I’m Not a Bad Patient

A couple of week ago, I had to go to the dentist because I had a crown come off.  I’m used to going to the dentist, as I have bad teeth, and I didn’t take care of them when I was younger.  However, this time was different.  They treated me as if the crown’s coming off and everything associated with it was my fault, despite the fact that they were the one who had put the crown on.  For example, the crown didn’t completely cover the remains of the tooth underneath, yet they talked about the breakdown of the tooth as if I should have done something differently.

Even after they had given me a temporary crown, they kept telling me not to do things I’ve never done.  I have several crowns (I’ve actually forgotten which teeth are real and which aren’t in some places), so I know how to manage them, and I’ve never had a problem with them before this one.  Needless to say, I don’t have any desire to go see them with other problems, nor do I have a positive image of them right now.

This experience made me think about the way we talk to students, both individually and in class.  We often chastise students for what they might possibly do wrong rather than allowing them the opportunity to do assignments or take exams, giving them the benefit of the doubt.  Because we have had a few bad experiences in the past, we assume all students will behave the same way.

This approach is more obviously true when it comes to cheating or plagiarism.  There are professors who behave as if every student is trying to get away with something.  They set up draconian measures to terrify students into staying on the straight and narrow, while using elaborate procedures to make sure students don’t try to slip something by them.  They spend more time and energy on preventing the rare student from cheating than they do on actually teaching the vast majority of students who have never and would never do such a thing.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with two students early in my career.  The previous semester, I had a student who was in one of our musical groups, and she didn’t do well.  She missed 22 out of about 42 class meetings, and, not surprisingly, she failed the class.  One of our Vice-Presidents called me to talk about her performance, making the point that they worked hard to recruit for our university and that they were expected to miss 9 days.  When I gave him the actual number she missed, he said, “I suppose that ends this conversation.”

You can make of that conversation what you will, as far as administrative “interest” in students’ performance, but it affected how I treated students the next semester.  At the end of the first day of class, two students came up to me to tell me they were members of the musical group and that they would have to miss a few days.  I was fairly stern with them, telling them I had had problems with members of that group before and that they were going to have to take class seriously and blah blah blah.

I was holding them responsible for something they had not done wrong.  They both turned out to be excellent students, which I would have learned if I would have simply acknowledged their comments, then waited to see what kind of work they would do and what their commitment was to the class.  Oddly enough, one of them went on to win a Grammy in songwriting.  The other was the daughter of the director of the musical group.

That encounter, as the one with the dentist, reminded me that we need to evaluate students individually, not blame them for things they’ve never done wrong.  Each student should have the opportunity to create his or her own impression based on the work he or she can actually do.  I remember how angry I was in the dentist’s office and how that appointment made me not want to go back and see them again.  I want my students to come to me when they have problems, so I need to create an environment that will make that happen.

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