On Thursday last week I sat in my office all day and waited for my first-year students to pick up their graded papers. As they filtered in and then out my door, a few of them paused, smiled, and thanked me for the semester.
I think I forgot to say “you’re welcome” for at least half of them. I know I always smile, sometimes a little awkwardly, but genuinely. But occasionally I find myself at a loss for words. “You’re welcome”, I suppose, somehow just doesn’t quite seem to cut it.
Perhaps it’s because those students who have paused to thank me are often those ones to whom I am also grateful: grateful for their commitment to learning, their effort, for their essay re-writes, the way they’ve taken my feedback and pushed themselves, how they’ve made their papers convincing, persuasive, and drawn stronger links to textual evidence. I’m grateful for their genuine searching questions, their involvement in class discussions, and their respectful comments. I’m grateful for their their earnest fastidiousness, their engagement, and perhaps most of all, their deep concern for each other.
My students this semester have been all this and more, all the more remarkable because for the vast majority this is their first semester of post-secondary education. For some, my class was their introduction to city-living, the cold dark of Northern Novembers, being far away from family and old friends. For most, this semester was their first experience of the university classroom space; their first lesson in self-directed time management, in living life without direct supervision, in juggling financial obligations with academic ones.
For any first-year student, the experience of university can be challenging, difficult, and overwhelming. For the students that started out at my university this term, they also had to deal with two “non-criminal student deaths” on campus. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to experience the loss of a fellow student, a classmate, a friend. What I do know is that this first semester is hard for most students, and that without contact from caring, compassionate people, students can feel nothing but alienation and loneliness as they begin university life.
Earlier this semester I had two of my students approach me to explain their tardiness to class. They had been trying to get ahold of their friend, also in my class, who had been missing classes for a week. The reason they were late was because they’d decided to track down this friend at her house. Waking up early in the morning, they’d to travelled off-campus to their friend’s home, to see if she was going to make it to class. She didn’t answer the door.
When they told me this story, I was prompted to pass along resources–contact info for the chaplain’s office, peer-support centre, and others–to pass along to their friend, if she needed it. While I don’t know if they were used, I do know that the student did return to my class a few days later.
I’ve always implicitly seen teaching as collaborative, reciprocal learning, but this semester my students have pushed me to consider how to care beyond the classroom space. My students’ concern for their classmate and friend prompted the realization that perhaps other students in my class needed these resources, too. Following the lead of other instructors at my University, I ended up talking to my students towards the end of term about on- and off-campus support. I acknowledged that this is a difficult time of year, a challenging term. But mostly I just wanted them to know that people do care, and that what they may be feeling is important and valid, and that there are people who can help. And it was brought home to me by the demonstrative concern of my students.
I think the next time once of my students drops by to thank me for the semester, I’ll know what to say. A simple “thank you” in response will probably suffice.
Have your students taught you something valuable this term?