Even though I have been a professor for decades, my favorite teaching story comes from my wife, who was in the business for only a few years. She taught writing at a community college, mostly to working class people, recent immigrants and second language students looking to develop their career and/or life. For homework one week, she asked her students to write a hortatory essay. She graded the essays and handed them out at the end of a class.

A 19-year old male student stormed up to her desk. In his hand was clutched his essay, which had received a failing grade.

“This OFFENDS me! This is not fair!” He boomed.

My wife looked at his paper and said “Remember how in class I said you had to tell readers what your essay was about at the beginning, but you never did that so it wasn’t clear what you were trying to say”.

“That’s not the point!” He insisted.

“Remember how we talked about not introducing new points at the end of an essay?” my wife said. “Your last sentence starts a new argument that doesn’t follow from anything else you wrote and you didn’t have the space to develop.”

“THAT’S NOT THE POINT!!” He repeated.

My wife looked at him and said gently “Maybe the point is that you tried really hard and you got a bad grade anyway and that’s really disappointing.”

“Yes”, he said quietly, and burst into tears.

Met with unexpected compassion, the self-righteous bully dissolved, revealing the vulnerable, self-doubting young person beneath. After he stopped crying and pulled himself together, he was able to listen to what my wife was trying to teach him. Knowing that his professor cared about him, he persisted in the course and ended it a better writer than he had started.

One of the blind spots of professors is that almost all of them were excellent students. School was typically a series of triumphs from kindergarten on. This can make professors unaware of how scary and frustrating college can be for young people, especially those who came from under-resourced schools that didn’t prepare them well for the experience. It’s pretty easy to teach the young people who are well-prepared for college, are confident that they have every right to be there and have faith that they will succeed in their educational goals. The real challenge for faculty — the one that separates the best teachers from the average ones — is connecting with and supporting the students who are none of those things.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys