What about Teacher Entitlement?

professor giving a lecture

Last post on entitlement (I promise, at least for a while), but Dave Porter’s comment to the recent post on responding to entitlement identified something I’ve been thinking about but hadn’t clearly recognized—teacher entitlement. He writes that in his nearly 40 years in the classroom he’s “seen more instances of teacher ‘entitlement’ than student entitlement.” He continues, “I think clarity, mutual respect, and reciprocity have a great deal to do with the expectations teachers and students have of one another. As teachers, we create the game; it’s seems a little disingenuous to blame our students for playing it.”

Teaching Professor Blog And what does teacher entitlement look like? The extreme cases are easy to spot. I knew a faculty member who used wax pencils and transparencies to show solutions to problem sets. It was “expected” that students would clean the transparencies for him. I doubt that many readers of a blog like this one would act toward students in seriously entitled ways. But what makes so many of us good teachers is our willingness to examine our practice with a keenly critical eye that recognizes how small details can convey significant messages.

Another insight that came to me through Dave’s comment was that it identifies another way to prevent and change students’ entitled attitudes. If we act in ways that aren’t entitled, ways that treat students with respect, that deliver the quality educational experiences they deserve, our leadership creates a different set of expectations. If we say we’ll have the test/paper/projects grades done by Friday, we meet that deadline. We don’t come to class on Friday with excuses and a promise that maybe they’ll be graded by Monday. We arrive to class on time, not several minutes late because we’re busy and important and just expect students to show respect by waiting for us to show up. When students come to us with questions after class, we keep our phones away and talk with them rather than sort of half-listen and try to steal glances to see what messages we might have missed. Respect extended is generally respect returned. And when it isn’t, we stand tall and give students part of what a college experience entitles them to receive.

The difference between student and teacher entitlement is that students have to ask for what they may not deserve. We don’t have to ask. We may apologize for not having the papers graded, but we don’t need to ask for an extension. We may explain the rationale behind our margin size requirement, but we don’t have to. We have the power to require margins of any size. We can say no to a request for extra credit and with that end the conversation. In most cases, there are good reasons behind what we’re having students do, but those reasons may not be known to students and without the rationale, they can look like entitled actions. Now, I don’t think students would ever say we’re acting “entitled”—I don’t even think they know that their requests for deadline extensions, a few more points, or consideration of how hard they’re working are entitled. Rather, our behavior comes across as teachers making rules, doing what they can do, even when there’s no obvious reason for doing it that way. And that’s a use of power that can get in the way of learning, much the same way their entitled requests get in the way of teaching.

Dave’s insight is powerful—we do set the rules. Are they rules that make learning a game that students want to play? Or, are they rules that beg to be challenged? Rules that encourage students to find ways around them? Rules that aren’t related to learning, but are matters of personal preference? And how might the game change if we got students involved in setting some of those rules?

I think it’s easy to forget how strongly our behavior influences what students do, what they say, how they feel, and what they think. Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as role models. We are flawed humans who happen to know a lot about a particular content domain, but teaching puts us in a position of leadership. We shouldn’t pretend that it doesn’t or downplay the responsibilities that come with leading others to learning.