“What am I going to do?” The unhappy words emanated from the mouth of one of my students after class. It wasn’t the first time I had heard such words, and they had nothing to do with studying, assignments or tests. I’ve grown accustomed to my role as sounding board and generally in such situations I’m not being asked to solve the problem, only to listen to it. Somehow that makes the student feel better.
Students have lives outside the classroom and sometimes they bring those lives into class with them. Most of the time students simply sit as lumps in their chairs and I don’t have to worry about them for any longer than I spend time with them each week. Occasionally, some of them ask questions or engage in discussions, which keeps my lectures from being simply the drone of my voice repeating words that I’ve said endlessly year after year. I know of one professor that actually fell asleep during his own lecture. Thankfully, that has never happened to me. Of course, in that professor’s defense, he had just come from the hospital where his wife had delivered his first child and he hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours. I’m told the students were very quiet as they hurriedly snuck away from the lecture hall, not wishing to disturb his slumber. Polite of them.
Yet, despite the fact that in my mind I am simply a droning voice imparting information to awaiting minds, nearly every year I have students that decide to unburden themselves to me, apprising me of details that you’d think only their closest friends or family would be privy to. Years ago I had a student approach me after class and inform me that he was Jesus. Being a trained theologian I knew right away that he was mistaken. Not being a trained psychologist, however, I didn’t know quite how to fix his mistaken notion. After getting stuck in a conversation with him for the next three hours he did at last decide he wasn’t Jesus. Instead, he decided he must be Elijah. I suppose that was progress. He also claimed to be responsible for creating AIDS.
Thankfully, I was able to get him directed toward the school’s mental health department after that.
Most students however, are not actually psychotic. Thank goodness. Instead, I merely have to listen to ordinary—and far less interesting—difficulties. With younger students, they will confide problems with their parents or siblings or dating experiences. Older adults will tell me about their job stresses, issues in their churches, or problems with their children. So far I’ve not been called upon to do any marriage counseling, or for that matter, any genuine counseling of any kind. Given that I’m not a trained counselor, that’s a good thing. If something truly serious ever comes up—I’ll simply have to encourage the student to find a good psychologist—or at the very least to make sure they keep on whatever medications they happen to be taking.
The most I usually do—and I do this on a regular basis—is to keep students from becoming discouraged around test time. Or in the case of students taking a foreign language such as Hebrew—every time we have class. Last week in Hebrew I introduced three concepts: how the plural is constructed, what impact that has on the verb, and the prepositions. As usual, there was also a new list of vocabulary words to memorize. It is very easy for students to feel overwhelmed when faced with that amount of new material. The temptation for them to quit can sometimes be very strong, especially among those who have never tackled a foreign language before. So I spend some time in class reminding them of how much progress they’ve made in the six weeks since the course began, how each week’s material will build on the past, and that they are not expected to have this down perfectly yet: learning is a process and if they knew it all already they’d be the one standing up yapping at them instead of me. Oddly enough, it is necessary to remind students that it is okay and normal for them to not know or understand it all.
When test time arrives, I explain ahead of time my expectations. I remind them of what we’ve covered in the weeks leading up to the test, and I tell them, using the words of my old economics professor, that tests are “learning experiences.” The purpose of testing is to let the student discover, in an objective way, just how much education has occurred. Although it is very easy to forget, the purpose of going to school is not to get grades or pass with high marks on the tests or even to get a diploma or a job. The purpose of going to school is to become educated: to learn things that one was previously ignorant of, to gain the tools and resources necessary to think clearly and well. An awful lot of students and teachers, in my experience, seem to have forgotten all that.
I try not to.