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Can I Still Relate to Students?

Updated on September 29, 2011

What are these 18-year-olds thinking?

I have almost reached a point in my life where I have been a teacher longer than I was ever a student. So soon, I will have given more tests than I ever took, delivered more lectures than I attended, and handed out more grades than I ever received. (That last one became true some time ago.) As time passes, it becomes more difficult for me to relate to students, particularly eighteen-year-old freshmen. Sure, I have some vivid memories of my early days as a college student. I remember being very nervous about the first college tests that I ever took, assuming that they would be infinitely harder than those easy high school exams. I remember how difficult it was to adjust to the idea of registering for individual classes each semester, always afraid that I would either sign up for the wrong classes or be unable to get the ones that I needed. And don’t get me started about the standard fears of an eighteen-year-old: What did I really want to do for a living? When will I stop getting zits? Has that girl in the second row noticed that I exist?

These memories, however, become more distant over time. Today, when I look back to my past, it feels like I am reflecting about a different person. I can no longer see the world through the eyes of my former self. And if I am unable to fully empathize with my former self, than how can I view the world through the eyes of modern day freshmen that have had various experiences so different from my own? I had things pretty easy in college. Mom and dad paid most of the bills, and I could focus my attention on classes (along with some other “extracurricular” activities). A lot of these kids are working full-time, dealing with family issues, having medical problems, and wondering how long they can even keep going to college.

I used to laugh at the old people complaining about the youth. Now, I sometimes find myself feeling the same way as those “old” folks. I often wonder what the heck these young people could possibly be thinking. Don’t they understand that skipping classes, ignoring reading assignments, wandering in late (and/or leaving early), texting instead of listening, and showing up to class without so much as a pencil in their hands will lead to failure? Don’t they realize that drinking oneself into oblivion the night before a test is a bad study strategy? Have they not learned that taking a class that you put no effort into passing is a waste of time? Once you have taught for a while, you can understand why some people in this profession became a bit burned out and disgruntled. You also tend to think that students are completely responsible for their failure, and they should have the common sense to understand what it takes to succeed in college. It’s easy to forget that there may be many factors contributing to their struggles, and that being a student can at times be exhausting, boring, and extremely stressful. It’s also easy to forget that we all did some pretty dumb things when we were younger.

Is the ability to empathize with students a necessary quality in an effective teacher? I hope not. As time passes, I will only get older, and young people growing up in a world increasingly different from the one that I knew will seem even more foreign. Still, there are some difficulties faced by young people that are both timeless and universal. If nothing else, trying to remember some of our youthful struggles, and attempting to view our classes through the eyes of students, can reduce the chances that we teachers will get burned out. Remembering that a lot of us old people turned out OK in spite of ourselves can make us more optimistic about the current crop of kids.


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