A Different Kind of Post

This past week, I received an email…a different kind of email. A harassing email from a random/generated address. I don’t want to post the actual email, but it is quite specific in its digs…it made particularly derogatory remarks about my blog, my ability to coach soccer, my wife, my kids, and my ability to treat my students equally. Because of how specific it was, I am led to believe that it was written by one of my students or players…which really stinks.

I wasn’t really hurt by most of the insults. I didn’t care that they believe my blog is bad, that I am a bad coach, that they have negative opinions of my wife and kids…I was fine with all of that. No big deal. The only comment that really caused me to pause was that I “favor white popular kids”.

Wow. That stings. A lot.

Even though I believe the person who wrote this really just wanted to hurt me more than anything (again, there were some real zingers in the email), I couldn’t shake the possibility that there may be some truth to the ‘favoring white popular kids’ comment. But since I didn’t know who wrote the email, there was no way to ask that person. So, what to do? I knew I didn’t want to do nothing…if I was, in any way, favoring any group of people over another group, I sincerely wanted to know so I could do whatever necessary to stop doing that.

So, I showed my classes. I put the email on the overhead and let them read it. The room got quiet and I noticed several students’ eyes get really big. I expressed to them that most of the insults didn’t really bother me and I wasn’t really worried about this person’s opinions on my blog, coaching, or my family. Then I circled ‘favors white popular kids’ and told them this really bothered me…and I genuinely wanted to know if this was their perception or if I’d ever done anything to make them feel less than another person. I expressed to my students I sincerely wanted them to tell me if I’ve ever acted in a way that favored one person because of their skin color, religion, social status, et cetera. I wouldn’t be upset with them…one human being to another human being…please help me improve here. They could come up after class and talk to me or come early in the morning or leave an anonymous note…whatever they feel most comfortable with doing. The only option I didn’t mention, that I believe I should have, was to go talk to a school counselor about it if they really didn’t want to approach me. After both classes, I had a few students come up to me to offer apologies for the email and one even said she thought it was cool that I could take something so negative and try and grow from it…that really meant a lot to me.

Why did I show my students?

  1. As stated before, I really wanted to know if any of my students felt that I was favoring certain groups of students over others. I definitely don’t want any of my students to feel less than in my class and strive to treat all fairly…but we all have our biases and I believe a first step in combating biases is awareness of them.
  2. I wanted my students to see how I handled the harassment…to not be angry, to not take it too personally, and to try and take the negative and learn from it.* Even though I am an adult, I am not perfect and I am not through trying to better myself.
  3. To discuss implicit biases; they exist and awareness can help us avoid exhibiting them as much as possible.

What now?

To be honest, I don’t know. I guess I’ll wait and see if anyone approaches me or if I receive another email. This is the first time I’ve received a harassing email and I really don’t know what else to do.

Have you ever received correspondence like this before? What did you do?

How would you have acted differently if you were me?

What do you believe I did wrong?

Please comment. Let’s have a conversation.

*I understand this isn’t how we should handle all harassment. Some harassment is much more serious and warrants more significant actions.

11 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Post

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  1. Haven’t received offensive correspondence, but have overheard remarks on me favoring this group or another. This is one of my greatest fears – that I should lean towards the students that are more like me – in their background, their beliefs, their looks… I work really hard at providing my students with a space in which they can express themselves freely, and most of the time it works. I believe that the best tool for that is exactly what you did in this case – an open and honest conversation with the students.
    I think you are also right, that it would have been good to encourage students who don’t feel comfortable approaching you to go to a counselor – if they don’t feel comfortable with me, why would they come up and say so? It also shows that we are not afraid of external critique, and are willing to err in public – meaning, outside the classroom.

  2. I have received comments of this nature on a couple of different occasions (although mine were not anonymous) and I felt the same way. When I was able to have conversations with the students, I found in both situations that the source of their feelings was much different than their comments led me to believe. One was a clerical error in entering grades and the other was a technological glitch perpetrated by our course management system. Even though it was not the true (I was able to explain it to them on both occasions), they felt like they were being treated unfairly, and I made sure to empathize with that feeling. I think they both had probably experienced such unfair treatment in the past and reasoned this was the same.

