Thursday, March 24, 2011

(In an Eric Cartman voice:) "How do I reach these kids?!?"

I have a problem-slash-question for y'all. I'm just a lowly TA. Evaluations mean a great deal towards my progress, my funding, etc, as you can imagine. My Writing About Basketweaving 101 class is almost all non-majors - ours is a popular course for science kids who are trying to get a lit credit and/or a writing-intensive credit. I do my best to help my students, but some of them just don't get it. Sometimes from lack of trying, but not necessarily. I get this huge wave of guilt, inadequacy, and fear that it'll reflect badly on me when this happens.

Take one student, for example. I keep meeting with her, I keep responding to her emails, and with every angle I try, she gives me something that's not much better than the last one. It's obvious she's trying and wants to do well in the course, but I just don't know what else to do for her. She's one of 35 students, and when I've got 34 other students, plus my own work to deal with, she becomes a major timesuck.

When is enough enough? How can I accept the fact that some students just won't do well in my class, even if they seem to be putting in the effort? How can I accept the fact that some students just aren't Writers About Basketweaving - and how do I stop myself from feeling guilty about not being able to reach them? (or should I be feeling guilty?) What do I do with these kids now?


  1. I often felt that students have a pretty good gut feeling about where they stand, meaning they are unlikely to be devastated by a 'C' or what others may consider a bad grade; they are then unlikely to take it out on you with a bad evaluation, especially if the teacher is responsive and willing to discuss issues before and after submission of work. Rather than feeling guilty you could also see this as a learning opportunity for both of you and believe in her abilities to do better next year/course-and your help and support might have made the difference...

  2. "How can I accept the fact that some students just won't do well in my class, even if they seem to be putting in the effort? "

    I struggled with this for quite some time, and still catch myself having difficulty. What helped me was putting this class in perspective of my students' overall goals (both academic and career). I often have to remind myself that this is not their area of interest. I teach skills that will help them in other areas, and hopefully, they leave my class with at least those skills, if not the ones specific to my discipline.

    Also, what aidnography said is true; most of them aren't crushed by a C. In fact, I've had students tell me they were happy with that grade (as they expected to do worse).

  3. Do you have a writing center? That might be her best option here... to even reach that C.

  4. As for your timesuck student, only meet with her in office hours, which you are required to hold anyway. Then it is not a timesuck. You're simply holding office hours.

    And you accept the fact that some students won't do well in your class because you don't have another choice. Also because the first rule of teaching if you want to keep your sanity is that you shouldn't take student grades personally. That's death. You need to make sure you're doing your job. But after that, there's nothing you can do. You provide opportunity, advisement, and encouragement, and you hold them accountable, but it is not your responsibilty to learn for them.

    The simple facts are as follows: some students will not do well because they won't work on weaving their baskets. Some students will not do well because they are not particularly talented in basketweaving to begin with. The second fact is what educators often forget.

    In school, as in life, not everyone can be good at everything. You may be great at math but suck at painting. You may be great at economics but suck at physics. It's genuinely possible to totally suck at things, even with effort, but when it comes to college no one remembers that.

  5. I don't know if this helps, but I had to take (mandatory course in my discipline) 3rd year Stats last year and I had a horrible time with it. My amazing Prof gave me all the help that was possible and I told her I could probably spend the rest of my life (with her; she is the only one who teaches this in the Arts) just taking that one course and things would never get better. She knew it too and was so supportive. Somehow, miraculously, I got a 60 which was a pass and I adore her to this day for whatever magic she worked. (I think she was just terrorized that she might have to see me sitting there clueless, every semester!). I gave her a great review before I knew what my mark would be because I knew it had nothing to do with what she did or didn't do-it was just me. My marks are usually in the 90s and I accept that I just could not do this subject. Please don't be too hard on yourself; sometimes there is nothing you can do...sometimes it is just the subject and the student.

  6. The first year I was a TA, I actually ended up crying in the professor's office after grading my first batch of papers, because I just couldn't believe how bad they were.

    By the second year, I had brought it down a notch to complaining to my roommate, with exasperated sighs.

    Now I just feel feel pity for them. For the ones who are really trying but not getting it, because of the frustration they must feel. And for the ones who don't try at all, who -- though they don't know it yet -- are frittering away a privilege that many would kill to have, and that they themselves will likely regret not availing themselves of, when they reach their later years.

  7. I agree with many of the sentiments above, and want to add an insight shared with me by the first prof I TAd for, as a Master's student: You need to remember that you're *not* the norm - and that not all students are you, are capable of being you, or even WANT to be you.

