Actually Listening and Giving a Damn

I have a colleague that students adore. They keep in contact with him years after graduation. They update him on their changes in careers, the birth of their children, their life crises and personal successes. I am continually amazed by the things he knows about their lives, and sometimes I'm even a bit envious of his ability to relate to students.

I like to think I can connect with my students, but any rapport I establish exists solely in the classroom. In general, I know nothing about my students' lives; nor do I really want to know. They must intuitively pick up on this, too, because they rarely come to my office to unburden themselves, seek advice or shoot the breeze. In 19 years of teaching I have probably heard from only a handful of former students. And most of those were asking me to write a recommendation, something I really enjoy doing.

It's not that I'm complaining. To be honest, I have a hard time relating to students outside of a classroom. We have little in common and I often struggle for something to say. For years I volunteered as a first-year academic advisor. I enjoyed the work but hated the summer luncheon where I had to spend an hour making small talk with incoming advisees. More than anything, I quit first-year advising to avoid sitting through those awkward luncheons.

But there are ways of connecting with students other than getting to know all about them. In the end, what matters is actually listening to what they say and giving a damn. It's always amazed me how much they will respond to even the smallest amount of caring. Here's what I mean. This past semester I had a student in my Intro to Humanities section. He was a bright guy but none too interested in the subject matter at the beginning of the course. He was simply going through the motions. I put the following comment on one of his assignments:
I would like to see a bit more integration of support into your answers. Also, can you tie this response to other material we've read, other courses you are taking, or even your personal experience? It's not enough to summarize what the text says. I need to see you doing something with it, comparing it, connecting it, showing me why it matters or doesn't matter. In short, I want you to do what you're doing now, but then step back and ask yourself, "So what?" Take this to the next level, and I will be an even bigger fan of that wonderful mind of yours than I already am. I want your best and I'll shower you with praise when I get it (Promise).
I meant that part about him having a wonderful mind. He does, but he had fallen into the academic rut of putting forth the least effort for the least objectionable result. Even so, it only took one tossed off sentence on his paper to produce a turn around. For the rest of the course he tried harder. He even hung around after class one day to confess sheepishly that he hadn't tried as much on his last assignment. He had broken up with his girlfriend and was cramming for MCAT exams. He just wanted me to know that it had nothing to do with me, his respect for my class or the subject matter.

I was characteristically uncomfortable discussing his girlfriend troubles, but I was again flabbergasted at how little actual listening and giving a damn it takes to turn a student around. You don't have to become their best friend for life to let them know they matter. I swear, seventy-five percent of them will try to walk through a brick wall if they even half-suspect it matters to you. And caring can be something as simple as saying, "You can do better. I know you can."

I had another student this semester who was just wonderful: great ideas, personable, interesting. She was a delight to have in class, but she was uninterested in playing the academic game and her writing skills were holding her back. I had to give her a low grade and it drove me nuts. I sent her an email after I turned in my grades and told her I thought the world of her and she must never doubt her ability. I said I would love to have her in my class again--anytime, anywhere. I meant it too.

Some of these kids make me want to walk through a brick wall (even if I never hear from them ever again).

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