I have a confession: I have an irrational fear. That fear is talking one-on-one with a student. It scares the hell out of me. Even as I write, I’m starting to get butterflies. This is completely and totally irrational. When ever I talk one-on-one with a student, it is a good experience; and the outcome is almost always positive.
I have been thinking about this fear, the outcomes, and the reasons for my apprehension for the better part of two years. I am writing these ideas down to clear my head, share my experiences, and begin to move on to something more productive (like worrying about the fact that the sun will begin to collapse upon itself within the next few billion years, leading to a increase in heat which will evaporate all the water on this planet, and the star I rely on for food will eventually swallow the only home I’ve ever known); but I digress; as I’m wont to do. I believe there are several reasons for this irrational fear, and I will outline them below.
Much of this fear stems from my in-class persona, “Boss Man”; when a student initiates a conversation, I am no longer in charge. All my copies of our text, my microscope, my pipets, and even my desk are labeled, “Boss Man.” It’s a not-so-subtle indicator that I am in charge of what happens in my classroom/lab. I think it’s fair to say the way I teach, and my behavior in class, is a strong enough indication of how much I value my role within the room; but this little joke helps seal the deal. When I am in a purely didactic mode, or working with small groups, I can set the agenda. I can also hide within the interactions between myself and hyper-engaged students. These interactions, in turn, provide a buffer between myself and my less accomplished students. When I initiate a one-on-one conversation with a student, it is usually brief, and I am controlling the conversation. Usually I am congratulating a student; or I am pointing out a garish misconception articulated in a student’s work, and helping him or her clear up the misconception. When a student takes a major risk, and initiates a conversation with me, I am no longer in charge. This, I think, is the genesis of my fear.
Students often come to see me about a grade, and they likely disappointed with their score. This automatically puts me a little bit on the defensive, and my anxiety kicks into overdrive (“did I score them fairly?” “were my questions truly on point with my learning objectives?” “do I really know what I’m doing?”). I don’t mind the challenges, in fact, I covet them; however, a poor grade is usually a symptom of a disconnect between a student and I, or between the student and the content. In short, I’ve been called out on not doing my job perfectly. As I stated previously, these fears are soon abated. I have learned to turn these scary interactions into opportunties to coach students, offer advice on study habits, ask them if they are honestly putting in their best efforts (given their busy schedules), how much they priortize my class, and help students understand a concept. Hell, I get to teach.
Students come to see me when they are “lost.” They may have disengaged from the class for a couple of weeks, they may have been out of town for another commitment, or they may have been out sick for an extended period of time. Students are likely to see me at my worst here (hence, the fear). I am always looking forward (reflection is not a natural instinct — notice how few and far between my “weekly” blog posts are–), and when “lost” students derail me from my forward-facing approach to teaching, I tend to be less inclined to help. My first instinct is to tell students to, “Check the blog,” or, “Get notes from another student.” If they missed data collection in lab, they are responsible for getting the data, and doing the best they can to write up their lab report. Now, I must say, a student’s number one priority is be in class, and I am not interested in developing an individual educational plan (IEp) for 70 IB Biology students; however, I can work to become more approachable, more patient, and more empathetic with these lost students.
The one-on-one conversations I’ve had with these “lost” students have turned out to be surprisingly pleasant. perhaps this is best illustrated with an example. Late this spring one of my worst students turned in an unacceptable Internal Assessment for Higher Level IB Biology (my primary teaching assignment). I made copious notes on her final draft so that she could re-work the paper and salvage any hope of securing a passing score in the class (and earn the IB diploma). This student was over her head all year long (and truthfully, for four years in our program), and I resisted wasting my class time (and planning periods) trying to help her. She was, after all, a lost cause. I did extend this life line, and to her credit, she took it, and asked me for help. The ensuing twenty-minute conversation allowed me to understand her thinking, allowed her to better explain how she collected her data, we worked together to find a more appropriate way for her to represent her data, and I encouraged her to redouble her efforts to determine why the animals behaved in a particular way. I also learned this particular student was funny, smart, and generally interesting. She learned that I was actually funny, deeply interested in her project, and that I wanted the best for her. I honestly believe we both left that conversation with a more positive view of the other. I wonder how much more I could have taught this student if I initiated this conversation earlier. In fact, isn’t this the whole point?
This blog post, and the two others in the series, have helped me define who I am as a teacher. These posts have helped me refine my “elevator pitch.” Here it is,”I teach upper level biology to highly motivated high school students. I am trying to be as non-traditional as possible inside the context of a traditional classroom/laboratory. I work to build relationships with my students through the content that I teach. It’s all about connecting to students through the content. At the end of the day, I am their teacher.” In order to live this elevator pitch out, I have to be great on several scales: didactic teaching/direct instruction, facilitating laboratory work, facilitating large group discussions, facilitating small group discussions, and yes, connecting with students in a (scary) one-on-one context where I am not in charge.