Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On Course: Students as People

In this chapter Lang addresses key issues surrounding how we should, as teachers, relate to our students as people. He wants us to remember that students have lives outside our classrooms and that these lives may have a negative, as well as positive, impact on their academic performance. He gives as one example how one of his student's work deteriorated over the course of the semester. In talking with her about her performance she made it known that her mother was dying. Another example was of a student who was in an abusive relationship with her significant other. Many of us have had similar experiences that have helped to shape how we understand and interact with our students. Some of us may even have had similar experiences as our students. Lang's point is that there are factors other then ability and desire that impact student performance and that remembering this fact is crucial to us if we are to be successful as teachers. The key is to be able to maintain our academic criteria and standards as well as try to reasonably accommodate student's legitimate needs.

Relative to recognizing our students as compete people, he discusses a number of key issues:1) Stick compassionately to our standards2) Listen, but don’t counsel3) Know your campus4) Protect yourself5) Age6) Gender7) Attendance status8) Race/ethnicity. We have discussed many of these points before, so I will not dwell on all of them. I would like to make a few comments on 2 and 4.

As I have mentioned before, there are only two reasons why people fail; they either cannot or will not do the work. Both of these issues need to be addressed by us as they arise in so far as they impact the student’s performance. Simply refusing to do the work requires only that we make it clear to the student what the consequences will be of continuing to operate in this frame of mind. A student who cannot do their work needs our counseling regarding what can be done to make the necessary adjustments so that performance can improve. We should only counsel relative to improving their performance in our class, not on what they should do relative to the problem they are facing in their lives resulting in poor performance. Relative to this, we should direct them to the proper persons that can offer that type of assistance. We can be empathic to what the student is going through, but we should not let our empathy detract us from what we are requiring of our students to be successful inour course. Part of our job is to keep ‘their feet to the fire,’ so to speak. We may offer an extension, but we should never allow them to not do what is assigned.

Regarding ‘protecting ourselves’ it is crucial that we not be perceived as 1) playing favorites, or 2) creating a hostile environment within which we expect learning totake place. Regarding the 1st point we need to keep a professional attitude towards our students. We need to remember that relationships, even professional ones, are reciprocal in nature. We need to treat our students respectfully if we expect to be treated respectfully. We need to treat our students fairly and equally unless we have an overriding reason to treat someone outside the norm. e.g., an illness/death in the family, or outside workcommitments that the student cannot avoid. But, the reason must be defensible and if we are making adjustments for one, these adjustments must be available to other students if they find themselves in similar circumstances. Regarding the 2nd point we need to be aware of how our behavior is interpreted by our students. This is particularly true with the ever-increasing cultural and demographic diversity being seen on college campuses as well as the general community. In light of the changing demographics within our institutions we need to be aware that what we find unobjectionable, may be objectionable to others. The extent to which a student may find our behavior unacceptable could result in our creating an environment where that student’s performance is less then had we been aware of the impact our behavior was having on his or her performance and making the necessary corrections. This can be rather tricky. I suggest that you watch for reactions to what you are doing and note negative type responses. If negative responses continue then change your behavior. At times you may have to make an apology to either a particular person, or the entire class, if you overstep some boundary, unintentionally or otherwise. I do speak from experience on this matter. I also encourage an open door and open dialogical approach to teacher/student interaction. This approach makes it clear to students that they can come to you and discuss any issue that is class related without fear of retaliation. I encourage students to address a problem as it arise and not to wait and let it fester. Being open can disarm potentially disruptive situations and maintain a good professional student/teacher relationship.

I know that this will sound old fashioned, but simply follow the ‘Golden Rule’ in our interactions with our students. Keeping this in mind will help us remember that we are not one-dimensional and that all of us are leading full and complex lives

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