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Teacher’s Voice

Smart, Kind, Organized

By MINA WONG - February 18 2024
Smart, Kind, Organized

Some years ago, a new colleague, Janice Cullen went through a difficult fall semester with unruly students who skipped classes, missed assignment deadlines, disrupted class activities, did poorly on tests and quizzes, and even depleted their student loans before November.

For Janice and me (also a newbie), we set out to work with students as adults. Instead of applying classroom management protocol for K to 12, we’d introduce ourselves to students with the assumption they were attending college by choice. As their teachers, we’d support their learning goals and needs, collaborate with them toward intended outcomes, and lead them to academic success, one semester at a time.

In our private conversations, Janice and I felt some students were like moody mid-adolescents; they also displayed oppositional behavior typical of a younger age cohort.

But committed to her principles, Janice forged on. She identified at risk students, met with them, and offered study skills for success. She sent useful tips each week, gave extra help with assignments, readings, and test preparations; she sought input from the library on current research steps and citation skills; she also asked the counselling department for suggestions to engage different kinds of students.

Janice acknowledged that only some students were maladaptive; most would try hard to be self-directed and responsible. But each class did have up to half a dozen young adults who missed a lot of school, whose assignments always received late penalties, and whose attitudes suggested academic unpreparedness.

By the eighth of fourteen weeks, Janice had a blueprint of good, fair, and poor marks. Still, whenever she saw a student’s commendable efforts, she would mention them to everyone in class. It was her hope to encourage students to be just one step closer to their personal best.

A famous professor has arrived at the university to conduct a special lesson, the student pulls his hand up to ask him a question.

Janice and I spoke in the last week of November about what was working and otherwise. By then, she saw a typical bell curve of marks and attitudes in each class. In all her classes, most students clustered in the mid-ranges of Cs and Bs, with some stubborn Ds and Fs, but also several stellar As.

When Janice nervously submitted final grades to our Chair, she expected to face misgivings about poor marks in her classes.

Instead, our Chair observed, “Look at all the good marks from your classes. Most of your students can move on to the winter semester.”

“If the students succeed, I succeed. In turn, our college succeeds”, Janice stressed “success” with conviction, and added, “Actually every day, we’re trying to help students break down barriers. Many dropped out of high school needing help with literacy, study skills, self-esteem, and even life goals. I want to give them some strategies as lifelong tools.”

After our final departmental meeting, Janice and I were just chatting when our Chair passed by.

“Janice, I just want to tell you your students think the world of you. A whole bunch of them told me last week you’re smart, kind, organized. I know you had a few bad apples, but the good students – they totally got it. You’re a good teacher.”

Nothing made Janice happier. She and I mutually understood what it meant to be smart, kind, organized. It didn’t mean we were brilliant or unconditionally sympathetic or super-efficient; instead, it meant we would start each day by being knowledgeable in our roles and tasks, caring about our students as individuals, and holding ourselves accountable from start to finish.

Janice told me if she could begin and end each day with “smart, kind, organized”, even the most challenging circumstances could be managed. I agreed with her, and added, “Perhaps being kind is important, because if we don’t care about the students, they may stop learning and achieving.”

“That goes for practically all relationships”, Janice chuckled as we parted for a hard-earned Christmas break.

by Mina Wong

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