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.