November 8th, 2017

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.

  • antiutopia

    I think there’s a better way to frame this discussion rather than using the words “entitlement.” We need to start with the fact that, in the classroom, teachers and students are not equals. Students don’t have the same educational level, life experience (usually), or personal accomplishments as their teachers in most cases. I have taught students who I believed had much more raw intelligence than me (great experience), but they still weren’t as educated as I am — they haven’t done the reading yet. And despite their superior intelligence, I still have to figure out a way to advance their learning as best as I can -for them-, which is often in ways that are very different from other students in the classroom. So I’m still a teacher to them. I still have something to offer.

    Students who don’t understand this are often actively resistant to learning from the day they walk in to the classroom, so denying it only hurts student learning.

    This isn’t to justify rudeness or discount good educational practices such as providing rationales for the work that we assign or the grades that we give. But acknowledging this fact isn’t a sense of entitlement either — it’s just reality, and students who don’t acknowledge it are delusional (and so are teachers for that matter).

    The opposite end of teacher entitlement — a teacher’s abdication of his or her position for the sake of being “student centered” — is far more destructive than teacher entitlement. It is often accompanied by gross grade inflation, an exaggerated sense of ability or accomplishment on the part of the student, and active student distrust of any instructor who doesn’t think just like abdicating teachers, who are often very controlling, just in passive aggressive ways. Student centered learning is great, but only in the sense that we’re serving -students-, or people who are actively engaged in and take ownership of their learning process, not customers who demand gratification on their terms.

    So rather than thinking of “entitlement,” perhaps we should just focus on best strategies. Yes, I explain my rationale, because that helps students learn. I set deadlines and meet them to model good behavior for students, because that helps them learn. They also need that feedback before the next assignment is due, which also helps students learn. But at the same time, if I promise feedback on Friday, don’t deliver it until Monday, and their next paper isn’t due until the following Friday, it’s not the end of the world — and yes, sometimes pressing things are dropped on my desk at the last minute that makes me put off grading student papers.

  • Laura Lawrence

    Students sometimes assume their instructors will be inflexible or lack understanding of their situations. They may believe that challenging the professor, even if it is a very reasonable request, will result in a lower grade. It can be hard to convince students that we and they have the same goals–their education–when a good part of our job is to “punish” them via reduced points and grades when they are wrong or fail to master the material.

    I think that sports coaches and players have a similar relationship, but no matter how strict and demanding the coaches are, the players don’t seem to lose sight that the coaches are trying to help them become better players. Why don’t we often have that same positive atmosphere in our classrooms?

  • Dave Porter

    Thank you, Maryellen, for your thoughtful and generous article. I suspect your students also respond very positively to your insights and kindness. Ultimately, our students choose what they learn and what they will retain from their work in our classes. Explaining, collaborating, cajoling, and gently guiding them along can become great joys of our profession. It has been an honor to have had so many students engage so earnestly in the shared enterprise of learning in my classes. Ironically, it seems that colleagues who have attempted to gain respect by demanding it, often have achieved just the opposite. The teachers I have had that I respected & admired most were also the ones who were the most humble and patient, but they were incredible thinkers and communicators. Cheers to all who do & will continue to carry this tradition forward.

  • Corinne Whitney

    Agreed, that students may not have the same educational level, life experience or personal accomplishments. However, that does not preclude them from having certain expectations of faculty in the classroom. The article (for me) is a great reminder that nurturing growth in their education, contributing to new life experiences and working with them to achieve greater things is a part of what keeps us grounded and connected to our purpose for being in the classroom.