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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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    • Jen Pearson profile image

      Jen Pearson 6 years ago from Alabama

      I was a TA for freshman composition one year in my mid-thirties while attending grad school. I hadn't listened to popular music for many years and had nothing to do with teenagers since being one myself. I pretty much brought it out on the table and one of their assignments (oral presentation) became a "teach the out-of-touch teacher about our generation through our music." Each student had to bring a piece of music, including typed out lyrics for everyone and had to explain why it was important to them and what it expressed about their generation. It went over fairly well. I was surprised by what they came up with. I don't know if your subject would allow a similar sort of assignment but thought I'd throw it out there.

      Good luck with your continued battle against burnout!

    • Matt Phillips profile image

      Matt Phillips 6 years ago

      Great hub, FF, and I think you're doing great. It's easy to let the ones that frustrate you get in the way of noticing the ones that are there to learn. I bet you have influenced a lot of lives in a very positive way doing what you do.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Can any mature person truly say they are the same person they where 30 years ago? Some things change and some things never change. You've got the right out-look on it with your student-teacher situation Freeway Flier. Sometimes it seems like everyone but Big Gov has forgotten how important teachers are in shaping and influencing a young persons life. You read like the kind of teacher I wish I'd had more than a few times. Huskys right, hang in there.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 6 years ago

      Thanks everybody. They probably need more of an adult mentor than someone who is "just like them." The key, I guess, is trying to be patient.

    • carcro profile image

      Paul Cronin 6 years ago from Winnipeg

      As I see it, the kids today have all the tools to become successful beyond their wildest dreams, but they are still kids, therefore still caught up in the fun of being young! With all of the technology and ease of access to information available, those that realize the opportunities at hand have tremendous advantages over the rest, but only because they see it while the rest don't.

      It can be a scary world or a world of great opportunity depends on where the students mind is at. Voted Up and Awesome.

    • profile image

      Husky1970 6 years ago

      The fact that you are even thinking about this issue is very positive. I was a high school teacher, coach, and administrator prior to my retirement in 2006. Part of me misses the challenges inherent in the rapidly changing world and the need to try and understand what young people are experiencing. But part of me does not. Being a high school educator was incredibly challenging. Relating to and understanding students was important but influencing them to not to allow the plethora of negative influences and hurdles to prevent them from finding success was more important.

      Hang in there! You are a sincere and caring teacher and today's students need you more than you might realize.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      I think the fact that you can write this article means that you havent lost contact with the realities of being young. Naturally enough, the added experiences, and responsibilities, of adulthood leave less room for empathising with young people.

      You recognise that in yourself, and by trying to overcome that deficiency, you make it less.

      Dont beat yourself up. Congratulate yourself instead.

      You are that rare thing, a fully rounded human being.

      Thanks for that interesting article.