From the Other Side of the Desk: I want you to succeed. No, really!

February 15, 2011 § 9 Comments

Part of what makes me question my career path is just to what extent I am invested in my students’ personal successes. I know we all want our students to do well. We teach them how to write a great thesis statement, how to compose a cogent, thought-out and argumentative paper, how to edit so that a rough draft transforms into a final draft worthy of our pride. We wouldn’t teach them these things if we didn’t want them to learn these things, if we didn’t want them to succeed at these things. If we truly wanted our students to fail, we would refuse to meet with them, refuse to look at any version of the paper at any stage, refuse to elaborate on an assignment past handing out the assignment sheet.

I have never known a single professor like that in my decade-long career as a student nor in my six-year-long career as a teacher. Even the hardest, most frightening professors held office hours and would be willing to meet with a weepy student to discuss her paper or report or exam. I know students who have exaggerated when recounting horror stories of stony-faced professors who engaged them in silent staring contests. And I don’t buy those stories for a second.

As a teacher, I want my students to succeed. I want to look back at the semester and discover with glee that my students all earned A’s in the class. Is this wishful thinking? Obviously. Is this dangerous thinking? Sadly, yes.

The danger in my desire to see every one of my students succeed lies in my capacity to care more for their personal success than they themselves care. Although theoretically it sounds like it ought to be the standard for all teachers, in reality it’s a detrimental practice. It leads teachers to spend their free time (what little of it they actually have) fretting over their students’ work–have they e-mailed me? are they going to meet the deadline? should I stop leading this particular student with questions and just give her the thesis statement I’m thinking about? (Obviously this last question stays in my head–I don’t ever give my students the answers.) This can lead the over-attentive teacher to feel stress on her students’ behalf regardless if they themselves are stressed. As an over-attentive teacher myself, this is extraordinarily distracting and detracting. I spend too much time helping them formulate their thoughts and then worrying about how well they will pull it off, and next thing I know my day has been spent answering e-mails rather than accomplishing my own goals.

Take one student I’ve been helping as an example.

She has come to my office twice with a rough introduction and thesis statement. Both times, I had to try to help parse meaning out of her jumbled thoughts. To say her word choice is imprecise is an understatement. Most of the time, I have no idea what she’s talking about. And then I discover that she got the words mixed up. (For instance, she used the word “inception” when she meant to use “deception.” This happens a lot.) In our meetings, I was mostly concerned with attempting to understand her opinionated argument for her thesis statement. She is an eloquent enough girl. In fact, I had no trouble understanding her meaning when she spoke about her paper. And then she left my office, after she took notes on our discussion, and set to work. And then e-mailed me. And I have no idea what she’s talking about. So, I said so…in kinder, more educational terms. Then she e-mailed me again. And I responded that I still had no idea what she was talking about. And then she e-mailed me again. And I could tell that she was getting frustrated, but her meaning was surprisingly still muddled. I finally helped her along (“delete this sentence, reword this portion, delete that entire section”) until she came up with a thesis statement just a few minutes ago that I think we’re both happy with. However, I encouraged her to see someone in the Writing Center so that she can have further assistance with her obvious word choice problems. (Again, I said this in a nicer, more educational way.) She assured me that she has been seeing the tutors of the Writing Center for the entirety of last week…and will see them again tomorrow.

I refrained, but I desperately wanted to respond, “You’ve had appointments for the past five days, and this is what you’ve come up with???”

I am worrying about this student. I am spending my evening thinking about her argument and imprecise word choice, wondering what on Earth she’ll present me on Thursday when she turns in her paper.

The worst part? I’m doing this twenty-eight times over.

I have colleagues, hell…I have a husband, who do not go through what I’m going through. And they all have more students to worry about than I have. Maybe it’s because they have more students than I have that they are somehow magically freed from the concern? Except, even when I have more students (like 60), I still do this. This is who I am. This is what I am like as a teacher, and it is torture.

But at the end of the day, I am tortured because I really really want to see my students do well.

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§ 9 Responses to From the Other Side of the Desk: I want you to succeed. No, really!

  • This is a tough one. It has to be emotionally exhausting to care more about a student’s success than the student does. I question whether some (a lot) of these kids should be in institutions of higher learning at all.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      You know, Renee, in the beginning, I was a huge supporter of “education for all”–I believed that every single person has it in them to get a college education and beyond, that there was nothing remarkable in what I’ve done. I just stayed in school where other people didn’t. But as I’ve been around them in the past ten years, I’ve come to realize that that stance is incredibly naive. Some of my students really shouldn’t be in my class, and even some of them should reconsider their decision to come to college (at least at this age…see? I’m still wanting everyone to have it in them to go to college at some point in their lives, lol). But, yes, it is extremely exhausting to care this much. I lose sleep and time, and then I get resentful and bitter. Not a good combination!

  • Lisa says:

    I have always been a teacher much like you. But, after 100s of students and years of making myself sick and giving myself headaches and backaches from the acrobatic contortions I would go through to help every student succeed, I’ve recognized that something has to give. This semester has been one of the toughest I’ve ever faced, with a classroom of students who do not want to be students, or students who think that they should get A’s fore merely gracing me with their presence or turning in shoddy work on scraps of paper. This semester I’ve had to say, enough is enough.

    A colleague of mine helped with this simple statement, that sounds a little crude, but is very true. “You get paid whether they fail or not.” Now, I hate to think like that. I hate to make it about the (very little) money. I never want to become those professors who simply go through the motions after years teaching the same classes who never try to do something new. But, at the same time, my colleague was right. As long as I am doing my best and working hard, I am not failing my students. If they don’t meet me half-way and do their part of the job, they fail themselves. I don’t fail them.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still bend over backwards to give students chances. Just yesterday I caved to one of rudest attacks I’ve ever had by a student (while making that attack known to my Dean). I didn’t cave completely, but I softened my stance slightly.

    Sorry for this long post. I guess it can be summed up like this: the day that I can no longer do my best in the face of student apathy will the last class I teach.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Haha, we are so alike! What I hate about myself is knowing that in many ways, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just better not to make a fuss and let them have their way. I don’t think I’m actually helping them, then. And your colleague is right–we do get paid no matter what their transcript says (thank GOD–can you imagine any other way?? scary!).

      • Lisa says:

        I would be in the negative digits this semester, based on the numbers of D’s and F’s my students are earning. I’m already in the negative digits if you base it on hours worked. 😉

  • Tori Nelson says:

    Wanting to help them succeed is good, great even, but you still have to have time for you. A student’s lackluster wordchoice can’t be your after-work discussion. I would’ve have been thrilled to have such a caring professor though. That is for sure!

  • Having always been one to make time for myself, I certainly still find myself meeting with students and responding to last-minute emails before projects are due or at random times when they are “confused” because they didn’t fully read the directions. But it’s not necessary to care that much more than they do – I mean, we necessarily DO care more because WE are the teachers. But as V has said before, I give my students everything they need to pass my class on the first day – they have the syllabus and then the assignments and the instructional material to do the work. I’m a bonus. I’m the gravy. They are responsible for their educations – not us. And that’s why I have that conversation with my students at the start of every semester. They will get out of my class exactly what they put in..and I’m here to help them succeed, but it’s a two way street. 😉

    • Mrs. H. says:

      And that’s what makes you a better teacher than I am. Because I can’t get into that mindset. My “caring” comes out in worrying about their progress and their grades. During my off-time. It’s annoying! Lol.

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