I was no longer a rookie teacher - it was probably by fifth or sixth year teaching, and it was on a clear fall day. I can tell you exactly where the student was, where she sat: front row, right next to the door, so if she needed to leave it would be the quickest way out. Looking back, I wonder if she thought about that too. It was right after I gave back a test in Week 11 – too late in the semester to fix big problems, too late to make the changes that should have been made – and, as we went over the exam, she began weeping in class. Not just crying, but weeping.
I asked the students to go over their work individually for a few minutes, asked her if I could talk to her outside for a second. She showed me the result I know she had – a poor result after a succession of other poor results through class. She hadn’t put in any sort of special effort I had noticed – was sporadic in doing homework, hadn’t take me up on my offers to get help during office hours, hadn’t gone to the tutoring center.
“I tried. This class, I tried. I tried so hard.”
After expressing my shared grief with her and asked her if maybe we could talk about things after class for a few minutes we went back into class, where she said nothing, and left when I was erasing the boards. I never saw her again, in my class or anywhere else, and I realized afterwards that the fact that she spoke in the past tense meant she had already made a big decision. I hope it’s not the last time she was ever in a college classroom and I have thought about this experience, and how much more I should have known, at least once a week for the past 10 years of my life. It still haunts me.
I thought about this for awhile - first, for a few minutes, then for about a half-hour - and I realized I was wrong – that what I was doing wasn’t in union with my values or what I wanted to be as a teacher. There are three things that I realized afterwards, things that I wish I realized from the very beginning:
1. Not trying is sometimes a defense mechanism meant to protect students. If I’m not sure I can do something I might have good psychological reasons to not try. If I fail at something, and I don’t try, I can tell myself that I failed because I didn’t try. If I fail at something, and I tried a little, I can tell myself that if I tried harder I would have succeeded. But if I give it my absolute best, and if I have no excuses to offer my psyche, and if I still fail, can you see how damaging this can be? I know that working harder isn’t always the best thing to change to be successful – the student didn’t take advantage of a wide array of help at her disposal. Still, though, this is a dangerous thing
2. I need to reward behavior change whenever it happens, as much as I can. Students with Developmental Education very often need to learn or remediate study skills – many got through High School or equivalences with a poor foundation, and are discovering that their methods of work and study will not yield success in college. I firmly believe that we can learn more from failure than from success, and I need to remember that failure can be a teacher, but I also need to remember that students need second chances where I can provide them. If a student can demonstrate that they’ve learned from their mistakes – whether they be on a math problem or how they study and take notes – I need to give them the opportunity to demonstrate this when I can.
3. I can no longer expect success from students if I don’t demonstrate how to achieve success. I have taken for granted that students know how to review class material, how to take notes, what to do if they need extra help, how to handle math anxiety, how to not procrastinate. I no longer expect these things when students come into my classroom for the first time – even if they have forgotten these things, these, like mathematics in general, are ultimately perishable: if they are not used, they are lost.
Have you ever had one of these moments of catharsis? What happened to initiate it? How did you resolve it - or did you ever resolve it?