“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” — William Arthur Ward
I warned my students on Day 1 of the school year: we all start with unrealistic expectations about how excellent our performance and experience will be. But as we come to hurdles and forks in the road, the blissful honeymoon wears off. None of us will make it to the end without a bump here or bruise there. Still, if we keep our heads up and communicate through our struggles, we will complete the term with a feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie.
I remind them that they will not be alone when the going gets tough. My office is always open to them and I am ready and willing to give specialized support when needed. Still, few will come. Apparently, visiting a professor’s office hours is as desirable as cleaning your dorm suite’s bathroom.
I remember feeling averse to meeting professors one-on-one when I was an undergraduate. My imposter syndrome was triggered at the thought of it. If I go, and we talk impromptu, my professor will realize that I’m really not that smart. I’ll out myself and feel like a loser.
But every time we did meet one-on-one, I always walked out with the same revelation. My professor is a regular person. He doesn’t know everything... and he knows it. And beyond that, I also often felt valued. That my professors were glad to see me. That they genuinely wanted to help.
I have decided that modeling this in class is crucial, because simply telling my students that I care about them isn’t enough to convince them to visit my office. How do I prove it?
I speak through my own struggles. “I thought I was going to have an amazing lecture on this essay, but as I kept reading it I had more questions than answers. Can we discuss this together and see where we all are?” I value them by learning their names (the ones they want to be called) and using them. By greeting them every day and asking them how they are doing, waiting for a real response, and sharing my own real response if they ask me. This kind of communication sounds basic, but in the ivory tower of academia it can be counter-cultural.
By regularly demonstrating that (a) I am not perfect and/or judging from on high and (b) I want to co-labor with my students to make the learning process full and diverse, I am hoping to destroy the dangerous misconception that students and professors are somehow engaging from opposite sides of the playing field. When there is a tearing of the veil and commitment to authentic relationship in the classroom, we all walk away with gratitude rather than pride.