Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Giving Thanks for Students

Have I told you lately about the best part of my job as a community college teacher? No?

The students.

Thank God for the students.

This summer semester I taught a 2/3 instead of a full time load for the first time in many years, thinking that a lighter load would help with some health issues and a mild case of burnout. Instead, I learned that the lighter load still brought with it the stress of being a faculty member in the state of North Carolina.

Have you heard the news about us lately? We had a pretty good reputation in our institutions of higher education, but funding has been cut to the bone, and in some cases the bone was amputated. My persecution complex has gone into overdrive—the depth of the hatred some people have toward teachers is finally getting to me. The state legislature, along with a rampant mice and roach infestation in my moldy, windowless office building made the “lighter load” of the summer semester seem not as “light” as I’d hoped.

My morale has been in the toilet. The basement toilet.

Then today as I was scrambling to complete the long end-of-semester checklist in time to take a short break before “Fall” semester starts next week, yes, on August 13th, a student knocked on my door.

Oh, no.

In she came, in search of academic advising for Fall semester classes. The advising period had ended two weeks ago. A silent inward groan raised bile in my throat. She did not have an appointment. I did not want to take time from grading papers, posting final grades, and filling out official paperwork in quadruplicate to assist her. Usually advising for a full load of classes can take an hour, and I had hoped to be finished for the day in a hour. My head was pounding.

But I gestured to the comfy upholstered chair I brought from home to make students feel welcome in my cave of an office, and asked her how I could help. 

She sat. Caroline is in her sixties, African American, a pretty lady with high cheekbones and a self-effacing manner. While I was pulling out her file, I asked her to remind me what her major was.

“What do I want to be when I grow up? I don’t know. I really don’t know why I’m even taking classes. I guess I just want to improve myself.” She chuckled lightly.

We talked a bit about the differences between an Associate of Arts and an Associate of Science degree, and Caroline said she wasn’t sure if she would be seeking a degree, but she wanted to keep taking classes.

“I take care of my mother and my nephew,” she said, “so I don’t have a lot of time for my studies.”

“Oh, I take care of my mom, too,” I piped in. “She still lives on her own, but I try to help her out with groceries and doctors’ appointments.”

“My mom has dementia,” Caroline said, so softly I could barely hear her.

Oh, damn.

“Taking classes helps me to get out of the house for a little bit, and think about something else besides my own troubles. Being around the younger people helps me. They’re fun to be with. I need to take an 8:00 class, though, so I can get back home to take care of Mom.” She smiled.

She had taken a developmental math course over the summer semester, and wanted to continue with the next math course in her sequence.

That was it—she only wanted to take the one class.

“That’s all I have time for, but I want to keep taking classes. I don’t know where it will lead me, but I want to keep using my brain.” Courage, I thought, and tenacity. Sacrifice. Strength.

We filled out her registration form, chatted for a few more minutes, and shook hands. She left my office to stand in line at the registrar's for her fall class.

Yes, it’s the students that are the best part of my job. Thank God for the students.