Dear student, I’m sorry you missed the point

I finished grading final exams from my first-year college composition students. One of them, chemistry major, said this:

Having a science background, I realized that writing is much like a science experiment. Writing relates to a science experiment because with practice, you can only get better and better results. This is exactly what happened with me in this class. It has shown me that revision and editing are two totally different things and that they are both necessary steps to take while writing an exemplary paper…

Then there was this one, written by—ha ha—another chemistry major:

Someone once said “Before the final, your semester flashes before your eyes.” Whoever said that is definitely full of crap because it never happened. I believe that I performed a lot of busy work this semester during writing 106. My chemistry professor always says “practice makes perfect” so I tend to do countless practice problems in preparation for my chemistry exams. This method has yet to fail me, and I have learned a lot in chemistry this semester. Going into Writing 106 I thought I was going to be practicing writing a lot. This was not the case. During the entire course, by my count we did just one essay. While we did write a few things, we wrote just one paper, so if the purpose of this course was to help me become a better writer then I don’t think it succeeded. If the purpose of the course was to make me do a ton of work to earn 3 credits and a letter, then I congratulate whoever created the curriculum.

This was really annoying, for several reasons:

a) We wrote a lot this semester (six major pieces, to be exact)

b) Student often demonstrated an inability to follow directions

c) Student made fun of my MacBook the one day it froze in class, whereupon he chided me for not having a PC, then the following week he brought in his brand new iPad

d) I didn’t turn off the lights and read from a power point screen the whole semester—and I brought cookies on peer review days!

e) I think he was confusing “Someone” with Terry Pratchett, who said, “ your life flashes before your eyes just before you die.”

As a teacher, I sometimes take comments like this student’s as a reflection of my failure as a human being. So I moped around for five minutes. And then, because he was the only one, out of 70 students, who thought the class was stupid, I thought of “Dreamsong 14,” in which the speaker confesses to be bored by EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME. The speaker’s mother tells him that only people without “inner resources”—abilities to tease out what is personally, individually meaningful and useful from life experiences—are bored.

My response was apologetic: “Dear Student, I’m sorry you missed the point of the course, and that you have no inner resources.”

I disliked several of my college classes too, but I like to think the difference between me and this student is that I recognized when it was my fault—for being unprepared, for not paying attention, for not having slept the night before, for being distracted by thoughts about whether I wanted chicken or salmon at my wedding reception, etc.

But later I felt grateful for this student’s griping because he helped me think a little bit harder about my own life, and how I am more like him than I think. Sometimes, I forget to use my inner resources to make the most of a situation. I let this happen most often at church. When I think the talks are boring, or on fast Sundays, when I brace myself for the same people who always march up to the podium and ramble, or sound pedantic, or talk about soy beans, and I tell myself it’s okay to zone out. And then Elder Donald L. Hallstrom’s most recent General Conference address reminded me that it’s not okay to zone out when he said, “President Spencer W. Kimball was once asked, ‘What do you do when you find yourself in a boring sacrament meeting?’ His response: ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been in one.’”

Clearly, making the most of inner resources is a divine attribute. One I know I should cultivate more carefully so that on fast Sundays, I’m learning something from everyone—I could learn more about courage from the people who are brave enough to stand up every time on fast Sunday; I could pay attention to the speakers reading verbatim from the Ensign for 25 minutes and listen for principles that apply to my life; I could start a church journal, like a friend in another ward who weekly writes down what she learns from the lessons in all three hours of church.

There are lots of things I could do to make the most of my time and resources, not just at church, but at home, when I’m babysitting someone else’s children all day and wishing 5 pm would come sooner, when I’m talking to new people, or when I’m with people I love. I just have to remember that it’s not too much to ask.

What silly things do your students/children/relatives/coworkers say to betray the dysfunction of inner resources? How do you deal with this? How have you learned to recognize when it’s you and not someone else? How do you make the most of every situation? Tell me your stories!

11 thoughts on “Dear student, I’m sorry you missed the point

  1. My mom used to tell me a similar thing: “Only boring people get bored”. After hearing that, I was never bored because I never wanted to be a boring person!

    I suspect you will see more students like this who think it is only natural to push the blame for personal failings onto a teacher. I admire teachers. I don’t think I could do it.

