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One of my students' behaviour just feels always disrespectful to me. A homework was due tonight, and she asked me yesterday evening how to solve multiple questions. I try to respond as soon as I can, so I replied to her this morning. She asked me a lot of questions and though I already answered her question, I guess she was confused, and kept asking the same question to which I had already answered to.

I wanted to avoid giving her the wrong advice due to miscommunication, so I told her to attend an office hour this evening, which is a couple of hours before the deadline. She then told me she has a family dinner to attend, so she can't attend an office hour by then and needs me to answer immediately. I would understand if I had a class today, but I don't, so I told her that I'm busy and cannot respond right now and that she should go check out the office hour. Was this unreasonable of me? I'm scared of being upfront with her as it may lead to a negative teaching evaluation.

  1. She emails me the evening on the day before the deadline
  2. She expects me to answer immediately as she cannot attend an office hour because of her family dinner.
  3. I've already answered her question. She should go back and think instead of fetching the answers from me. I apologize whenever I can't meet her demands, but she keeps replying "no worries". "No worries"??? No, you have to be more respectful. When she comes to class, she also asks me questions that are not related to the work we are currently doing in class.

What are your thoughts?

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happypenguin is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
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  • 22
    She then told me she has a family dinner to attend so she can't attend an office hour --- . . . and you just remembered that you have a family dinner (or have to wash your hair, walk your dog, brush your teeth, clean out your closet, etc.) before your office hour and you can't discuss her problems before your office hour . . . she also asks me questions that are not related to the work we are currently doing in class --- FYI, you may want to consider whether there might be something non-academic motivating her questions. Nov 24 at 11:18
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    please edit the question what you wrote in a comment: I'm scared of doing that as it may lead to a negative teaching eval. I am really sorry hearing you are under this constant threat. Please add a country tag as well. We need to know where this crap is happening.
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 24 at 12:48
  • 14
    Can you explain what you find rude about "no worries"? The general behavior you describe certainly comes across as entitled and pushy, but I don't see anything particularly wrong with someone replying "no worries" to an apology. Sure, it isn't super formal, but it's perfectly civil.
    – terdon
    2 days ago
  • 4
    I'm not the one to be apologizing but I just say it to keep it amicable, so she should not be saying "no worries" she should be the one apologizing for pestering me so much with out considering about other students and my time. I know it's my fault as I should've been more firm but I did after all this and all she did was like my text and didn't even say a single thank you or apologize. She's so entitled, I don't give a f about your thanksgiving family plans, what about mine? Respect my time. 2 days ago
  • 3
    It seems that you are responding to emails with an extreme frequency, and make yourself available even through chat. This will not be healthy for you in the long term, it will fragment your day and prevent you from organizing your time efficiently. Consider setting aside a time slot every day to respond to students emails. Whatever comes in after that slot can be dealt with the next day.
    – Szabolcs
    2 days ago

8 Answers 8

63

Stop apologizing and be clear and firm. Don't make excuses.

I understand that you have other obligations than your studies but please understand that I too have other obligations than answering your questions. Unfortunately, you will have to arrange a way that allows you to make use of office hours or deal with the issue yourself.

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  • Thank you for the advice. I see, I'm scared of doing that as it may lead to a negative teaching eval. For context, the TAs for my university system has been going on strike this week. It was a little difficult for her to find an OH since a lot of TAs are striking but nonetheless, she could've attended today's. I also did not have any obligation to answer her during this strike but I'm just scared she will change the story and rat me out. I feel like a lot of students who complain are usually the ones to shift the blame. eg. give bad ratings to their TA bc they didn't study for their exams. Nov 24 at 9:47
  • 8
    Maybe ask the professor to remind students to make use of office hours and clarify that TAs have no obligation to answer outside office hours.
    – Roland
    Nov 24 at 9:52
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    @happypenguin In almost all student feedback surveys there are a few students who complain and are generally negative. I'd expect this to be well understood by most people who look at these evaluations, which means that one potential negative comment shouldn't be much reason to worry, as it happens all the time to everyone (even those who cannot pinpoint what went wrong with which student). By the way the kind of students you talk about here do not always write bad feedback, even if they were shown some limits at some point. Nov 24 at 10:02
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    I'd add to the be clear and firm that clarity might also come in form of making sure that all TAs roughly use the same policy - and as much as possible announce that publicly and to all students - then a student hardly can single OP out for behaviour that all TAs follow and that ideally is roughly documented by the prof as "that's how TAs are supposed to help you students" (mostly because of OP's fears of being badly evaluated it might help to make sure they are in agreement with the other TAs/ the prof when and how much to be available if that isn't clear to OP yet). 2 days ago
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    If you never received a complaint, you never did the job.
    – T Andersen
    2 days ago
13

Let me be clear: you do not need to answer questions outside of normal office hours. Students are aware of deadlines and of our office hours so it’s up to them to manage their time so they are not in the situation you describe.

