PRISM  On-Line - October 99
teaching toolbox
Teaching - lean On Me

by Phillip Wankat
and Frank Oreovicz

An educator's job often extends well beyond the classroom.

books College students are balanced precariously at a difficult time of transition from adolescence to adulthood, and on occasion professors need to be more to them than just an information source. Whether a student is battling minor insecurities or serious emotional problems, a little extra attention at the right time can change lives.


    Bob was at my door again . . . and again . . . waiting to see me for assurance—well before the due date—that he had done the homework problems correctly. As usual, there were no errors. He plagued all of his professors this way, so several of us put him on an "office hour diet"—only ten minutes per week with each of us. Bob wasn't happy but he gradually discovered that he could earn good grades on his own, and by graduation had matured considerably.

    Professors who talk to each other about students and act together can have more impact than those acting individually.

Finding the right major

    Steve, a hardworking but struggling sophomore, was just barely getting by and very unhappy. He finally admitted that he was primarily attracted to engineering for the prestige and higher pay, and that the education department would be a better fit. With encouragement, Steve eventually transferred. He loved education, went on to earn his Ed.D., and became a world-recognized expert on the uses of computers in education—a level of success that wasn't in the cards had he stayed in engineering.

    Remember that students are individuals and we should try to do what is best for them.

Personal trauma

    A teaching assistant informed me that Karen had missed two weeks of class and her recitation group had no idea where she was. I asked the departmental counselor to help. She located Karen at her parents' home—her father was dying of cancer. We arranged to give her make-ups, and she became very close to the departmental counselor. Over the summer her father died, and although she struggled through her senior year, with the help of the counselor she completed her degree on time.

    TAs often know about a problem before you do, so ask them to keep you informed. Be flexible about letting students make up work, and be sure someone is available to help the student cope.


    Anthony, a graduate student, angrily informed me that he would not be doing a paper for my class, even after I explained that he would receive a zero. Taking a deep breath and avoiding becoming defensive, I noted that the zero could lead to a C, which would look terrible on his record. He calmed down and began to open up, saying that he had too much work to do, his thesis advisor was pushing him hard, and that my course wasn't very important in his field of study. I then suggested he wait until the preliminary grades were in, and if he was still getting a C, to do the paper then.

    Anthony accepted this option and was less angry and frustrated when he left my office. He settled down in class, exhibited much less anger, did everything else on time, and earned a B in the course—without writing the paper in question.

    Focusing on the effects of an action, while implicitly acknowledging that the student has the right to take it, often has a calming effect. The student feels free to discuss the fear that usually underlies the anger, and compromise solutions are easier to find.

Although these incidents, which are based on real students, were "victories," failures often occur when professors do not notice there is a problem. The reward for looking out for your students and lending an ear and a hand when needed is often a smoother-running class.

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