(Un) Angry Students and Burner Phones

When I first began my career in online teaching, I was terrified of a few different things.

I cared (a lot) about what students were or were not going to write in evaluations (or, Heaven-forbid, on ratemyprofessors.com ).

I still kinda do, but let’s be real.  Unless these are terrible nobody really cares (at least the decision-makers who assign courses).

I was worried that students would have objections about the grades that I assigned and, more importantly, about the feedback (or lack thereof) left with their work.

Again, this is still somewhat of a worry, but knowing that 97%+ of students never contest their grades, this isn’t something that keeps me up at night.

You want to know what really scared me?

Office hours

I know I didn’t go that often when I was in school and when I did, the professors generally seemed “happy” (at least “not annoyed”) to see me.  They always knew their stuff and I left with the confidence to effectively complete a paper or tackle an econ problem.

However, at the time I didn’t think that I could be as confident, at least on a surface level, as they had always tended to be.

I also figured that all of the students would program my number into their phones as soon as they read the syllabus, their thumbs eager to hit “Call Dr. Jerk!” the moment that they sniffed that a grade lower than an 89 was a real possibility for them.

I didn’t know this stuff.  I didn’t think I knew better.

I mean, I had gone through school forever learning about it and had even worked in the field for a decent amount of time.

But could I actually explain an obscure (and usually irrelevant) concept to an eager student.

I didn’t think so.  Like I said, I didn’t know it.

Naturally, I took some precautionary measures.

No, I didn’t review the course materials closely in order to better understand the course concepts that students may be inquiring about.

(that would have obviously made too much sense!)

I bought a burner phone.

Yeah, I went to a pharmacy and bought a brick and some minutes for, like, $19.  In cash, of course.

My logic…yeah, I couldn’t tell you; for some reason I just thought that having a dedicated phone number for student use would make it easier for me to “turn off” when office hours weren’t in session and to more easily screen for students.

I probably charged that phone four times throughout the entire duration of the (single) term that I “used” the phone.  I never got a single call on it

I also set my office hours to short time frames during odd parts of the day.

That first term, all my office hours were set to the middle of work days.

My logic was a little more “sound” with this one:  if the students are unable to call you, they won’t!

And not call me they did!  Like I mentioned earlier, not a single call that first term.

…I got a faculty observation that term.

I was new to the online teaching “industry” and hadn’t perfected my methods yet, so there were a few suggested areas to improve on.  Nothing major, but one area stuck out to me.

“Please make yourself more accessible to students i.e. restructure your office hours.”

On the bright side, nothing was said about the burner phone!

So, my little strategy had been discovered and it was time to set more appropriate office hours.  In the span of two days as I set up my courses for the second time ever, I had nixed my two “safety mechanisms” (somewhere, that phone still has 58 minutes on it!)

Burned GSM

At this point, I was shoulder deep in my dissertation and finding more online teaching jobs was a top priority.  I wanted to perform well in my current online teaching duties, but I was more or less on auto-pilot.

One day, I got out of the shower and started packing my things up.  I needed to leave for work in twenty minutes.

My (non-burner) phone was ringing

Instinctively, I checked it and not recognizing the number, ran through a checklist in my head that has since become a permanent fixture in my life.

Is it an office hours day?

It was.

Is it an office hours time?

…it was.

I took a deep breath as I answered the phone and took an equally long pause as I composed myself, hoping to channel all of my years of schooling and professor osmosis into a “scholarly” greeting.


Somehow, my brain had confused “answer the phone during office hours” greeting with “imitating your grandmother answering the phone” greeting.

“Uh…is this Dr….uh….can I speak to Dr….?”

Wow.  Either this student was that confused or my greeting was that bad.

(probably both)

“Yeah…yes, I’m Professor Online Professor…may I ask who is calling?”

It was bit more natural and I enjoyed a slight, but euphoric nonetheless, confidence boost.

Until panic set in.

Who could this student be?  Had I given a lower-than-average grade recently?  What had the course discussion been on this week?  Was there a paper due in this week?

The student introduced himself and began to frame his question as I frantically logged into the course, only half-paying attention to what was being asked.

“…so that’s all I’m really confused about; am I at least on the right track?” was all I remembered hearing as the syllabus came up and as I skimmed the unit’s lecture notes, I noticed that the line had gone silent.

Another wave of panic.

“Ohhh…uh, ok.  So, yeah.  I hear what you’re saying, but…can you…what is confusing you, again?  You…I cut out at the end….beginning!”

A moment later, the most unexpected outcome occurred.

The outcome that I least expected.

The strangest possible response…

“When I am citing work with APA, you have mentioned some formatting errors on my title page.  I sent you an e-mail earlier today with the title page that I will include with my next submission, but I haven’t heard back from you.  I think I’m on the right track, but I’m not sure.  I would really appreciate it if you could review it and let me know how it looks!”


I thought about what he had just asked me as I composed myself.  I fumbled slightly, but I think it came out decently enough.

“Ohh…review your formatting?  Yeah…uh…please e-mail it to me.  I’m happy to look it over.  Is there anything else I can assist you with, course related or not?”

He thanked me profusely and said he didn’t need anything else.  We explained a few more pleasantries before hanging up.


I had survived my first office hours call as an online adjunct!

That didn’t seem so bad, did it?

Well, the news gets even better.

Probably two-thirds of my calls are just like that one!

Ultimately, students generally want to succeed and are understanding people.  Not many have it out for their online professors.

They want the answers they need and to get on with their day!

The other third of the calls?  Well, most of those are pretty easy, too (explaining my expectations for assignments or clarifying a point reduction).  Maybe 10% total involve an angry or adversarial student.

Considering that I may get two calls per class, per term (and during many terms I get exactly zero calls), I may deal with an angry student two or three times per year.

You want to deal with two or three angry people every hour?  Well, 9-5 is where it’s at!

However, I’m now much more confident in my abilities to explain simple and complicated concepts from my field during any office hours session.

I know better now

I know it


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