I am never in a rush to answer when I get such a request outside regular hours. I made clear at the start of the term that email questions are not ideal and that discussing questions in person are much more constructive academically. It is fine to try to remove last minute confusion but if the same issue comes back again with the same student I will usually politely state that I’ve already done my best with that question.

Some students will make it a habit of being insistent and test the pliability of TAs or instructors. I have found that being polite (especially early in the term) but firm usually solves the problem.

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    Thank you so much! Ok I'll be more firm and polite from next time on and try to remind them it's their responsibility to finish their work on time. 2 days ago
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Your action was reasonable, and she should have shown some respect. It seems she took you for granted.

I faced the same situation many times with a very lazy student. She rarely went to lectures. Before any exam, she spammed my WhatsApp with a lot of questions regarding the course material. I only gave her a partial answer for any question she asked. Sometimes, she asked me if A (a very specific question) would be in the exam. I refused to answer such a question. Once, I offered a Teams meeting to help her with problem-solving. Eventually, it became very annoying. I decided to give her non-informative answers only. It might be unethical.

I wish I could have done it differently by telling her that her exams were her responsibility, not mine. She should have gone to lectures regularly instead of cramming everything just a few days before the exams. She should have asked questions during the teaching period. Then I would have been very happy to help her.

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    Thanks! Glad to hear I'm not the only one. Yeah, I can tell her it's her responsibility from next time. My student's not lazy, she has the best grades but she's just not appreciative enough. Just because she has her own "dinner", doesn't mean I'm the one to be dealing with of course if it was an emergency situation I will help but in that case she should just ask the prof for extension. Like you, I've also held extra office hours numerous times privately with her and even though I keep telling her there's office hours, she doesn't get the hint and doesn't go to any. Sorry for the rant! Nov 24 at 7:57
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    "I wish I could have done it differently [...]" - why couldn't you?
    – morxa
    Nov 24 at 8:11
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This is classic ask vs. guess culture.

In ask culture, questions have low emotional involvement. You ask for something. If the answer is no then all that's happened is you've learned the answer.

In guess culture, questions have high emotional involvement. Asking something is seen as pressuring/rude. Saying no is seen as rebuking someone/also rude. To avoid that, people often hint or use smaller related questions to find out the answer to something without directly asking.

Actually this is a spectrum--it's more about where you draw the line of which questions are OK to ask outright and which questions aren't, but it's obvious that people draw that line in very different places. Since this question is tagged United States, you can probably move your line far more to the "ask" side than you have it right now.

Look back at your current situation and take your emotion out of it. Imagine your student was asking if you have a particular brand of soda, "No, I only have (other brand of soda)." Question asked, question answered, done. "Are you available at this time?" "No, only at (other time)."

This applies to your personal boundaries, too. E-mails aren't a demand, they just exist. Check your e-mail on your own schedule. Reply to the factual content of e-mails from your students and ignore the emotional content. If someone has a personal emergency they can document it via X, Y, Z steps from the university policy.

I find the best way to take emotion out of things is to assume good intent. That is, whatever behavior someone is doing might need to change but that doesn't mean they're a bad person. So I don't think "this person is so lazy they want me to do all the work for them", instead I think "this person doesn't understand how to use/apply the thing we went over last week". Based on that, "This is the same as ABC problem we worked on last week--which part in particular are you having trouble with?" or even "Actually, this is the same as a problem we did already--do you remember (thing) that let's you determine which category of problem this is?" This is obviously more natural when someone is asking the question in person in conversation vs. e-mail, but if students are treating e-mail as conversation anyway you might as well lean in to it. Someone who's lazy will give up and go away, someone who actually needs help will learn something, either way is fine.

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  • This is very interesting. Why is it called "guess" culture? Do you have some more references? yesterday
  • I agree, I come from a culture where saying a firm "no" is considered rude. Back in my country if I even slightly acted like the way I do in the U.S., people would freak out. Since she doesn't seem to get the hint, she probably comes from an "ask" culture and so if I firmly tell her "no", she probably wouldn't get offended as well. Although, I do think she's still pushy no matter what her culture may be as she kept texting me even after I told her not to. Next time, I'll just reply to her at my own pace so that she doesn't think I'm 24/7 available for her at her disposal. yesterday
  • @PeterMortensen The linked post is somewhat internet-famous, and every reference I've seen to "ask vs guess culture" links to it. I'm guessing that whoever wrote it made the terminology up.
    – academic
    yesterday
  • @PeterMortensen Yes, as far as I'm aware the post I linked is the original source for the term. It might be called ask vs. hint or direct vs. indirect or anything along those lines, but the linked post is the earliest I know which identifies the difference so specifically so the term has stuck. 11 hours ago
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Be very careful. This type of student is likely to cause further problems, and this may even end in a law suit against you. Make sure you are very formal and transparent, but firm, towards the student and keep a written record of all your interactions with the student. You may also inform you superior or even hr already.

