December 17th, 2009

Oh Those Students. . .


Even with the holidays upon us, it’s hard not to think about those students who did poorly in our courses this semester.

Some of them just didn’t make the effort. They tend to be the ones who don’t really know why they’re in college or what they want to do with their lives. At this moment, it’s the social life — meeting new people, the parties, games, and the myriad of “fun” things college kids can find to do.

Some of them just have too much else going on in their lives. They have families and jobs and are trying to squeeze college into lives already full of responsibilities and obligations. They are in college because they want better jobs—ones that provide better pay and more security.

Some of them have virtually no confidence in their abilities. They are convinced that they can’t do math or learn to write. They also say that they don’t like to read because they’re slow and don’t understand big words.

Bottom line: they all did poorly in class this semester and for obvious reasons. But still most teachers I know worry about these students. Most teachers I know wonder if they could or should have done more for and with these students. When students fail, a lot of us take that failure personally and that isn’t entirely bad. If students’ failures cause us to reflect, to examine, to wonder and consider if some other approach might have worked better, that’s a good thing. Perhaps there was nothing else the teacher could have done, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to ponder just a bit.

That said, most of us ponder too much and for too long. We forget that a poor grade may not reflect all that happened with that student in the course. Learning and intellectual development aren’t always visible. Students (even very busy ones) can have insights that have nothing to do with content or acquiring credentials, and teachers may never know.

One of my all time favorite books on teaching is by Herbert Kohl and has the lovely title, Growing Minds. Kohl writes that in his next life he wants to be a plumber. With plumbing there a real sense of closure—either the leak is fixed or it isn’t and the plumber knows that immediately. Not so with teachers—our efforts grow to fruition slowly, over time and with results we may never see. It does take a certain amount of faith being a teacher. You’ve got to believe that your influence does not always end when the course does.