Last month Aeron Haynie's piece on "taking students personally" hit home for me. One of the great pleasures of teaching in a liberal arts setting is getting to know my students individually, often teaching them in more than one class and developing a relationship that goes beyond the classroom. This semester I kept in touch with several former students who are now in graduate school; tipped off another former student about a potential job in a city where she wanted to live; and worked with a couple of honors students as they narrowed down their thesis topics. These are the rewarding interactions, the ones that remind me of why I work in this setting: I can make a difference, and see it in action.
But all is not sweetness and light. I had several "problem" students as well — students who had to withdraw for personal reasons, or who perhaps should have withdrawn but struggled through nonetheless, with limited success. Some students faced illnesses and injuries that kept them out of class or on crutches for weeks, sometimes necessitating major accommodations in order to finish up their coursework. And, though I do know some of their stories, most of my students remained relatively anonymous to me: they came to class and did their work, perhaps dropping by office hours once or twice but otherwise just moving through the syllabus on schedule. They, too, may have faced difficulty and hardship this semester, but for whatever reason were able to — and chose to — keep it to themselves.
I spent the end of the semester feeling somewhat down about a particular student whom I felt I'd failed to reach, and who seemed to be failing on his part to make any effort to change things. I keep wanting to turn his story into my story, to figure out a way that his failure could at least teach me something — teach me, for example, how to keep him from failing. But sometimes our students are not, in fact, illustrations for our narratives of personal development. In the end, it may be that we are both extremely minor characters in each other's stories — only a small part of a larger narrative.
As has been true all semester, chatting with my daughter every now and then has provided helpful insights into student-faculty connections. I don't know the names of her professors, though I can still name every teacher she had through elementary, middle, and high school. She didn't tell the stories about these professors that I heard about those teachers, day in and day out. She has a few anecdotes, of course — we all do, from our college days, of the eccentric professor or the one whose stories linger long after the course is over. But for the most part I get the sense that she's known to her professors, but not well-known; she doesn't have stories about dropping by office hours or following up on book recommendations, for example. When she got sick at the end of the semester, she did her best to keep up, and e-mailed one or two professors when, in the end, she couldn't. That's how it is for most of us, most of the time, I imagine: our students get their work done and go on, and we do, too. And then occasionally there's a surprise, as when the relatively quiet student suddenly turns in a fabulous piece of work and demonstrates that she was really listening, and thinking, all along. At this time of year I'm particularly grateful for that kind of surprise, and there have already been several in the batch of papers I've been grading lately. They mitigate my nagging sense of failure, and remind me that it's not always the students I know the most about who are getting the most out of the course.
I do wonder if, following Aeron's suggestion, I might have known earlier who these students were if I'd gotten to know them before the class began, and planned the semester around them. But the randomness of the group is part of the pleasure of teaching — seeing a group suddenly coalesce as mine did when, to everyone's surprise, one student brought cake to class on the last day. My lesson plan was shot, but the group suddenly felt like a group rather than a collection of individuals, and as we ate cake our conversation shifted subtly, with a few different people speaking up and the whole group taking control of discussion in new ways. What I knew about the individuals in the group — fragmentary and random as it was — didn't come close to preparing me for the way they interacted as a whole.
I can't quite see the picture of this semester yet, but the evidence of the last few days, as I learn how my students have developed over the semester, what they have learned and how they've started to apply it, is looking pretty good. There's always more to be said, of course, more connections to make and more stories to tell — but as we put this semester to bed and start to think about the next one, I'm trying to remember that the big picture always looks different from the close-up.