On Sunday, “The Educational Power of Discomfort” was available at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Irina Popescu mentioned several items that truly hit home with me. I thought I would share a few of these items with you this week.
First, Popescu mentions student fragility, but she isn’t talking about the social protests, oustings, fraud, abuse, etc. that are happening almost every day at various colleges and universities across the nation. She is talking about the fragility of students in general – their fears of missing assignments, of public speaking, of failing, of being one hardship away from quitting, or just the belief that they really aren’t college material. In most cases, I have a tendency to talk about the students who are over-confident; they’ve always done well in high school without putting forth much effort, so they believe they can do the same in college. However, I often forget about the others. Those who are worried and scared or those on the verge of dropping classes because they never believed they could do it in the first place. I want to pay more attention to those students. When I first started teaching here at Victoria College, I had my students complete double entry journals for every chapter. I read these journals and responded with comments. I discovered so many things about my students that semester from their written reflections. I haven’t tried it in my classes since then, and I don’t feel as though I’ve gotten to know my students nearly as well.
Secondly, Popescu tries to help her students understand that a bad grade is just that – one bad grade. It is not an overall reflection of intelligence or ability. It reminded me of Carol Dweck’s video and her belief that students who cannot perform well on a given task or assignment just haven’t mastered it “yet.” This doesn’t mean that they won’t or haven’t; they just need more time and practice. I wonder what would happen if we did not give a student a failing grade, but we said “practice some more, study this, find this and try again. You aren’t ready for this test – yet.” Would they work harder?
I was also reminded we often teach much more than our content. We teach important life skills like meeting deadlines and communicating with one another, career skills like being an engaged employee rather than just a motivated one, and learning skills like reading a syllabus or a textbook. These are vital skills that many first generation college students need. Not all of my students come to me with the same knowledge and abilities, and I may have to provide extra assistance, practice, or instruction for some of them.
Finally, Popescu mentions imposter syndrome. I have experienced this many times. As the only person in my family to go to college, I often feel more like the impoverished child I used to be rather than a college educated professional. I can imagine many of my students have these same feelings, but I fear I haven’t actively done anything to allay these fears. This is something else I want to work on. I want to establish the sense of belonging they need in order to feel part of my classroom and the college community.
Overall, you may be thinking that Popescu is proposing that we coddle these students, but she isn’t. Instead, she is proposing that the idea of doing new things is often hard and uncomfortable – for both me and my students. However, once we get over that discomfort, the rewards are so great. This is the message I want to remember and pass on to my students.