The Angry Learner: Notes From the Other Side of the Desk

January 31, 2018 Diane Rubino

Though I didn’t say them, a few choice words erupted from a primitive lobe of my brain. My annoyance was a reaction to a harmless request to participate in a name-recall exercise with other teachers. I was fine once the activity started. But my initial response was odd, even to me.

Still, it wasn’t the first time I was aware that learning translated into irritation. I originally noticed it a few months ago during yoga with a tough-guy instructor. He pushed hard while letting us know he was “going easy” on us, a drop-in class of ever-changing novices.

I grew more exasperated and determined to tell the instructor, after the course was over, that I was dissatisfied. I wanted him to know he was driving us too hard. I wanted him to know I was furious.

I noticed anger was a common emotion despite the range of effort required, from the very idea of learning to actual, complex physical exertion. It struck me that the desire to express myself in a surly retort was ridiculous. My annoyance had to do with me, not the yoga instructor. In a flash, I realized that the gulf between my skills and his expertise was no one’s fault. Nor was it a problem. His desire to hold us to high standards was the definition of learning. Then came the second wham of consciousness: The feeling I experienced was perhaps the same as my students channel at me.

Whose Problem Is It Anyway?

I noticed some of my student evaluations reflected outright fury. I also occasionally registered student irritability at other points via eye rolls and glares. pixabay.jpg

I never gave the why behind this dynamic much consideration. It was easy to blame myself, feeling guilty for every negative reaction. I also vaguely attributed student annoyance to various factors without knowing what I was talking about. Perhaps, I imagined in my haughtier moments; it was my uncompromising standards or grading. Maybe the fault lies not in our stars but ourselves. Personality—mine and/or theirs—was the source of trouble.

All of that might be true. But when I became aware of being the disgruntled student, I realized something else was happening. Surely, I’d experienced this before, but somehow just became cognizant that learning itself was ire producing.

It seems like conscious learners on both sides of the desk know anger is “a thing,” though not something that necessarily requires action. “Oh sure,” said a friend with teaching experience, “that happens.” I mentioned my insight to a teacher of mine who noted with a laugh, “So now I know. During the first part of the class, Diane hates me.”

Evidence of Anger

In fact, researchers of emotions in education documented that anger occurred “frequently” in students and used it as one of the “major emotion categories” to craft educational psychology assessments.

While I’m late to the party, those who study learning have been aware of this phenomenon for decades. “Significant learning and critical thinking inevitably induces an ambivalent mix of feelings and emotions, in which anger and confusion are as prominent as pleasure and clarity.

Now it all began to make sense…

What Now? 

In the ideal world, this awareness about my irrational irritability should’ve triggered a change — no such luck. Now I noticed this trend any time I was in a learning environment as if I was powerless to turn it around. I was peeved when my new yoga instructor started with Down Dog rather than an easier pose. The musical theater class where I had no background knowledge? Forget it. (My capable instructor somehow managed to teach me a few tricks. But with a lot of growling from me.)

Without the ability to adjust my behavior I struggled to help students avoid the hurdle of annoyance that negatively impacts learning. The only idea I had was honesty. This past semester I emailed a class a few weeks into the semester:

Dear all:

I recently began studying yoga. Sometimes learning is great. But sometimes it stinks. I feel frustrated and embarrassed--especially when it seems EVERYONE knows more than I do. I wonder if I will ever do yoga right. I get bored or annoyed with trying--and failing anyway. I get mad at the teacher. Instead of acknowledging my limited knowledge, I blame him.

“He’s working us too hard. What a jerk!”

Why am I lashing out at others? It’s hard to say. But I think that's just how learning works at times. It's difficult. It can be irritating or even painful.

When it feels like too much, and you hit a breaking point, STOP. Stop working. Stop thinking. Do something else. Relax. Walk around the block. Ask for help.  

At some point, you may have to come back to the same place and start again. But knowing your limits is a key part of professional development.

Best wishes,


Honesty Is a Policy—Though Perhaps Not the Best One

It's unclear if honesty made a difference to my class. I had a pair of back-of-the-room grimacers much of the term. One reported on her evaluation: “I feel really uncomfortable and stressful in professor Rubino class [sic].

Going forward I could promote further reflection through writing and in-class discussion rather than communicating this concept via email. This may influence some borderline students. It could also be a lackluster endeavor since, as Brookfield states, “student resistance is socially and politically sculpted.” In any case, much further effort is needed to change the hearts and minds of someone like me—the angriest learner around.

*Thanks to Asana Soul Practice’s James Calleo and Columbia University’s Christine Bean for their insights. 

Image Credit: pixabay

About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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