Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On giving up

So, before I get to the story of this post, let me give you a quick snapshot of my day:

  • Woke up late.
  • Zoomed to the airport (generously driven part of the way there by T.G.)
  • Flew to Edmonton (our province's capital city, about 300 km north of here, or a 1 hour flight) with a colleague.
  • Met with officials from our ministry of education about some research projects we’re involved in.
  • Got the 2:00 p.m. flight back to Calgary.
  • Went into the office; checked e-mail; put out a few proverbial fires.
  • Zipped over to the fitness centre for a quick swim.

Went to invigilate my students’ final exam, which happened to be in one of the big gyms at the fitness centre. (All the gyms get turned into big exam rooms at this time of year.) So… it was a busy day. Go go go… not much breathing room.

I dunno about you, but when I go on overdrive like that, I can be stopped dead in my tracks by something unexpected... Well, emotionally at least… Though I would rarely show such a thing in public and especially not at work! That's exactly what happened tonight.

All the students registered in Spanish wrote their final exams in the same big gym, along with all the students registered in some other course (an engineering course, I think).

The gym flooded with a few hundred students who all found their pre-assigned seat. The final exam began and each instructor surveyed their row of students to do a quick head count.

I saw one empty desk in my row. My heart sank. Some of you may remember the student I had who was struggling. If you don’t, you can check out the post here: Revelation. That student never showed up for the final exam. He gave up.

Of course, this played on my mind during the two-hour exam, but again, I’m not one to openly show such things.

A few of the students has asked me to join them at the campus bar for a drink after the exam. Whenever students invite me to join them in an after-exam beverage, I always accept. Not only is it a nice way to round out the semester, but I know that not every instructor gets invited out by their students and I’m lucky to have students who, after writing a brutal 2-hour exam, still want to see my face!

Anyway, I went to the bar, as I’d promised. The girl who sat next to this struggling student in class said, “So it looks like G. dropped out.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I figured, since he wasn’t at the final.”

She said, “He mentioned to me in our last class that he was thinking about it. He’s got straight A’s in all his other courses. He was just having a hard time with this one.”

I know. I spent a good deal of time giving him extra help, finding and photocopying extra practice activities and generally trying to help him get through.

Our last Spanish class was last Thursday. G. was there. Said something on the way out about thanks for everything. I didn't clue in that it was his way of saying, “AdiĆ³s”.

The last day to drop classes was the next day – Friday. We figured he must have waited until the very last minute and then dropped the course.

I have learned in my 12-year teaching career that you can’t read minds. Usually, we teachers have no idea what’s going on in our students’ lives or their heads unless they tell us.

Most first-year university classes are big and impersonal. Language classes are typically not. My class this year had about 30 students in it. By the end of the course, I know all their names, they know each other’s names and there’s been a fair amount of group bonding that’s happened.

So, if students drop out, it’s not all that unusual for them to let me know. Though sometimes it makes me sad, I always appreciate them telling me. But G. didn’t… for reasons I’ll never know.

Sometimes, students don’t know that their teachers care … or even notice, when they’re not there. But I do. In fact, I think most teachers who actually get to know their students do notice when things are out of the ordinary.

G. doesn’t know that I had his last assignment to hand back to him tonight and that his grade had gone up. The way he was going, he would have certainly passed the exam.

I’ve also learned that you can’t take professional things personally. Generally, I don’t. I certainly don’t blame myself for G. dropping out. Like I said, I have no idea what was going on in his head. But it does leave me feeling sad.

OK, here’s me being real… I’m sitting here blogging about it, fairly choked up…. to see someone so smart and so “together”, who had put in so much time and effort, and money (tuition and books) and just sheer determination… throw it all away at the very end.

In general, I love teaching. Just not at the moment.


oldhall said...

I understand the disappointment. We're all asked to make the most critical decisions of our life at such a young age, I look back and can't believe things worked out so well for me... I certainly don't deserve it!

My fave lyric about being at that age-

Throw your precious gifts into the air
Watch them fall down

H. Stallard said...

OK, so G. dropped out and gets no credit for the course. His decision, his choice, and his consequences. As an educator, I understand your feelings. But remember, just because he didn't finish doesn't mean that he learned nothing from his experience. Sometimes the most important things learned have nothing to do with course material.

ipodmomma said...