  2. Sarita–I feel for you! I just finished grades for a composition course too–and I also had one student that drove me nuts, in part because he so often failed to respond to my feedback, and turned in a final portfolio that clearly failed to follow directions. (When I explained that to him, he tried defending himself, when I explained it again, he said, “I must have misunderstood–can I resubmit it?” This was the day before grades were due. I should add that this is an online course, so sometimes misunderstandings are easier there). What made all of this worse for me was that this student claimed he wanted to be a high school English teacher . . .

  3. This is a bit beyond my ken, dysfunction of inner resources, but it sounds like a really good insult.

    I’ve probably suffered from this dysfunction—I have most of them, so take it as a given.

    But here’s a stupid thing somebody said to me once: “I’m so glad you cleaned out the oven, because that did not look like a fun job to me at all.” Not telling who said it.

    Maybe I missed the point altogether.

  4. A friend once shared the phrase, “Be where you are.” In other words, be in Sacrament meeting listening and learning. Be with your child who is telling you about their day and not mentally making dinner. Be plugged in to whatever you are doing. Stop wishing away time, be in the moment and learn from it. I seem to have a hard time with this but I appreciate the phrase. I tell it to myself whenever my mind is wandering or I’m wishing away the time or the experience. It helps me to refocus. I seem to be learning to do this in micro-fragments but I’m trying.

  5. I really lack inner resources in Sunday School. Fall asleep every time. I must work harder to find those resources.

    I don’t think I ever thought I “got nothing” out of any college class. I wonder where my inner resources went between now and then?

  6. I can think of a time in college when I was a complete and utter flake in a class. I struggled with missed assignments, lack of motivation, I even missed the final and had to ask the teacher to let me re-take it. It was a core class for my major at the time, and I’m sure the professor thought I had no business being there and would never make it in that field. What she didn’t know–what I didn’t even know at the time–was that I was suffering with clinical depression. I could barely function at all, much less in her class. I was defintely lacking in inner resources, but there was a very good reason why. However, I wouldn’t in a million years have blamed the teacher for my own issues. I knew it wasn’t her.

  7. Stephanie, thanks! Sometimes I don’t know how I can keep teaching either. But there are enough students like the first one I quoted to make it worth it, I guess. I’m sure I haven’t seen the last of students like the second chemistry major…oh joy.

    Rosalyn, thanks for the story. Those things stress me out at first and I genuinely worry for those students, but then I eventually remember that there’s only so much you can do to offer help and then it’s up to the student to do the rest. I felt for me too, at first. Then I just laughed because this time, it really wasn’t me!

    Tasha–so true. Perspective is everything. Thanks.

    annegb, that’s how I took his comment, as an insult. It was a great insult.

    Becky, I like that phrase, thank you. And yes, I’m working on being in the moment and learning from it in baby steps too.

    mormonhermitmom, I’m the same way.

    eljee, sorry you had to go through that hard semester. Thanks for the reminder that there are for sure legitimate reasons for being disengaged. I didn’t think of it that way before, because my own life has been so different. I’m glad you found the root of the issue and hope things are better now?

  8. Oh yes, things are much better now! That was over 20 years ago. Three more rounds of depression, a stint in therapy, and I’ve had no more episodes in about 12 years.

  9. Just this semester:

    - I had a student want full credit for a group presentation he did not do simply because the rest of his group did it.

    - I had a student want to turn in a paper over a month late for full credit.

    - I had a student full on copy three paragraphs from an article, including the phrase “as we have shown previously.”

    - I had a student accuse me of being completely subjective in grading his papers all semester. Which might be true. I probably gave him the benefit of the doubt at times. If I were to go back and be completely objective he’d have an even lower grade.

    - And I had multiple students want to know just how bad they could do on the final to still get a passing grade in the class.

    Many times the emails (always emails, never to my face), try to use guilt to get me to change their grade – they’ll lose their scholarship, they’ll be on academic probation, they won’t be able to compete in sports, they’ll lose their spot in the fraternity house – and it will all be my fault.

    I feel emotional about them for a minute or so and then I realize the problem is not me. And then I feel sorry for them, not that they’ll lose their scholarship or perfect A record, but because their life skills are lacking. And I hope they figure them out soon.

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