I conducted a survey at the beginning of an undergraduate course seeking to reinforce sustainable college habits among students. I asked a question about passion: “What is your passion?” I asked a question about perceptions of support: “Have you shared your passion with the professor?” I asked a question about self-efficacy: “Why haven’t you shared your passion with the professor?” The responses I read to the third question nearly broke my heart.
As one student phrased the sentiment:
“No teacher has ever asked about my passion. I didn’t think you would be any different.”
Some students felt that some faculty used their position as a shield against revealing themselves as a human being. The result to the student is the perception of a singular focus. I argue that this diminishes the student’s ability to transfer and scaffold skills from one course to another. Their focus is so insistently on giving the teacher what they want that they never engage with the material in ways that relate to higher learning functions. Comprehension and recitation never evolves toward application and analysis. In fact, the interaction required to explore such analysis puts the student and teacher in a “too familiar” space. This is due to the fact that meeting the student where they are requires identification of some personal understanding, maybe centered in experience, which has to be mined and connected to the current lesson and content. It is a messy activity for white-gloved hands.
Insistence on Boundaries (Power trip)
Could it be that the boundaries we have created support “disconnected environments” while attempting to create “safe environments”? This discussion is not new. It’s the discussion of authoritarian versus authoritative engagement. But, it is more than that. As the lessons in school become more complex, the need for external supports is increased. The danger is that students may have received the message that the school system and the teachers as the authorities are not present to serve them. Students may feel that their lack of conformity–communicated as achievement–is their individual responsibility. That is, they don’t realize that school is a collective effort, not an individual effort.
Marketing and having the space doesn’t mean students will come. I am convinced that most who need the services don’t know how to access them. They know they are there. They can even walk into the supportive space. But, what do they do then.
A common student refrain I have heard is, “I’m totally different here in class than I am at home.” I cringe when I hear that. For me, it slaps of inauthentic, dissociative behavior. I understand that they intend to communicate their ability to adapt to the setting they are in. But, this same “leaving myself at the door” arguably does not work in the classroom. It definitely does not work when help-seeking. If, I as a support services individual, am not working with the authentic student, I am going to do a poor job of support.
The case is the student who comes in for Math tutoring. After an hour of work, the student is asked about their comprehension. “Do you have a better understanding?” The student does not understand any better than they did upon showing up for tutoring. Because they gave nothing away about their interests and personality, the tutor created examples and analogies that did not connect to the experience of the student. The student quickly processes the question in the context of the fact that they just spent an hour with the tutor. They completed their homework. They sought out the help. With that in mind, the student answers, “Yes. Thank you for your help.” My point is concerning the student who has experienced this before, and now has more complex questions to be answered. No amount of cajoling and marketing will get that student into the office of support services. It did not work in the past. Why should it work now?
I am not as optimistic as I used to be that this challenge can be overcome. As a student, I thought that if the system changed, the opportunity would be more inviting. As a professor, I realized that the resistance is also from the students. Pride, self-reliance, individualism, fear, and a flawed sense of professionalism are several of the barriers to help-seeking. My solutions are what is needed even if they have been difficult to achieve.
- Educate authenticity authentically. Appropriate self-disclosure is important to connecting concepts and communicating with knowledge of the lens of the student. Without being real with one another as human beings, we only have intellect and shared experience as the basis for knowledge communication. As soon as the intellect is limited (ill-informed) or the experience is diverse, the communication of knowledge fails.
- Refocus on process performance. Many students coming from secondary education have the myopic notion that grades are the measure of achievement. Certainly, grades are the criteria for scholarships, college entrance, and even club membership. It offers bragging rights for teacher, parents, and the students alike. I don’t argue the usefulness of grades. I argue the process. You can receive grades without retention of content. Therefore, my focus is to communicate the importance of a learning process that creates the physical connections in your brain consistent with memory. Like the feeling you get when you hear your favorite song or smell your favorite flower, these memories are long-term and scaffold-able. When knowledge is connected to passion and interest, it builds possibilities and the ability to solve more complex problems. Simply stated, I value the learning that knows how the answer arrived more than the learning that recites the answer without awareness of process.
- Allow for ambiguity. Knowing exactly what to do, having the perfect tool for the job, having flawless supports, and enjoying quiet space to work are rarely present conditions at the same time. If that throws off the motivation of the student to try, something is wrong with our system. Understand that boredom, ambiguity, and needing to figure out imperfect conditions is the basis for innovation, invention, and critical thinking. We must support this skill development in our students. They don’t all have to be inventors, but our educational system is worth nothing if they are all automatons.