It Takes All Kinds

Most of the time, I love my students. As a college writing instructor, I come across all types. My writing class is a prerequisite for many other classes, and because of that, my students range from hard-core perfectionists to disgruntled mid-lifers, to precocious high school students, to bored grandmas, to battle-worn military veterans. Sometimes they are all in the same class. All are there for an infinite variety of reasons. With the recent changes in opportunities for students, people are starting to realize they have no excuse not to start a degree program. The problem is, less than half of my students finish. I’m still working on curbing that attrition, but I haven’t put my finger on how to stop it except to say that it depends on the individual. That’s why I try to connect with each student; this effort seems to boost their desire not only to complete my class, but to do well in it. What separates the successful learner from one who quits is an honest desire to succeed. Successful or not, my students all make an impression on me, and I learn from them how to be a better teacher. Here are a few examples of lessons I’ve learned from my students:

Grace was a student I had a couple of years ago who spoke English as a second language. A mother of five, it was hard for Grace to manage the copious amount of reading and writing at the level required for my class. She worked diligently every day, and gradually I saw her writing improve, which raised her self-confidence. When she earned an A in my class, it was hard-fought, but worth her effort. She told me later, “I am not afraid of writing anymore!” Lesson: Perseverance causes a boost to self-confidence, which in turn boosts success.

Nate, a retired veteran, came into my classroom with such enthusiasm that he couldn’t sit still. He was very excited to get started. Of course, I didn’t know until about a month later that he was homeless, that his books hadn’t been paid for, and that he didn’t have medication for his ADHD. Not only did Nate make it through my class with a B, but somehow he did it without ever getting his own books. His motivation to better his circumstances was obvious to everyone in the class. He had the philosophy of, “You can either help me, or you can get out of my way. Either way, I’m getting it done.” (He even told that to a representative at the VA.) Somewhere in the middle of the semester Nate decided to enter a writing contest about poverty for our student publication. He drafted a piece on homeless vets that ended up winning the contest. One of my proudest moments was hearing him read part of his essay in front of the crowd at the publication’s release party. Lesson: Nothing stops a person who really wants to succeed.

Jessica was not ready to be a college student. She was 19 and pregnant with her high-school-age boyfriend’s baby. Every time I suggested she look in the syllabus to find out what homework she needed to do, she got mad at me. Instead of listening and participating in class, she spent the entire hour on the computer in the grade-management program we use—yet at the end of the semester, she claimed she didn’t know how to submit papers. Lesson: Never assume students will advocate for themselves.

Two sisters, Ginny and Lacie, I have taught more times than is usually possible. Lacie I taught five times, and Ginny six times in a row, which means I taught her all four years of high school plus two semesters of college. I recently watched them get their Bachelor’s degrees, and as I sat watching them walk down that aisle with beaming faces, I remembered them when they were 14 years old and just entering my care as high school freshmen. Wow, the time has flown, and they have grown into beautiful, caring young women I am very proud of. Ginny recently began her Master’s program, in part due to my recommendation. Lesson: If you get the chance to teach someone more than once, ask them to give you useful feedback for your own improvement. It may be the best advice you’ll ever get.

Martin was such a natural writer that he blasted through all my assignments, even with modifications for advanced writing. I suppose I should have submitted his early work for departmental review so he could have moved straight into an advanced class, but I didn’t realize how easy it was for him until I graded his third essay, which I still use as a model for that assignment. The fact that he was not a native to this country made his command of the English language even more impressive. Lesson: Don’t assume someone with an accent struggles with English.

Ken was a student who was very creative yet sort of disconnected in his responses to in-class writing prompts, but his final assignments were always articulate and very well composed. I asked him why there was a difference between in-class and extended assignments, and he said he recently developed problems writing under pressure, but he did better when given time to work it all out. It turns out he had been in a major car accident and suffered some brain trauma which caused some serious disconnects in his cognition. He had undergone extensive memory therapy along with other treatments, but he said he might never be able to react well on impulse, and would probably never be able to write coherently off the cuff. So, since I allow revision to my assignments, this was the perfect class for him because he could revise until he was satisfied, which resulted in some really excellent work. It made me re-think the causes of writer’s block—it may not always be motivated by fear or procrastination. Lesson: Quietness doesn’t mean shyness. Still waters run deep. There may be an underlying reason for things, so don’t be quick to judge.

My students probably don’t realize how much I learn from them. I learn each semester how to tweak my lessons so they appeal to different learning styles and climates in each classroom. Sometimes the chemistry in a class works wonderfully, and the lessons almost run themselves; I had one class that ran almost solely on discussions during class time. Other times, the chemistry just isn’t there, and the class is a dud, with students slogging their way through the content until the end of the semester. Teaching is like rock stardom. If I get good crowd response, I ramp up the show. If I get lousy crowd response, I stop telling jokes or trying for direct interaction. If students respond positively to me and to one another, class time flies by. A positive climate can make an average student great and a failing student pass. It can keep people from dropping out and can push them forward, even when they don’t have a place to live or books for the class. It can motivate them to try harder, just because everyone else is trying harder; it’s infectious, and it’s a direct result of strong teacher-student interaction. I may not be able to connect with every student, but I’ll always try. That’s what good teachers do.