August 20th, 2009

A Student Who Needs a Teacher


I’m teaching a young woman to knit socks. She’s a beginning knitter, and socks aren’t the easiest place to start when you’re still a bit tentative about the basic knit and purl stitches. But she “really, really” wants to do socks and so that’s what we’re doing.

We don’t have much time as she heads off for college very shortly. This will be her third college in as many years. Her transcript is a hodge podge of courses, many of them dropped and most the rest C’s. She’s majoring in psychology, she thinks. “It should be interesting,” she tells me. “You’ve taken several psych courses. Were they interesting?” “Not really—the teachers were so boring.” At the moment, she seems far more interested in learning how to knit socks than she is about going back to college.

It makes me sad. She’s plenty smart enough to be doing well in college, but so far she has not connected with any part of the college experience. She’s attended a two-year college, a smallish comprehensive university, and now she’s heading off to a much larger place. “Have you ever gone to see a prof—just to talk, maybe about stuff in the course or what somebody with a psych major might be able to do?” I asked. “Not really.” “Why not?” “I don’t know—I’m not really comfortable talking with them.” I responded to this with a longish lecture about how much college teachers care about students, how we teach because we want students to learn and to find their way to professions that will make their lives meaningful. She responded with silence.

I could finish this entry by listing a whole bunch of things she’s doing wrong—a whole collection of reasons why a lot of this is her fault. She’s not verbally gifted, she doesn’t have the best eye contact, she’s keeps a low profile behind longish hair that successfully hides a lot of her face. She doesn’t participate in class. She probably works pretty hard not to get noticed. What makes me sad is how successfully she’s pulled that off.

My wish for her this year? That’s some teacher will discover her, will pick up this seemingly nondescript rock, turn it over and see beauty and promise. She doesn’t see much of either in herself. I know, there are many students in college just like her, classes are large and teachers are pushed for time, but talk about a student for whom a teacher could make a world of difference … I’m sending her off to the latest school with lots of sock patterns. I’d also like to pin a large sign on her back: “Student in need of a teacher.”

  • chris monikowski

    Perfect activity for the top of my "things to do" list….if everyone of us would make an effort to find ONE student like this, imagine what we could do!! I promise to make an effort to take the time to make contact with this young woman/man, look for her/him coming down the hall, getting a cup of coffee, arriving early for class to sit in the back; I promise.

    Who else will?


  • Richard Young

    This is just so timely as well as salient because there are so many issues being woven into this theme. First, it's part of my advice to new faculty that they figure out how to "connect" with students. Once you connect in the classroom then students will clearly seek out instructors. A number of years ago there was a book called the "Human Side of Enterprise". I don't recall the author, but the title seems to be appropriate here to think that there is a human side of higher ed. So what makes a prof approachable? A sense of humor for sure, but also knowing students by name. Caring about their career interests to even ask. Approachability is built in many ways, but often students have their own network so they know "who to take" and also who they can talk to.

    As faculty we have spent many years honing our expertise in a specific field and some start to think of themselves as dispensers of knowledge. I prefer not to think of myself as a teacher, but as a facilitator of learning. In order to understand whether learning in occurring, I have to connect. In my industry years I came across a sage who asked just four questions that seem appropriate here. I've made a couple of subtle changes for academia:
    1. Who is our student?
    2. What are their expectations?
    3. Are we fulfilling them?
    4. How do we know?