Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Scott just blogged about the stress college students face this time of year (and, in some cases, all year) and how he tries to deal with that as a teacher. He also talked about the student who, seemingly, had stress far beyond what most teachers expect to work around.

It has often crossed my mind that I need to work harder to understand the stress my students face (particularly now that I teach high school). I try to do that, but I wonder how well. When I think back to my own days as a student, I remember doing the long, long, long periods with little or no sleep (much of which I shared with Scott and Carlton). I remember flailing around for a handle on the course for which I was preparing. I remember (some) really hard work.

Once, while trying to write an essay at the last minute (the night before it was due), I found myself at an impasse. To break the monotony and to reshuffle my brain cards (and to get some free cigarettes: another thing college students should not refuse), I wrote a paper for a friend. This friend had a paper due in an upper level history course. I was not in the class. I didn't know the topic. She gave me the book she was using for the paper, told me a little bit about what she had hoped to say, told me the instructions, and left me to write it. I wrote it (she got an A for it) and went back to my own essay, which I completed just in time for class the next morning. Moral concerns aside, I don't think I'm capable of that sort of work now, but there were times in the past when I was a machine.

This sort of thing reminds me, however, of a problem I have when dealing with my students: I always found school to be pretty easy. It was challenging at times, but in a good way, and often boring, but (except for math) I never found myself sitting in front of my homework thinking "I don't know what I'm supposed to do with this." Many of my students have that experience sometimes. Some have it regularly. I genuinely don't know how to relate to them.

Before you write this off as arrogance, by the way, consider this: there are all sorts of non-school things I can't do. Just can't. I am, for example, a poor athlete. If I work hard and practice, I can just climb up to passable. And yet I really enjoy sports. The same goes for music: I am a very good listener, but I seem to have no aptitude for making music. I have tried. It ain't there. I am also at a loss when it comes to "making new friends". The friends I have are wonderful, but they are only mine because either they did something to make it happen or I got super lucky. Had it been left up to my efforts, I would be utterly alone.

As far as my role as teacher goes, furthermore, I usually teach history. I am not only particularly good at undertanding and remembering things related to history, but I also have a deep passion for it. The tactic I've most often used is to try to demonstrate how much I love the topic in the hopes that my students will latch onto that and think "well, HE digs it, so it must be at least a little digable. Maybe I can dig it, too." But of course, not everyone can dig everything. I've had math teachers try the same trick on me and it never worked.

When I taught at university, I had colleagues (including professors) who were quick to label students as lazy, stupid, or (at least) unsuited for college just because they weren't digging history. I sometimes asked those colleagues if they had ever been on campus late at night. Had they passed the chemistry building? Had they passed the engineering building? Had they seen the music building? Did they, perhaps, notice lights on in those buildings? Had they ever stopped to consider that students, THEIR students, were in those buildings working?

And then there is the wild card: many students feel unbelievable pressure from their families and friends. My parents have never been the sort to push me, but many students are working with fear hanging over their heads. Many (far too many) really believe (and are constantly told) that they carry the world on their shoulders. This sort of tension does not lend itself to a love of learning. It turns confusion into panic. It turns mistakes into crimes. It is the greatest enemy many students face, as it can lead to cheating, breakdowns, resignation, and self abuse. It can also lead to suicide.

My point? I don't have one.


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