Monday, April 13, 2009

Nancy from Niles on Being Responsible for Students.

Go ahead and call me a privileged whiner. I don’t care. I call my students snowflakes. I draft RYS-style smackdowns in my head all the time. I piss and moan right along with my colleagues about the entitlement, the whining, the grade-grubbing, the ‘is this going to be on the test’ question, and the general neediness of my students.

But I care about my students. I realize they are people too. I know all of their names (over 110 in an average semester). I work hard to keep up on the material in my ever-changing field. I try to be approachable so they can ask questions both in class and during my office hours. And I will always listen when they have problems – both personal and class-related.

I get involved if my students come to me for help. I’ve sent my fair share to the counseling center and have even spent an afternoon on the phone with the director getting advice on how to deal with a severely depressed student. I actually think I might get involved more than I should. I’ve shared personal information about myself to make a connection with those I feel are struggling and who will benefit from knowing that I’ve been there.

But don’t you tell me I’m supposed to be an instructor and a surrogate parent to all of the students who pass through my classroom. And don’t tell me I have to be responsible for their personal lives. I just can’t do it.

This semester I had a student I feared was close to suicide. She confided in me that, when she woke up in the morning, all she felt was despair. She wondered how everyone else got out of bed every day. She saw no purpose to life. I spent a lot of time in my office with her and on the phone with the director of the counseling center. I even broke down in my department chair’s office when both he and the director told me I did as much as I could because I was afraid it wasn’t enough. So I kept up with the student – probably crossing all sorts of boundaries – and convinced her to go see a counselor. She went and is actually doing better.

Know why I did that? It’s not because I think I’m a wonderful person and I wanted to pat myself on the back and say ‘look what I did’. It’s because for the first time in my relatively short teaching career, I had a student commit suicide last November. No warning signs, nothing. Just here one week and gone the next. In fact, administration didn’t even bother to tell me when they took him off my class list. I had to find out a week later when one of my other students emailed me his obituary.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it changed me. I cried for days. I couldn’t think about or talk about anything else. I went over and over all of the interactions I could remember having with him. He was very intelligent and extremely outspoken so there were a lot of interactions to think about. But I came up with nothing. So, now that you’re stirring all that guilt back up, you tell me what I should have done. I only see my students for about three hours a week in a lab setting. What can I do?

I still have the paper I never got to return to him. I keep it in a file along with his obituary. Like I said, students are people too and the obituary will always be a painful reminder of that. But they are adults and I just cannot be responsible for all of them. There is a limit to how much responsibility I can take on without giving up too much of myself.