help.
What do you think? This is a discussion.
Comment from Jean M. Gerber
For your part I believe you handled it correctly by not getting involved. If the Writing Center was managed by the library you might have had to step in, but since it is just housed there you shouldn't be involved unless as you mentioned they were bothering patrons of the library.
Both the teacher and student were at fault. The student was late, but since he did have a half hour block, the teacher could have still helped them explaining that he needs to help another student, also.
The student should expect that due to their lateness, the teacher may have been helping another student and may not get the teacher's full attention.
As a teacher I deal with issues like this all of the time. Confrontation never works from both sides. Good listening is one of the most important skills you can develop. You need to listen to the person's argument and understand where they are coming from before you can make any judgments. Most problems occur when people rush to judgment. It seems like both the teacher and student did this and were somewhat unreasonable. If one party becomes irate or unreasonable then it is time to call for assistance.
A teacher should never have to deal with a student out-of-control, especially in front of other students. The same would go for a librarian. People in our society today seem to quickly move to anger when things don't go exactly as they want. It is a shame people can't take the time to relax, listen and not rush to judgment.
Most arguments could be avoided.