When I started teaching college students at Stony Brook University in January 2014, it dawned on me – quickly, and inevitably – that they were a lot smarter than I was. I had to raise my game – and fast.
They were younger, sort of hipper, livelier, and much more rebellious – and they knew it, too.
I soon saw that I could not BS them, that my oh-so-riveting war stories of life in the newsroom would not, alone, move them. When I was laying on my life lessons too thick, they immediately saw right through me. I had to remain genuine and tell them what they needed to know.
Fast forward to March 2020, and then to the present time. Like all teachers, I had the challenge of motivating and inspiring my college students during the pandemic, the most intense and disjointing experience that many have had to face so far.
Last fall, we finally returned to the classroom after 18 months on Zoom. But the students had to deal with getting tested for COVID on a regular basis. Covid continued to hang over their heads, even in the classroom. Here, in early 2022, we STILL face the threat of COVID driving us out of the communal classroom and back on to Zoom.
In the heyday of COVID, I hit upon a strategy. Instead of boring them with data or disillusioning them with stories from the traumas of my life – the JFK assassination and 9/11 – I decided to deliver straight talk.
I told my Zoom classes that we could all agree that this pandemic sucked. It was not helping anyone to have to conduct our classroom lessons remotely. I made sure not to patronize them by saying paternally that I could relate to what they were going through – how the heck could I possibly? – or begin a sentence with these three most ponderous words, “IN MY DAY...”
What I Believe In
I told them something that I believed in, and still do, something I have since repeated on day one of a new semester. If they could get through this painful, scary experience – academically, spiritually, physically, financially and emotionally – then they would never again have to be afraid of an academic challenge. I meant it, too.
After flourishing in online teaching for so long, the burden of studying for and taking the life-altering exams such as the MCATs or the LSATs would not feel so daunting any longer. Once you take on the biggest challenge of your life and meet the demands, you will never again be afraid.
To my delight, they believed me.
I half-expected them to nod their heads as if I had said something as tedious as two plus two equals four. But they did “get it.” I felt proud of my ability to say something that inspired them and made them think a little – and maybe give them direction, without hitting them over the head with cliches and platitudes.
In fact, my ability to sway them with straight talk reminded me of an experience I had in my very first semester of teaching at Stony Brook. I had just handed out the homework papers the class had done the week before. I noticed both big smiles and grimaces as they spotted their grades. But I especially saw that Kim, an exchange student from Korea, was glaring at me. She was angry. She had gotten a C-plus, down from her usual grade if B-plus or A.
She waited till after class to confront me. I listened patiently as she complained, saying You gave me a C plus. Usually, I get a B plus!
“Professor,” she griped, “I deserve better!”
Without missing a beat, I blurted out, “So do I.”
For a split-second, her face remained impassive. Then she sort-of-smiled, as if to say, “Hmm. Not bad, old dude.”
I must admit, it was a pretty good retort.
Reach One Student
I’m the first to admit that my straight talk doesn’t always work, as well intentioned as it is. Educators never really know for sure if they are getting through. I subscribe to the (self-serving) axiom, that if I can manage to reach one student in my class, I’ve accomplished something significant. Heck yeah.
Teachers always feel like they are stepping into a batter’s box behind on an 0-2 count – and a 100-m.p.h. heading for their heads. Being underpaid and chronically under appreciated will do that to you.
All we can do is try to empty our tool kits to motivate and inspire our students. Whatever works, right?
If my students could get through this painful, scary experience – academically, spiritually, physically, financially and emotionally – then they would never again have to be afraid of an academic challenge.