What Really Matters to Working Students

Brian Taylor

May 14, 2012

A student who had attended one of my developmental English courses only six times in 11 weeks stopped me in the hall before class to turn in a paper. I asked if she would be in class that day. No, she said, and gave me the excuse that I've heard most frequently in my three years of teaching at a metropolitan community college: "I have business to take care of."

Angry that, once again, my class was not part of that "business," I decided to have a candid conversation with my students about why school just doesn't seem that important to many of them. I told them that most faculty members, including me, can only speculate on the attitudes and behaviors of students. I told them I was tired of trying to figure out the developmental English student, and I asked them to unlock the mystery.

For almost two hours, we discussed attitudes and expectations—theirs and mine. We had many moments of catharsis. I explained that faculty members do care, and that we create expectations so students will have continued success in college. The students stated that we (the faculty) seemed to have forgotten what it was like to be students, trying to balance our academic and personal lives. I asked the class to help us understand the life of today's students, and to give us advice on how to help them succeed.

What follows are anecdotes and suggestions in my students' own words—including italicized comments from particular students—that focus on what the majority of them felt were the most important areas to discuss.

Managing life and academics. One of the most difficult things we as students face is trying to manage going to school and working at the same time. In the beginning, we believe we can do it, but once we start seeing how much time and dedication goes into attending school, it becomes harder for us to handle both schedules. Many of us have families to support, so our jobs are very important, sometimes even more important than attending class.

We do understand, as students, that professors want us performing at our academic best and that they have expectations they want met. But life brings the unexpected, and having a teacher who understands that can really encourage a student to stay in school or even to come back to school. Just one negative interaction with a teacher could cause us to withdraw from the course, or even from the college.

For example, I was yelled at in front of the whole class. An instructor told everyone that I was failing, and I should drop the class. I thought the instructor was being too harsh and not understanding my situation. I had a lot going on that semester between working full time and trying to keep up with my studies. Ever since that day, I was embarrassed, so I eventually dropped the class.

As students, we know when we are not performing to your standards, and even if we do not, please don't tell us in front of other people. If we are missing too many days or haven't been performing well on tests, papers, and other activities, you should tell us privately how we are doing in class, how failing a class can affect our GPA, and how withdrawing from the class and taking it when we can better manage our schedules may be the best option.

When you take the time to talk to us one on one, it shows that you respect us, and it may give us the encouragement we need to change.

Mutual respect. We should respect each other, and we know that many times students haven't respected the instructor's classroom.

One semester, I took a class, and I thought it was natural to get out our notebooks and begin to take notes. I figured my peers would be doing the same thing. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Some of my peers were talking among themselves, talking on the phone, or just being loud and disruptive. I never thought that I would witness that sort of behavior in a college-classroom setting. I was shocked and outraged, but I was also upset that the teacher did nothing to stop it. I know that I, along with others in the class, wanted the teacher to do something about the disruptive students.

We believe that the students should know and respect the rules, so it's wise and necessary for the classroom to have rules listed on the syllabus. You should state your requirements for the course on the first day, and proactive students should, from the first day, realize that it is our job to participate in response to the rules and guidelines. We also want the teacher to enforce the rules on the syllabus by politely dealing with the disruptive students before or after class.

Furthermore, though it is your classroom, we would like the instructor to respect us as students. If we ask about the homework, please be willing to discuss the question during or after the class. Please, do not tell us that it is not your problem that we didn't understand it the first time you explained it in class.

If we can establish mutual respect, then we will have a better relationship throughout the semester.

Motivation is fragile. Every student isn't the same, and some of us lack that strong will to start and finish something. Does that mean such students shouldn't enroll in college or sign up for a course? Should that type of student be deprived of a college education?

We think it just means that some of us need extra motivation. Here is how you can help us get, or stay, motivated:

  • Be clear about course requirements and expectations. Certain things like assignments, the syllabus, and deadlines should be discussed.
  • Be enthusiastic in the classroom.
  • Make the class feel more spontaneous by sometimes introducing something that isn't on the syllabus, like maybe a good movie or an interesting reading.
  • Assign projects that involve being creative without the stress of it feeling like homework.
  • Connect the topics in the classroom to the real world.
  • Reference certain situations or events from your own life because sometimes it's important to hear about the mistakes you have made, so that we don't repeat them.

Sometimes to maintain motivation we may just need someone to try and understand our situation.

When I needed support the most, I couldn't find any. It was when I walked into class an emotional wreck because on the previous Saturday my brother was shot and died before my eyes. I came to class because I wanted to pass. I pulled the instructor to the side to let him know what was going on and to ask for the class work and homework for the day of my brother's funeral later that week. The instructor didn't seem to care what I was going through and didn't even say sorry for my loss. I was told that I enrolled in the class knowing what was expected, so there was nothing that the instructor could do for me. I sat through that class hating the instructor and thinking how a human could be so cruel.

I stayed in that class and passed. Even though I never wanted to see the instructor again, I had my goals and to drop the class would have meant delaying my success. That is how I reacted to this situation. But a student lacking motivation may have dropped and never returned to college because of the instructor.

The professor's reflections. After discussing these issues with my students and reading the drafts they wrote for this essay, two things surprised me. First, many of their suggestions seemed so simple to follow. Many of my colleagues and I do some of the things my students proposed, but that doesn't mean we can't do more. And perhaps what we are doing isn't working as well as it should.

Second, my students all wanted a similar quality from a faculty member. They wanted to know that the teacher cared—not only about their education but also about them, and not just as students but also as people.

Brian P. Hall is an assistant professor of English at Cuyahoga Community College, in Cleveland. The students who participated in helping to write this essay are Roxana Bell, Orlando Bolanos, Kathy Brown, Ariel Hicks, Samuel Houston, Carlita Jordan, Delisha Keys, and Eric Radford.