I was talking to another…

I was talking to another professor recently about a student who hadn't come to class in a while, and fretting about his not answering my e-mails, and wondering if I should call to try to track him down, and she was very matter-of-fact about how she would never do that, it wasn't her job, and if he chose not to come to class, he flunked, and that was the end of it. Similarly, if the students choose not to do the reading and thereby can't pass an exam or write a decent paper, they flunk, and that's their choice. Her attitude was that it wasn't her job to be their mommies and hold their hands all through class.

Which, okay, I basically agree with. If students choose not to come to class, they suffer for it, and that's their own decision, and I really can and do flunk them with a clear conscience when their performance warrants it. I flunked calculus freshman year, and I deserved it -- I stopped coming to class partway through the semester, in part because the material had started confusing me, but mostly because I had a new boyfriend (my first) and early morning class and late night homework were just not priorities. So yes, students earn their F's, and that's not my fault as a teacher.

But that said, I can't help worrying about the ones who are falling behind, or who just stop coming, which usually means that they've gotten overwhelmed by my class or their other classes or their life. I also get frustrated when they do come but clearly haven't done the reading; not just because it makes my job harder trying to lead a discussion of a book they haven't read, but because I know it means they'll have a harder time writing their papers later and their grades will suffer. I get stressed on their behalf, and I even get angry sometimes. Which, you could argue, is way too much involvement for a college professor, but I'm not sure I can help it.

The woman I was talking to originally had been teaching for a long time -- maybe long enough that she'd just gotten exhausted. I can see that. But I find that I actually am more engaged with my students' struggles now, ten years in, than I was when I started. I care more every year, it seems. I don't think that's going to change, so I guess all I can do is try to manage that care, so I don't exhaust myself and drive them all crazy in the process. There are limits to how much effort I should go to, trying to help them save their grades.

But that said -- if my teacher freshman year had realized that I had suddenly stopped doing my calculus homework and taken five minutes to stop me and ask me what was up, that might have been enough to catch my attention back then, to shame me into going back to actually doing the work. Maybe I would have passed that class, and that F wouldn't still be grating on me, almost twenty years later. Sometimes, it just takes a few kind words to let the student know that someone cares about their grade, and their learning.

One of the studies I looked at noted that the greatest predictor of student success was the student feeling like someone (teacher, parent, etc.) actually cared how they did in the class. So okay, that part I have down. I care. Now I just have to convince them, without driving myself nuts.

5 thoughts on “I was talking to another…”

  1. Wow. I feel much the same way as you, after forty years as a university faculty member. But, the only time I get angry is when students get up and walk out during class. In large lectures, this happens frequently.

  2. I teach English Comp at a community college and I worry about my students because many of them are dealing with more than the average college student. About 50% of my female students are young mothers and I also have a good percentage of military members– some serving overseas. I also have the adult students going back to school after 20+ years and the students who struggled through several remedial English classes to get to my class. I’ve sent e-mails to students who started out well and then mysteriously vanished. Most don’t respond. The ones who do respond promise to catch up on their work and then I never hear from them again.

    This is only my third semester teaching and I feel like I’m already getting burned out. The students who care about their work do well– I’m not a hard grader, honestly– but I’ll be failing about 25% of my students this semester just because they won’t do the work. It’s sad and frustrating.

  3. Two stories that I’ve probably told you at some point:

    1. In 9th-grade science class, I wasn’t doing much work. I did a terrible job on one of the labs. The teacher wrote in my lab notebook: “You’re too sharp to drop the ball like this.” That made me feel guilty enough that I worked hard for the rest of the year and ended up with a good grade.

    2. Sometime around my junior year of college, I ran into my math professor in the hall. He looked sad and dejected. I didn’t know him very well outside of class, but I respected him a lot. I asked how he was doing, and he told me that he was distressed about the fact that nobody in our ten- or fifteen-person Combinatorics class was keeping up with the class. I tried to tell him that it wasn’t his fault, that it was our responsibility to keep up and we just weren’t doing it, but I don’t think he found it especially convincing.

    I never had good study habits; I was always late with assignments and behind on the reading; by the time I got to college, I don’t think there was anything that any teacher could’ve done in the long term to get me more on the ball. It’s possible that if someone had said just the right thing to me, it would’ve worked, but I don’t know what that would’ve been.

  4. I teach primarily at the two year college within a larger 4 year university; my students are best described as not ready for prime time–many of them have aspirations of education beyond their high school skillz and need a chance to see how to study and why to study, beyond the fact that it gives them one jump through the requisite hoops.

    At my college, we teach a class with our advisees in their freshman fall. All my advisees are taking art history with me; I get a chance to see them 3 times a week. There are only 15 of them so I know them by name and I know them more than simply to call on them in class. This year, I also have a preceptor–a former student who succeeded in the program and is now a 4 year student here–whose job it is to assist with transition questions that I might not be able to answer (like dorm rules etc.) and to run herd on them–organizing study sessions, etc. in the material. We argue that it is one of the ways to “increase retention” but it’s exactly what you’re talking about. Taking 5 minutes out of the day to say, I actually care that you succeed and you need to know that.

    I like the teaching I do here–it’s got big payoffs for the ones who make it. But I still eat my liver with the ones who disappear mid semester or who fail out. Intellectually, I get that they’re making choices and they need to learn that there are consequences. But since I didn’t have bad habits, when I failed it was because I didn’t understand the material, so I still think if I could do more, they’d do better. I’m getting better on finding the balance but it’s perhaps the hardest aspect of my job.

  5. I also always tended to have bad, or at least chaotic, study habits. I have developed what, I think, is a teaching process that would have kept me working consistently. The irony is that I had one grad school professor who used a process somewhat related to the one I use, and although itr kept me working, the class is one that I do not feel I learned terribly much in. The subject (knot theory) is not something I can call upon easily in my research, for example, even though, as I said, I worked more consistently in that class than in any other. I hope I have found a way to sidestep that problem in my own teaching as well.

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