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Dealing with Today’s Students

Guest post by Rosiana (Nani) L. Azman, Ph.D.  Associate Professor, Psychology, University of Hawai’i Maui College

I am a teacher. Technically, I’m an Associate Professor of Psychology, and by training, I am an educational psychologist; but if you ask me what I do, my response will most likely be that I am a teacher. I believe in facilitating learning. I do not enjoy professing my supposedly superior knowledge in a subject at students. I believe in interacting with them to help them to learn for themselves.

When I first started teaching, I knew that my students weren’t necessarily going to be like me. I am lucky. I have wonderful, supportive, and encouraging parents. I had a pretty good private school education with amazing teachers who didn’t just teach me what to learn, they taught me how to learn. Add on top of that that I am an overachiever, and it’s pretty safe to say that I was not a typical student. By the time I entered college, I knew that I loved to learn.  A very small percentage of my students are lucky enough to have the kind of background I did. I think a large part of my job is to inspire them, to show them that it’s fun to learn. It’s not too hard in psychology. I can tie anything back to real life, and we have fun.

Parents have the right intention

helicopterparentslargeNow some of my students also had parents and teachers who invested in them. Many of my students are definitely smart.  Their parents and teachers want nothing more than to have these children succeed. These parents and teachers also want to make sure that these students had high self-esteem so that they believe that they can take on anything. They have been closely and carefully watched to ensure that they always succeeded. And most of them do, as long as mom and dad are there to run interference, just in case something starts to go awry. What parents don’t want to protect their children from hurt and failure? Wouldn’t it be great if we could give our children a perfect world in which to live?

But the truth is, we don’t live in a magic bubble.

There is no conceivable way for me to be able to protect my daughter completely and eternally from ever having any hurt or disappointment. It breaks my heart to see her cry from pain, both physical and emotional, and I wish I could magically keep her safe forever.

Trying to protect our kids keeps them from learning about life

I’m pretty sure some of my students’ parents feel the same way I do. They want their children to have a better life than they did, free from cruelty, harm, and failure. Doesn’t that sound nice? But somewhere, at some point, something went wrong. In trying to protect them from all of life’s evils, these students missed learning an invaluable lesson: what to do when life doesn’t go your way.

Many of today’s students don’t know how to fail.

They have no coping skills whatsoever to know how to handle adversity. I’ve had students drop a class because they think they failed the first exam. My tests aren’t easy. They’re application based. They are meant to show how well you understand the material, not how well you can regurgitate that which you have shallowly and temporarily memorized. The ones who disappear after that, I cannot help. The ones who stay learn a crucial lesson.  Many of them finally hear me and actually use all those study tips I’ve been building into the lessons. They change their approach to studying and to learning. I can’t tell you how good it feels when they come back to see me after the semester, sometimes after they’ve graduated, to thank me.  I was even once told that nearly flunking that first exam was the best thing that ever happened to that student, but that’s because he saw the near failure as a learning experience, not as a time to brood in incorrectly perceived defeat.

Like the student I thought took a job to help her family with the bills

I once had a twenty-something-year-old student who emailed me mid way through the semester to say that her mother had been in an accident, and so she would be mostly likely missing some classes.  This was a smart student who seemed to do well on exams and was a pretty strong writer.  I didn’t see this student for three weeks.  I finally got a call, asking if she could come see me during office hours to discuss her hardships.  I was expecting to hear something to the effect that she had to stop going to school because she had to go to work to pay the family’s bills. I was trying to figure out if I could give the student an incomplete and help her to finish up the work after the semester was over.

The student came in, and it was pretty obvious that she was distraught. She started talking about how hard it had been since her mother’s accident. Her mother was essentially on full bed rest and would be for the next couple of months. She kept saying how the extra work she had been doing was just completely exhausting her and how she hasn’t been able to keep up with her schoolwork. I assumed she was referring to the job I thought she had gotten to help pay the family bills and made some comment about how admirable and responsible she was being, taking care of her family.

Until I realized she hadn’t

She gave me a confused look. She hadn’t gotten a job. Her stepdad was paying all the bills for the house and for her family. That’s when I got confused. I asked her what extra work she had to do. She kept saying how it’s just been so hard, how she’s never had to do so much before. Since her mom’s accident, her stepdad has been making her wash the dishes and clean the kitchen after dinner.  Her stepdad was cooking every night after coming home from work and said he was too tired to clean up, too, so he needed her to pitch in.  After all, it was just the three of them in the house, and mom wasn’t allowed to get up.

Until I realized she really meant doing chores

I was still waiting to hear about these hardships.  She continued, so I thought I was going to find out now.  She had also been asked to do the laundry.  When it dawned on me that washing the dishes and doing the laundry were her hardships, I did my absolute best to curb my sarcasm and tried to explain that I had been helping out with the dishes and the family laundry since I was nine. I was then corrected.  Her stepdad did the laundry for his wife and himself. My twenty-something-year-old student was just being asked to do her own laundry. She said her mom kept apologizing that her daughter had to do so much around the house.

Sorry, but chores aren’t hardships

I really wish I was exaggerating right now to make some great point, but this is a true story that made me realize that I should never coddle my daughter. If I try to protect her from all of life’s harms, she may still end up intelligent, but she would be unequipped to handle real life, and she might confuse chores for hardships like this student did.

Having standards makes me mean

I asked my student how doing the dinner dishes and her own laundry had stopped her from coming to my 1:45 class two afternoons a week.  When the student couldn’t give me an answer, I gave her one week to make up all of the missed work, and I told her that I expected to see her in class on time next week, and that she would be expected to keep up with the class from this point forward.  I’m pretty sure she thought I was the meanest teacher in the world, but she managed to finish her course and do a couple of household chores, all in the same semester. As far as I’m concerned, I was probably too nice because dishes and laundry aren’t extenuating circumstances to anyone but that student (and sadly, probably some of her classmates).

Parents, who will do their laundry in the “Real World”?

I’m pretty sure that that student’s mom thought she was doing what was best for her daughter.  She was just trying to take care of her daughter and protect her. She did not realize that she was forgetting to teach her daughter how to handle adversity.  If we all go through school and life thinking that everyone is a winner and that everyone deserves a trophy, regardless of how much we actually tried or did, what is going to happen when an entire class of these students enters the real world and all apply for the same job? They all won’t get the job.  One will, and then his or her reality will be challenged when something else doesn’t go his or her way, a little later on. The rest will run home to mom and dad, who will hopefully send them right back out the door with another job application, maybe after a nice pep talk and a hug.  Other parents will just hug them, tell their grown child that the executives of that company must be incompetent, and then tell their child to go rest, while the parents continue to prepare dinner for the family and do everyone’s laundry.