By Cheney Luttich
I arrived home late last night feeling heavy. My husband greeted me at the door, took my bags, and served me dinner while I sprawled out on the sofa, exhausted. After asking me how my day went, I told him midterm conferences were a wrap. He looked at me knowingly because he understands what that means for his empathic wife. It means my relationship with my students has gone to a new level, and the beauty it brings comes with pain because that’s what my developmental students carry into the classroom. A lot of pain.
Today, I spent the day doing dishes, laundry, and tending to those general things that go untouched during the workweek. It gives me a lot of time to think, and after five days of meeting one-on-one with 18 credit hours-worth of Dev. Ed. students, I have a lot to think about. It’s astonishing what can happen in ten minutes of individual attention. It’s common for students to share what has happened in their life and what is currently going on. It can be tough stuff. Homelessness, death, the murder of a loved one, domestic violence, assault, you name it. I’m not exaggerating. This comes from students of all ages and walks of life.
I’ve always built the midterm conference into my syllabus regardless of the course, and it’s been a space where I find a student may open and share beyond the scope of our current essay assignment. It’s the developmental space, though, where I find it happening much more often. I suppose it should come as no surprise. These are the students, after all, who have fallen through the cracks, been overlooked, and often underestimated. There’s a lot coming with all of that. Consider what a student carries into the Dev. Ed. classroom, and it’s no wonder retention is a challenge. Why should a student care one bit about crafting a coherent essay when facing such hurdles?
I reflected on what students shared with me this past week while doing the dishes. I thought about the patterns or anomalies I’ve observed in a student’s classroom behavior, assignments, etc. over the semester. Often, what they share during the conference gives me the insight I need to speak to that which will produce the most positive outcome in the course. I do my best to inform them of public resources available. I adjust due dates to accommodate, encourage communication, and offer authentic affirmation.
For one student who wouldn’t look me in the eye and told me he didn’t ask for help from friends because he didn’t want to be seen as a dumbass (his words), I told him to look me in the eye, and I said, “You’re not a dumbass.” We mapped his journey to success for the rest of the semester, and I told him I don’t want him to give up. Another student couldn’t think of a single strength despite having a good grade in the class. I told her to be selfish and think of something. As her body shrunk into the chair, she couldn’t. I gave her a special assignment. She is to return to class next week and tell me a strength. I can think of several, but I told her I would like her to be the first to mention one. Her body language told me she was scared to focus on herself, and my heart sunk to think about what might have caused such fear. If she has nothing come next week, I’ve got my list of what I know to be true about her at the ready.
During regular class sessions, I often refer to my days in college to provide perspective and offer comedic fodder for my students. What they don’t know is that I often think back to that time in my life and remember burdens I carried in my personal life outside the classroom. School was my haven, my safe place. I poured myself into assignments and turned off the outside world. Teachers told me what I did well, and I needed those simple, straightforward kindnesses. Those kindnesses didn’t remove my burdens, but they gave me some extra strength to carry on for a moment. I keep that in mind when face to face with students pouring their hearts onto the table during conferences. I can’t take the pain away, but I can offer kindness to help them carry on.
I usually start midterm week looking forward to a change in pace void of lecturing. It’s usually day two when I remember it’s anything but a chill experience. It’s hefty work. It took a few semesters to learn I need to amp up the self-care in the days following. This weekend, I’ve got a pedicure date with two little daughters that rock my world, I’ve got a date with a husband who is always happy to carry my bags, and I’ve got a date with my writing projects I do for no one else but myself. The result of this entire week will be good because I will return to the classroom refreshed while carrying a gentle reminder of the purpose I serve. I’m not just here to help a student learn how to write a good essay; I’m here to listen and offer kindness. I’m here to pay the hope forward.