Monday, July 25, 2011

One thing I won't look forward to.

Fall classes start in a couple of weeks. By and large, I'll be happy to be back teaching again - I miss the interaction with students, I miss the feeling of having a daily purpose (rather than the nebulous long-term goal of "get research done").

But one thing I won't miss will be dealing with student problems.

I was talking with a colleague about this the other day. Students tend to fall into three groups.

The first group are people who either don't have personal problems, or if they do, they sort them out on their own and you don't really hear about them. In a lot of cases these are students who have fairly stable lives - either they're single and not-really-looking until they're done with school, or they're happily and stably coupled, or something like that. They generally don't have major family drama. They don't abuse drugs or alcohol. This is (fortunately) the largest group of students.

The second group are students who have some single large problem, or a related group of problems. But these are the people I like to work with, because they come to me, keep me apprised of the issues, ask early on for appropriate help - and they try to work their way through the problem. I have had several students over the years that I think of as "success stories" in this area. One was a young man who had had a drug addiction that he fought back from (after dropping out of school for a year to do rehab and work on life-stuff) and who came back stronger than before. Another was a student in one of my tougher classes who was diagnosed with OCD mid-semester, had some difficulty getting the right dosage of medications, but he explained the problem to me and I said that if he ever had difficulties with class material (he said he was having a hard time concentrating first thing in the morning after he took his meds), that he could come to my office hours and I'd help him. And I did. And he wound up earning a solid B in what was a tough class. And another student going through a really ugly divorce came to me early on to let me know when her ex took her notebooks and burned them (!). But with some help from me (and some extensions on some projects), she was able to complete the semester (and she got a restraining order against her ex). And finally, a guy who started out failing my class, who came to me about 1/3 through the semester, desperate, saying, "What I'm doing isn't working." I talked with him a while, helped him out, invited him to come back for more tutoring. Eventually he said that he had had ADD in high school but hadn't brought the diagnosis along, because he thought he was past that - but that he guessed he wasn't. I told him that if Disability Services was OK with him using one of their quiet rooms to take the exams in (instead of taking them with all the other students in the classroom) without a formal diagnosis, I was OK with it. He said: "You'd do that for me?" and I said, "If you think it might help." He tried it - and wound up with a solid C for the semester. Not a high grade but certainly a respectable one. (And he told me he was going to go get a formal diagnosis so he could avail himself of the necessary accommodations).

These students, as I said, I'm happy to work with - and I always feel good to see someone who struggled pull themselves up and succeed. (Even if the success is maybe smaller than what they'd like - the guy who earned a C really wanted a B, but those early failing test grades pulled him down too far).

But the third group of students, while small - this is the group that tries my patience. This is the group I was talking to my colleague about. These are people who seem to get hit with MULTIPLE problems. They are in unstable relationships. They lose or quit their jobs, or they're working jobs where the hours (apparently) get shifted. They have family problems to deal with. They don't have good time-management...and on, and on. And you begin to wonder if some people just are unlucky. (Though in some cases - like people choosing to date people who are "bad" for them, or people who abuse alcohol regularly - it may be partly the person bringing the problems on themselves). The people in this group are the ones who come and unload their whole litany of issues on me, who expect me to fix it, and who leave me sitting in my office with the door closed and the lights out, with my head in my hands, wondering what to do.

And my colleague and I couldn't quite pinpoint what it was about the people in this group that makes them hard to help. But I think I figured it out this afternoon.

It's helplessness. As I said, the second group of people - the ones who have problems, sometimes quite large problems, often turn out as what I called "success stories." But the thing is, that's not JUST because I sat down and helped them. It's because they had some kind of drive to get things worked out - they were willing to put in a lot of effort on their part to make their own success. I was just facilitating it by doing things like allowing extensions on work or explaining the class material again during office hours. They really did all the work at getting back on track.

But people in the third group, they come in with an attitude of "You NEED to..." That I NEED to fix whatever it is for them. That I NEED to give them extensions/copies of my notes/easier exams/who knows what. Because they've suffered. Because that means they're entitled to an easier path. And in some cases, if I try to suggest the sort of self-help things that people in the second group jump to do, the people in this group look at me - and react to me - as if I'm mean, as if I'm not helping them. Because I'm not doing it FOR them.

And that's what frustrates me and leaves me sitting in my office with the door closed and my head in my hands. I don't have the energy to do it FOR them - heck, I'm doing FOR myself. I'm working full-time, doing volunteer work, teaching Sunday school and Youth Group and doing my own laundry and cleaning my own house and trying to cook healthful meals and and and...and here comes a person that seems to expect I shoulder the full responsibility for their education.

The other problem I've found with members of this group, is that they put off trying to get help. These are the folks that come in during the last two weeks of classes upset that they're earning a D and wondering why. Or who are aghast that their grade is that low, even though I hand back all the work they did and tell people they can come and look at their grade in the gradebook at any time. These are the people who come in during exam week and hem and haw about their grade, and then look at me and say: "Is there any extra credit I can do to bring up my grade?"

(The reason I don't give extra credit? The people who ask for it are usually people who skipped at least one of the "real" assignments. Why should I make more work for myself when people are unwilling to do the actual planned work of the class - work that is planned, hopefully, to help teach the concepts and skills being learned?)

It's a combination of thinking they can hit me up at the last minute, and not wanting to take responsibility for their education, that frustrates me.

Someone I know talked about going to college as being like joining a gym: you can pay the membership fee all you want, but unless you go and work out, you're not going to get into shape. I think that metaphor needs to be more widely popularized, because I see students who think going to college is like buying a ticket for a movie: they expect to be entertained for what they've paid, and if they aren't, they're going to walk out and then complain to their friends.

Like most things in life, if you want to get something valuable out of an education, you have to put your own investment of time and effort into it. And sadly, I think there are students - maybe an increasing number of students - who have come to believe that the time and effort is 100% on the professor, and if the student doesn't learn, it's entirely the prof's fault.


Anonymous said...

Likewise my dad's comment when I was choosing a college. "You can get a good education anywhere... but you have to want it." Sometimes things are just bad luck -- ask me about my sophomore year some time. But it's my experience that the chronically unlucky are often shooting themselves in the feet.

There's a phenomenon with which you may be familiar called "suicide by cop", where the unhappy person places himself in a position in which the cop is forced to bring them down. I am thoroughly convinced there is an academic equivalent.

Heroditus Huxley said...

I know precisely what you mean, Ricki. I've had the same issues with my students every semester--the only good thing about teaching online is that I get fewer of the helpless ones, and the ones that I do get wind up disappearing when they realize I _can't_ fix things for them because I'm a) not on campus, and b) an adjunct.