    Those of us who t̶o̶i̶l̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶A̶c̶a̶d̶e̶m̶i̶c̶ ̶I̶n̶d̶u̶s̶t̶r̶i̶a̶l̶ ̶C̶o̶m̶p̶l̶e̶x̶ progress to grad school and beyond generally have more than a little of the neurotic overachieving perfectionist in us (who, me?!). That's not a typical student profile - but because it's always been the lens through which we ourselves have viewed the world, it can be hard to realize that's just not where the majority of our students come from. Put simply, if you've spent a good chunk of your life setting the benchmark for your own self-worth at an A+, it can be hard to understand that some students just want to pass, or are thrilled with a grade that would send us off into an abyss of self-loathing.

    After gently explaining this to me, my wise course director then went on to tell me that as long as I did my best, showed up every day, set good boundaries, connected to what I was passionate about in the material, accepted it was not possible to be perfect, and tried to act without malice, then I'd be a good teacher. These were the only things I could control - everything else was up to the student.

    Hope this helps.

  8. Here's how you separate the sheep from the goats. When you return a paper, say "I am going to spend the last bit of class going over strategies for writing. If you are happy with your grade, you may go. If you want to get some extra help and pointers, stay for this portion of the class."

    The goats will leave, and then you concentrate on the sheep who want your help.

  9. I think both Stella and Drunk have got it right. Not all students are capable of learning the material or doing well, no matter how much or how well you teach. This is not a politically correct view to hold in education but it is true. Too, even the students who can do the work, may not do it as well as you could when you were at their level. It was only when I began to teach that I realized what an unusually good student I had been. I'd had no basis for comparison and was often baffled by my high grades. It all makes sense now.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. I have a new chemistry grad student that was taking the performance of her pre-nursing major snowflakes WAY too seriously: she was holding extra review sessions and going out on a limb at every turn: she started talking to other grad students that her lab students were the best and she would not LET them fail the course, such was her humility during the first third of the semester: of course it started to backfire on her almost immediately.
    Part of the process, I believe, is that we are here to give our students the chance to develop skills and discipline. I found it rather disturbing that that my TA was unraveling the fabric of the experience: if the pre-nursing students could not navigate the waters of an intro gen-ed chemistry for poets and nurses, should they remain in the major? I take it one step further (I have a tendency to do this anyway!) and I ask myself this question: would I want a student that cannot perform basic math functions and can't turn in a lab report on time to be MY nurse? Would I want them to be my wife's nurse? As the answer in some cases is not just "no" but "hell no!!!", having fair standards and giving students the chance to fail or succeed without undo contortions allows the system to work. Classes don't weed students out. The students do this all on their own, sometimes even with the super-dedicated helpful stunts of their TA's waiting in the wings.
    Short and sweet: assist and teach and advise. Spend a little extra time and occasionally hold a hand, but their success has to be earned largely by their own efforts.

  12. I remember when I realized that I was not everyone's best teacher, period. Some students would connect with me, others would not. Some would do well in my subject, others not. Some would do well in college, others not. I start out with the hope that I will be everyone's teacher of something, and some people's best teacher, but not everyone's very best teacher ever.

  13. I typed a really eloquent comment, and blogger ate it. I have papers to grade. Please excuse the rather curt summary I'm providing here:

    You're a teaching assistant, not a tutoring assistant. If the student wants a personal tutor, then she can hire one herself.

    So basically, you should feel comfortable saying that until she makes discernible progress, you don't see it as appropriate--or productive--to continue meeting about the same matters. A referral to the writing center could be in order. Beyond that, I'd say you've fulfilled your professional obligations.

  14. I've been reading Understanding Writing Blocks by Keith Hjortshoj, which is a thorough treatment of the causes of undergraduate and graduate student writing difficulties. It's not a self help feel good book, it lays out common problems and how specific people got past them, or were taking down by them. It included advice for tutors/advisors as well. It's been helpful in putting words to my own writing difficulties as a science grad student that was formerly one of those lit-class-avoiding undergrads.

    The author also has a guide to college writing that might be more useful for the student herself.

  15. One of my favorite members of my grad school department (who didn't get tenure, probably because he cared about teaching a bit too much, and so spent too much time on it) liked to compare teaching to planting land mines: you don't know when they're going to go off, and some of them will never go off, but some will, and be quite effective. His choice of metaphor was, admittedly, a bit unfortunate, but it gets to another thing that's useful to remember about teaching: the results of your efforts won't always be apparent in the space of a 16-week semester. Sometimes you're the one who introduces a student to a concept, skill, etc. that he or she will only get after being exposed to it another 2 or 3 or 8 times -- but the exposure you provided is still crucial. That's especially true when you're teaching, as most TAs do, gen ed or other introductory classes.

    Or, to put it another way, sometimes you reach them, but never know about it, because the light bulb comes on long after they're gone from your class.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.