Set the Tone

I have a student who is very hard on himself. Some days, his impatience can be very disruptive and appears to make other students uneasy when he has short outbursts or slams his fists on his desk. Some days, I let him work through it; but today, I could feel the shift in the room and the discomfort of my other students. And so, calmly, I approached the student.

“Can I help you, <enter name of student> ?” I ask gently, standing to his side without peering at his screen intrusively. I don’t want him to feel judged or under a microscope for having strong emotions, because I know how that feels.

“I just can’t get <enter programming terms> working!” he says with heavy breathing in a frustrated splutter. He points at his screen, so I feel I’ve been given permission to help him. I purposely slow my breathing and bend down to kneel by his desk so that we’re at the same height where he sits and I don’t come off as superior to him by standing over him.

I let the student walk me through his frustrations, and then promptly help him resolve the issues with his code. Once we get the code working, I laugh about the casual output he’s used for his code (the code outputs “nah” if the user doesn’t enter something right) just as he sighs in relief that the issue has been resolved. Then I remind him, as I’ve done a few times before:

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re usually just an inch away from the solution.”

Then I move on to help another student who had their hand raised. The classroom feels much more relaxed, and there are no further outbursts.

It’s important, as the instructor of a classroom, to assume the role as conductor. The students follow your lead, and if you don’t address all members of your orchestra, the music derails quickly. You might not think that it’s your job to handhold and coax when you teach at a college. But one of the foundational rules to educate another is to meet them where they are, even if it’s not somewhere you’d like to go.

Find the light, stand in it, and help to guide others into it.

Always, Brittney

Why Consistency Matters

Being an instructor is not just about being a subject matter expert. It’s not just about educating, or coaching, or even facilitating learning.

It’s a performance art.

I was a stage performer all of my youth and into my mid twenties. Dance, theatre, music - stage performance was interwoven into the foundation of my life. In high school, when the emotional climate was far too much for my empathetic body to handle, I would escape during study periods to the empty auditorium and play the grand piano that sat backstage. The stage was my refuge. It was my home.

I notice patterns, and I’ve found that many things I used to do to mentally prep for a performance have transferred over to what I do right before I teach a class. One of the main things is that right as I’m about to speak at the start of class, I center myself, tap into a sense of gratitude for the opportunity I’ve been given, and smile. I usually start with a greeting, and ask how everyone is doing. I might as well be holding a guitar and be about to play a show. I still have a sense of presence, the responsibility that underlies that, and the weight of what it means to be the lead or focal point of a group. Although the setting has changed and the people in front of me are paying quite a bit more than what the cost used to be to hear me sing, the essence is the same: my students expect and deserve a good show. Would you go see a band perform again if the last time you’d seen them, they were unenthusiastic, unreliable, or ill equipped to perform? Not likely.

So, here’s my point: as an instructor, you are making the choice to enter a role where consistency is a necessity. In life, the people around you might forgive you if you can’t always be at your best, and that’s good. We need for others to flex for us and we need to do that for them. But when it’s your job to be a stage performer, even without the stage, you don’t get to slack. You bring that enthusiasm and remind yourself everyday why the opportunity to teach is a gift. Even when it gets hard, or when you feel like you’re not reaching all of your students, just keep being your best self. Because whether you like it or not, everyone’s watching and they deserve to see you shine.

Always, Brittney

The Brighter Side of Failing a Student

I had a student plagiarize an assignment this semester. Twice. Second offense means they fail the class. I get so bummed out when this happens, and usually the behavior can be corrected after the first attempt. But not this time. So, what do you do when your student cheats? Here’s a few suggestions from my humble podium.

Lay Down the Law

Start with the facts. Show them their work and the work they plagiarized so that there’s no disputing whether or not they cheated. This will save you time in the beginning so as to sidestep the argument that would erupt with false blame thrown and accusations of singling out. Be as objective as you can and let the evidence do the condemning for you. Your student knows they messed up, and you don’t have to rub their face in it.

Pull Them Back into the Real World

Plagiarism doesn’t fly anywhere - not in academia, not in the workplace. So, remind them that who they allow themselves to be today is shaping them for who they’re going to become, and this behavior isn’t acceptable. If your response is to seek the easy path when stress is high, then that response needs to be reconditioned; because, work is stressful. Yep. You don’t get an easy route. You figure it out and be upfront. The end.

Show Them Mercy and Clean the Slate

I share with my students that I dropped my first programming class. The second time I took it, I loved it and got an A in the class. If you extend empathy, your student won’t feel isolated and they might be more apt to forgive themselves and seek reformation. Let them know that, although there is an academic consequence to their actions, that you still want to see them succeed and that you’re ready to help them out if they decide to step back into your classroom again.

Abrupt Change Forces Reflection

Even though the circumstances aren’t great, when we mess up, we’re given the opportunity to reflect on who we are and what we’re hoping to get out of life. This type of shift, steadfast and irreversible, forces us to reevaluate what we’re doing. It brings us back into the moment. And when we’re present, we’re authentic.

Always, Brittney

Three Steps to Reach Your Students

At the core of every student going to college is the desire for more.  More knowledge, more affluence, more abundance, more recognition.  They're here to learn because they want more from life than the hand they were dealt.  And within that undertone of commonality, we as educators have a very solid way to reach each of these students to get them more engaged and more invested in the everyday experience:

Step 1: Get To Know Their WHY

If you can connect with each of your students, understand the purpose for why they're going to walk into your classroom everyday, even when they don't want to, even when it seems like they could care less about what you're serving up, you can teach to it.  You can honor their goals and cater to their journey.  You can place milestones along the way to help them see tangible ways in which they are working towards their goals.  You can keep them motivated, engaged, and willing to show up.

Step 2: Meet Them Where They Are

It could be easy to blame the lethargic student body for dwindling educator enthusiasm.  You teach to a group of students who just stare blankly at you the whole time and it can be challenging to keep up the energy.  But here's a solution: instead of trying to meet students where you think they should be - you need to meet them where they are.  You need to pause your lecture and say, "Hey.  Two of you are nodding off.  Should we all get up and stretch?"  Shake up your routine with activities, competitions, group discussions - you don't even need to discuss the content so much as what gets them excited to learn.  Dig through the thick walls that your students may have built up to protect themselves and try to connect with the essence of what's driving them to attend class.

Step 3: Consistency Builds Trust

No matter what kind of group you've got in front of you, be consistent with who you are.  Every day when you show up to teach, you be your best self and you bring it every time.  The more your students trust that you're going to be there for them, be understanding and roll with them, they're going to keep trying.  If a student lets you down by asking for an extension and then still doesn't turn in the assignment, but they show up to class the next day, you welcome them in.  If a student drops your class, you reach out to them and let them know that you've got their back and will be ready to help them succeed the next time around.  Never allow time to make you apathetic.  Each new student is a new opportunity to build a better person, and this world needs all of us to be better.

Always, Brittney