The Party is Over

In a few days, I will be giving my last exam and then grading exams and projects from all of my students. So I’m meeting with students, holding study sessions, having office hours, and creating exams. It’s a difficult time for everyone. The students are having to demonstrate their growth over a entire semester in all of their classes, all at once. Instructors like myself are having to face both the results of the semester, and an intense need for our attention by students.

I find that during finals I don’t feel like a very good teacher. I worry that my students didn’t learn what I wanted to teach them. I worry that I focused on the wrong things, so that even when my students are successful on an exam, they didn’t learn what they most needed to learn. And I worry that for those students who have struggled all semester with either the content or with their own motivation that there is no time left, and they may have to deal with failure.

None of those worries are necessarily bad for me or the students. I need to be assessing my effectiveness as a teacher, and considering if whether my goals are the right ones for my particular students and subjects. And it is natural to worry about those students who are falling behind. But my struggle comes from the emotions behind those worries, and what those worries mean for my relationships with other people.

If I have failed to teach my students effectively, then the threat exists that my relationships may be damaged. The students may not respect me or want to connect with me. My colleagues may judge me as unworthy. I may have failed in my mission as an educator. As I see it these fears are all about being unworthy of connection, which means that at their heart they are about shame.

I have some reliable defenses again these feelings. First, I can believe that it is all the students’ fault, or perhaps the fault of their former teachers. The students are lazy or unmotivated, or they lack proper preparation. Because I am in a powerful position as an educator, I am able to make judgments of them that stick, and my judgments are powerful in that they have an impact on a student’s GPA. But, furthermore, my judgment comes from a place that seems to be pure. There are no emotions in the grading of a mathematics problem — the answer is simply right or wrong. So I can have some circular reinforcement of my judgment. It’s not my fault if they are not learning, it is theirs, and my proof is their own grades, which have been determined by the blind and emotionless arbiter of mathematical correctness.

My challenge is to connect with my feelings rather than using these defenses to erase them. My students may well struggle with motivation and preparation, but I can feel whatever emotions I have about that, rather than getting angry and writing them off. And what I might chalk up to problems with motivation or preparation may in fact be problems with content, pedagogy, or my failure to make connections. I have a part in every student’s struggle, and I need to be able to own my part while letting the student own theirs. And that stuff about grading not involving emotion is just bullshit. I have every manner of emotion while I am grading — joy, anger, fear, and sadness.

So at this point in the semester, what I’m really struggling with is staying connected to students even while I am judging their performance. I am constantly pulled either to disconnect so that I can feel safe when sitting in judgment or to rail against the fact that I must judge them at all. But it’s my mission both to judge them and to connect with them, and I feel as though it is only in the past six months or so that I am finally seeing both my true mission and how difficult that mission is.

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