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Caring more deeply than our students

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I recently read Michele Harper’s memoir, The Beauty in Breaking, about her experience as an emergency room physician. In one chapter, she writes about people coming to the ER who have so much more broken in their lives than, say, their arm. With some gentle probing, Harper may learn that the cause of the broken arm is the boyfriend sitting in the waiting area. She writes:

[W]hat's even worse is when I ask the question, and the patient declines assistance. Their doing so shouldn't feel like a personal affront, but for an instant, it can. Of course, if a patient declines help, that has nothing to do with me personally. Clearly, I'll go home to my life and not be beaten just the same. Perhaps what bothers me most is the raw realization that I care more deeply for the welfare of another human being than he cares for himself, and that that human being will leave my care to suffer more needless violence.

While Harper is speaking of physical danger, this section resonated with me as an educator. A student may come to me because of a poor grade on an assignment. With some gentle probing, I may learn that the student has an abusive boyfriend, has three part-time jobs, is a single parent to an infant and a toddler, is battling addiction/anxiety/depression—or some combination of all of these. When these are the cause, and my offers of help—such as a referral to our college counseling center—are declined, I feel sadness, certainly, but it doesn’t affect me as deeply as it seems to affect Harper, most likely because our roles are different. These are students who I believe value their education—they care about their education—but there are significant barriers in them achieving their educational goals. And my ability to help them navigate life’s choppy waters is limited.  

Major life circumstance barriers aside, there are times that I do find myself with a similar raw realization—that I care more deeply for a student’s education than they care for it themselves. I feel this most acutely with students who seem to have none of those life circumstance barriers, but who see education as something to be slogged through with minimal effort, not as something worthwhile in its own right—they seem to want the degree without the learning that it represents. In some cases, they don’t even seem to particular want the degree; they’re in college because of someone else’s expectations. It’s difficult to write supportive and constructive comments on the assignments of such students when I know that the comments will likely go unread—or if read, unheeded.

I was probably in the first year of my first full-time teaching job in the mid-1990s when one of our counselors spoke at a faculty meeting. She said, to paraphrase, “I know all of you mean well when you give students 3rd, 4th, and 5th chances, but you are not doing your students any favors. Students need to at least meet you halfway.” And then she said, “Students have a right to fail.” As a young faculty member, that was mind-blowing. I could deliver material that was important and relevant. I could present it in the most compelling way. I could construct meaningful assessments of their learning. I could not, however, do the learning. My students were the only ones who could do that. Twenty-five years later, that is still true.

I’ve been teaching at the same college long enough to have students come back for a round two. They’ll say, “I took your class 7 years ago, and I didn’t do very well.” They mean that they failed. “I wasn’t ready to go to college then, but I am now.” And they are. Invariably, they do much better than they did the first time. I see students with those significant life barriers again—they got away from the abusive boyfriend, they have a better-paying job, their children are older and more independent, their mental health is better.

When a student doesn’t do as well in my course as I believe they can, I cannot let myself think that I care more deeply about their education than they do. Instead, I have to think, “I look forward to seeing you again.”

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.