This may sound hard, but I have had the exact same experience in an industry context where an employee reporting to me showed a very similar pattern of behaviour and then ended up suing the company for discrimination. (the employee lost of course)

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  • Thank you! Yes, I'm pretty aware of that and how vulnerable being in the position of a TA can be. I'll try to be extra cautious. yesterday
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You should discuss this student's behavior with the lead instructor for the course. They will probably agree with everyone here that this is not OK, and will take steps to back you up, e.g. sending the student in question a note to tell them to knock it off, making an announcement at the next class to remind everyone that TAs have their own responsibilities and there's a schedule of office hours for a reason, etc.

(If the lead instructor isn't willing to back you up on this sort of thing, you have bigger problems, and in your shoes I'd suggest quietly reporting the entire situation to your department's "TA coordinator" or equivalent role.)

1
  • Thank you! Yes, I'll try talking to the instructor if this happens again. yesterday
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I apologize whenever I can't meet her demands

It's not up to you to meet her demands. It's up to her and other students to work their schedule in line with your previously defined (in the very first class ideally) hours.

I'm scared of being upfront with her as it may lead to a negative teaching evaluation.

There is no need to feel scared. Your superiors will understand that one or two bad evaluations more than likely is not a reflection of your ability. They are experienced educators, so they understand that a student can be disgruntled and try to shift blame. But they will look at how all of your students rated you.

There is also the possibility that this student may in fact be the first one to admit that she is having problems understanding the topics, but also understands that you have been doing your best, and she is in fact very appreciative.

I'm actually taken back by the fact that you communicate with your students and answer their queries at arbitrary times. While that may be admirable, as stated above, you should make it very clear when you can see students outside class hours. The student you speak of might be entitled, but it appears as though you may have inadvertently opened the door to this. Remember this for the next academic year.

Good luck and I'm confident you'll get good evaluations.

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joseph h is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
0

You seem to believe that if you put in extra time and effort, you are thereby entitled to being appreciated and respected by your students. (You talk about respect and appreciation over and over in your question and in the comments.) Consequently, you get angry when you try to accommodate a student's request only to receive further requests instead of an appreciative response. Particularly when they are entitled, absurd requests like working around her family dinner time.

Here's the thing:

You are not entitled to being appreciated by your students. Not even if you are the single most attentive, available, and accommodating TA at your university. You really are not.

You want to go out of your way to help your students? That's great. It really is. But you need to accept that going above and beyond your duties is your own decision. And it makes no sense to be angry at someone for your own decisions. If you are unhappy with the result, then it's not your student's request that is the cause of your unhappiness, it's your unfounded feeling that you ought to try to accommodate it.

Or, you know, perhaps you are angry with her because you would have loved to play the role of the super-attentive TA if she had displayed the slighest amount of consideration for you, but she didn't, so you can't, and that's frustrating to you. That's another possibility.

Instead of getting hung up on being appreciated by your students, here's a healthier mental frame for your interactions with students:

They are entitled to make whatever requests they like. You are entitled to reject them if you find them unreasonable, and to respond to emails outside of office hours at your leisure. It's great if students are appreciative of your work, but they have no obligation to be. A student asks you to work around her family's dinner time? No skin off your back. Just send her a one-line email in response at your leisure instead of ruminating about how disrespectful you find this.

On the plus side, you get to decide how much you want to go out of your way to help your students. It really is entirely up to you. On the negative side, you don't get to be angry with them if they are (in your opinion) not appreciative enough of your efforts. That's your own problem that you gotta work on, just like your student should probably work on understanding that the world does not revolve around her family's dinner time.

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  • Thanks for taking your time to respond. I believe there are some discrepancies in my thoughts and what you thought I was implying. First of all, I'm not mad. Second, I don't expect them to thank me. I was just asking others how they would deal with the situation if a particular student keeps messaging me after a denial of request and bothers other students. Nonetheless, appreciate your response. yesterday
  • @happypenguin I did not say anything about being thanked. But you do repeatedly complain about this student not being, in your own words, appreciative and respectful enough. It does not make sense to repeatedly complain about the student not being appreciative and respectful enough of your time and effort and then claim that you have no such expectation. 22 hours ago

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