  3. I had a somewhat analogous situation, and handled it in a somewhat analogous way. In a small doctoral class (7 students, I think), I had one student respond with solid 1s (the low end of the scales) on every item on Student Evaluations of Teaching, while the average of the other students’ responses was about 4.7 (scale of 1-5). Like you, most of it did not stress me out, but one item was “treated all students fairly.” Since the semester was over, but I work closely with all of the students in the small doctoral program, I emailed them with a note that said “I’ve never done this before, but wanted to touch base related to SETs this semester. One student responded with 1s on all of the questions, including “treats all students fairly.” My hope is that the student just used the wrong end of the scale, but if any student feels that they haven’t been treated fairly, or that I have treated others unfairly, I want you to know that I want to make that right. If any student is uncomfortable with talking with me about this, [here are people you can talk to who would share information with me while protecting your anonymity.] And if any student believes that I’ve violated their rights in any way such that a disciplinary process would be appropriate, [here’s how you can bring charges, and do so anonymously.]”
    The conversations were primarily through email, but were universally positive about having shared this issue with them, and seeking to ensure that they knew 1) that I wanted to make it right if there was something wrong, and 2) that they had rights that they might not know how to claim.
    Kudos for handing a difficult situation effectively.

  4. The way you handled it was…interesting. Certainly not wrong, but I probably wouldn’t have done it that way. Why? Two reasons:

    1) Some people will always feel mistreated, even when they’re not by any objective measurement. Their perceptions are skewed and there’s probably no way for you to unskew them.

    2) People’s reluctance to provide criticism is a filter that motivates them to keep trivial things to themselves. Encouraging them to remove the filter is like turning down the squelch on the radio…you get lots of static mixed in with the static. (wow…do radios still have a squelch?)

  5. I wouldn’t say that you did anything wrong, but I would say that I wouldn’t do the same. I think your reaction was understandable and well-intentioned, but I suspect that we are often far less in control of what we do (and blind to the reasons that we often do it for)!

    I can’t recall a specific instance, but I have been in a similar situation and have reacted in a similar fashion. In my case, I would have given the same explanation as you, and I would genuinely have meant what I was saying. However, as you acknowledge, cognitive biases are everywhere!

    On reflection, I think my *real* motivation was less honourable than I would have told you. My real motivation was fuelled by indignant righteousness and the belief that there was one objective truth. The anonymous critic was denying the one objective truth and I needed both to bolster my security and confidence and also let them see that their anonymous criticisms were not shared by the rest of All Right-Thinking People. Let them understand just how out on a limb they were.

    These days, I’d reflect on how the ties between students can be way stronger than the ties between students and educators. If the complaining student is popular, they will have much more support than the educator is likely to get.

    I’d also reflect on how the hurtful comments were possibly nothing more than an example of the fundamental attribution error. I’d use them to look carefully at my own practice to see if there might be anything in my behaviour that would allow an individual to draw wholly wrong -to my mind- inferences.

    Finally, I’d reflect on how the writer of the email was really trying to communicate a simple message: “I’m hurting, quite probably I am ashamed of myself, and I want to ease my pain and humiliation by sharing it with/dumping it on you.” Seen that way, we might be more tempted to go to class the next day and just say something along the lines of, “Guys, I received an email the other day that I think one of you may have sent. If it was one of you, you didn’t sign it, but I want you to know that I’m here to help you and that I want to do whatever I can to make things better for you. Please come and talk to me, or have a look at your email account and we can talk things through anonymously.”

    If nothing comes back, adopt the simple policy of disregarding all anonymous feedback that doesn’t offer constructive pointers for improvement. It’s anonymous because at some level they don’t feel that they have the confidence to air their grievances in public – usually because they are having an emotional outburst rather than making a rational critique. We all have emotional outbursts, and these provoke emotional reactions in others. The rational approach here would be to try and deal with what is causing the negative emotions rather than get sucked in by the shocking allegations.

  6. I think raising this with the class is important for all the reasons you give. Showing vulnerability and openness is valuable to you and them. I have a friend who was in a similar situation and what she did was very similar. She laid out the facts and raised questions, and then she asked them to discuss it among themselves. She publicly appointed one person as the recorder whose job was to communicate the discussion anonymously after the fact. This removed the barrier of telling the instructor something you think the instructor might not want to hear.

  7. I had an experience like this but not anonymous. I knew which person wrote me and I did not know why he wrote all those negative things about me. It was a reply on a post on a public Facebook page. I informed a schoolleader about this incident and then I found out that this person had some serious behavior issues caused by psychosis. He left school to get some therapy. Later on he visited me, offered me an apology, which I of course accepted, and told me about his psychosis. I really felt sorry for him. Sometimes you just don’t know what causes students to react in a negative way. It might not even be on purpose.
    Have you ever considered that this person, if it were one of your students, might have a serious problem and because of that asks you for your attention in this harassing way because you might be the only one who he or she trusts? It doesn’t have te mean that you did something wrong that you could have done better. Fact is: you don’t know the reason behind this so I guess you did a great job confronting your students with that message. What else could you have done? The only thing you can do now is wait and hope that this person will respond someday. If not, you can only guess the why. I wish you all the best and I hope you will find out.

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