H's comment is good. you don't know why G dropped the course, and maybe never will. but you showed him that you were interested, and did what you could to get him further along, and the rest was in his court.

there are just these little moments in life where we think, 'if only...'

glad you got to go and have a chat with some students... it is nice that they weren't averse to hanging with you after the exam... :))) have a better day today, and sending you a hug!

robtherunner said...

I have to say that as a current student and a prospective student in a Master's program beginning next year sometimes I have to decide whether a class I am struggling in is worth keeping. Unfortunately there are standards that have to be reached and competition is tough for programs so twice I have decided to drop a class half way through the quarter in order to maintain a reasonable grade point average. I always feel that even though I dropped the class the knowledge that I picked up did not just disappear. I think it is great that you took the time to work with G. and that you clearly care about the progress of your students.

M A F said...


It is clear that the student, G gave up. But what did G actually give up?

He gave taking the final, a semesters worth of work, the cost of his books...but then I decided to reread your post and what really stuck out in my mind was the exchange between you and your student at the bar.

She said, "He’s got straight A’s in all his other courses. He was just having a hard time with this one."

So again I ask, what did G give up? And I say to you the passionate teacher who invests herself in her students education that G gave up a bad grade, or a lesser grade to protect his 'A' average.

And, as an aside, I saw this cartoon...

Sarah Elaine said...

Thanks for the comments, all. I appreciate the feedback.

I think the lesson "beyond the textbook" that I was hoping he'd get would be not to give up, even when something is tough.

I understand the need -- obsession, even -- to get good grades. Speaking as a current Ph.D. student whose undergraduate transcript sports the occassional C-, and a variety of B-range grades, I know from experience that good grades are not all it takes to get into grad school or get scholarships.

But yes... you're all right... most of the learning we do is outside the actual course material...

Thanks for the support. Helped me get things back in balance today.

Arrogant Polyglot said...

SEE, *sad face* looks like I missed you! Too bad you were only here for a day. Enjoy your time off. You deserve it, babe!

Kim said...

Sarah I'm sorry your student dropped out. I am super impressed by how personally you've taken this.

Having a 'step-son' who is struggling in the 7th grade and him having teachers that just don't give a damn, I am touched by how much you care. We have literally been chastised by the school for taking him to a learning center on a daily basis so we can get him help he is NOT getting in the public schools so for you to go to this extra care for your students... well it just leaves me with warm fuzzies to be very honest - YOU are a rare and special teacher...

JB said...

As a student reading your blog I am touched by your level of commitment to your students. I recently sent an email to a professor saying that I was really struggling with a paper (to the point where it was keeping me up at night.. not good...) Anyway, the reply that I got was that I could come and see him but he was "loath to help one and not all" as he has seen that students that ask for help do better. I guess I thought that was the point of asking for help (that and have a huge aversion to failing my last class of my BComm)!! He went on to say that his answers would be guarded etc etc. He did end up helping me somewhat but as a student that was a pretty negative experience to go through. This is the first time I have EVER asked for help and I can't say I'd be encouraged to do it again soon. Mind you I won't have to do it again soon as I am done school, but imagine if I had been in this person't first year class? Yikes!

Anyway, my point is that at the same institution you can get some instructors/teachers/professors that are fantastic and actually care and some that don't. We must hang on to those of you that care!!!

JB (friend of Bast)

Amber said...

interesting ... I've only ever been a student with a huge level of respect and intimidation for my teachers ... I've never thought about the other side of things.

I can understand his desire for keeping his A average and would have to commend him for all the time and effort that he put into the class. It doesn't seem like he gave up but followed through ... almost to the bitter end. As it stands now, he knows that he did everything that he possibly could have and actually learned as much as possible. If he wouldn't have dropped out and ended up with a grade less then an A ... and it was the only one on his transcripts ... I feel confident that he would have looked at this whole experience with bitterness. I know I would.

Sad to say ... if it were me ... I would have given up long before ... at least I would have back in my college days.