Sunday, May 25, 2008


For the most part, I love being a teacher, and I can't imagine doing anything else for a living. There's just one part of the job that I don't like.

It's very easy to get the wrong impression, and to think that just because students apparently are paying attention, giving good feedback, saying positive things about the class, that somehow I'm setting their feet on the right path and steering them away from mistakes. I thought that for the first few years I taught. Then, I had to learn the hard way: I never, never, never steer them away from a mistake. Never have, never will, can't. They steer themselves away, when they do. And they don't very often.

I am not saying my students are stupid. The run of them make better decisions than I did at their age. But what I learned the very hard, and painful, way, is that I cannot stop a student from making a mistake. They have to make their own mistakes. I can't protect them, I can't shield them, I can't get through to them. They do what they do because they decide it's what needs doing.

And really, that's the way it should be. I made a choice to teach college, and it has a lot of benefits. I don't talk to parents, ever. I deal with people who are young, energetic, creative, and fun, but still have at least a sketchy foundation of adult behaviors, so I don't get worn out and wrung out by excess childishness. I've had friends who taught younger students, and while they reap enormous rewards themselves, they also suffer from a particular kind of burnout that I think would claim me pretty quickly. College is the right age group for me to teach.

But the thing about college students is, it's a mistake to protect them. By this point, the time for protection has passed. Since this is their first stage of being out from under adult command, it's actually very important that they make and implement their own decisions, even if those decisions are disastrous. I can put it this way: it's more important for them to do an idiotic thing that they decided to do than it is for them to do a wise thing at someone else's insistence.

But it's more than a mistake to protect them: it's just plain impossible. I have, over the years, watched students of mine, students that I cared a lot about, destroy themselves. I've seen them spiral down into drug use. Some aren't alive anymore. At least one is in prison, and won't be out anytime soon. And I remember everything I said and did, chiefly because I go over and over it; and I remember moments when I thought I'd made a difference, only to find out later that I hadn't. No one ever actually teaches a college student; instead, college students take advantage of the resources around them, including but not limited to what their professors have to say, to teach themselves. And it simply doesn't matter how right I am, or how vividly I remember making the exact same mistake in my young adult years: if a student is hell-bent on doing the dumbest thing imaginable, then I am powerless.

And every once in a while I feel like Jeremiah. I explain to students that what they intend to do is a bad idea, even though I know full well that my words are bouncing off. What motivates me to do it anyway is a pretty dreary purpose: I don't want them to be able to claim that no one warned them. When a moment of accountability arrives, when a consequence comes thudding down, I don't want them to be able to lay the charge at my feet that I never cautioned them. I want to be innocent of their blood. What I want is really much more: I do want to reach them, to persuade them, to lead them away from danger, but I know better by now than to think that can happen. College students change their behavior for one reason, and one reason only: because they've decided it's the wise course of action. And while that's inescapable, it does also result in a lot of agonizing moments for their teachers, friends, and loved ones: moments of absolute paralysis and impotence.

The thing about it is, people do not learn what they are not yet ready to learn. People learn when they're ready, when they reach the proper spot in their developmental track, and not before. And there is zero, and I mean zero, and let me emphasize zero, way to speed up that process. It happens at its own pace. When a toddler is terrified of monsters under the bed, an older person may chuckle, may remember a similar fear at a similar age, but the older person cannot transfuse the knowledge that there are no monsters under the bed into the toddler's mind. To the toddler, they're there, waiting. And it's one of the toughest things for the older person to have empathy for the toddler, to experience what it's like for an irrational threat to be absolutely real in the mind.

Just one sore spot I'll get specific about, and then I'll put this behind me: moving, transferring, etc. to be closer to friends and family. I had an advisee do it, and I have a Sunday School student who's about to do it. It's their choice, and it's not my place to tell them it's not a good one. But it isn't. Life moves on. Surrendering to homesickness is not a move toward growth, but toward immaturity and stagnation. It's wonderful to be close to one's family members, but not wonderful to be stuck on the end of an umbilical cord. And being needy and dependent on one's high school friends to me seems uncomfortably similar to peaking in high school. Yes, those years are enormously influential, and most folks acquire wonderful friends and wonderful memories then. But it comes time to move on. There are hordes of people in the world ready to be wonderful friends. If an old friend shows up in the same neighborhood, or the same line of work, then that's great. But holding back and limiting one's options in order to stay close to high school friends really strikes me as tragic.

Despite all of the above, despite the frustration of being powerless, I still love being a teacher. It's actually somehow comforting to know that the students I teach are in control of what happens to them. Certainly limits my ability to screw things up.

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