5 questions good professors will never stop asking their students

A student showed up at my office around 7:30 this morning with a case of Diet Coke and a thank you card.

“I wanted to give you something to say thank you for being the best part of my semester,” she said. “You really gave all of us such a great experience.”

I was grateful she felt that way, but truth be told, it sure as hell didn’t feel like I was giving anyone a great experience. It was less like “Top Gun” excellence and more like, “Sully landing the plane on the Hudson RIver” survival. I found it a miracle that we made it this far and that nobody lost a limb in the process.

I know a lot of us in education feel like this year flat-out kicked our asses and that maybe our students aren’t getting the best out of us because of it. In an attempt to close off this year of weirdness, I found myself struggling for answers. After about a dozen attempts to write this piece, I decided that it’s less about what we know and demonstrate to our students that matters, but rather what we want to know and how we want to serve them that matters.

With that in mind, here are five questions I think good professors ask of their students, no matter the situation or how long it has been since we shared a classroom together:

ARE YOU OK?

I think most of us have asked this question at least 30 times a day over the past 18 months and really wanted to know the actual answer every single time.

Students often enter our offices with one specific need: A question about a test, a concern about a grade or a request for some sort of special dispensation on an upcoming deadline. However, great professors can see that there is usually something else going on underneath the surface as students mentally flail about like the feet of a duck that seemingly moves smoothly across a lake. There is a job that is overworking them, there is a family member who is leaning on them or there is a roommate who is sapping them of their will to live.

The regular people in their lives give them the “regular people” advice about what to do or how to cope or why they just need to suck it up. Professors tend to have a completely different angle on things because we’ve been around the block more times than a moron with a stuck turn signal.

In the game of life, Mom and Dad see their child as a piece on the board, moving toward a goal. Friends see fellow game-players who are trying to make it through unscathed. Professors not only see the whole board, but also every game that has ever been played in front of them over years or decades. We know not only what each move will do, but the six moves that can come after that initial choice that will allow us to better predict success or failure.

Still, tapping that resource can be tough for students who often thing we have more important things to do than help them with whatever is problematic in their lives. That’s why even just opening the door a little bit with “Are you OK?” can make a world of difference.

 

WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?

Professors who care put themselves out there for students because without those students, our lives would be pretty dull and relatively meaningless. Helping other people has been baked into who I am since I was a kid. If someone is working on a project, I have been taught to grab a hammer or paint brush and put myself to work. If someone is struggling, you offer assistance in whatever way you can. You don’t wait for someone to ask for help. You ask how you can make things better.

In classes, sometimes the help is easy stuff like, “Can you read my lead and see if I’m on the right track?” or “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take next semester. Can you look over my schedule?” Around this time of year, the help can be a little more taxing, but still pretty normal, like serving as a reference, writing a letter of recommendation or reassuring a parent that, yes, Johnny or Janie will get a job and, no, he or she won’t be living in your basement forever.

I have found some of the best moments in life come from helping my students, even when it had nothing to do with this semester’s class. I’ve taught students how to change their own oil and swap their car’s battery. I’ve fixed cars for kids who were about to get shafted by some greasy weasel at a 10-minute auto repair joint. Amy and I have brought freezer-ready dinners to students who just had babies and were overwhelmed with the responsibilities of being new parents. We’ve shared tips and given some kid-equipment to these folks as well. (That vibrating baby chair is a lifesaver some days, quite literally, one student told me.)

I’ve answered questions like, “How do you refinish a piece of furniture?” and “Can you tell me how bail bonds work?” (That one was a little dicey…) I’ve moved furniture and edited cover letters. None of it was a chore and thinking back on it makes me happy because these folks trusted me with whatever it was that needed doing.

The funny thing about this question? I find that once I ask it of a kid, I tend not to need to ask it again. After the first time, they’re the ones asking, “Could you help me with something?”

 

DO YOU KNOW HOW PROUD I AM OF YOU?

In the early phases, I tend to ask it on the simple stuff: You asked for help. You figured out how to properly attribute a quote. You got your first story published in student media. You got an internship at a place that NEVER gives internships to people from your school.

Once you graduate, you never stop being one of “my kids” and I don’t think I’m the only professor who feels that way about our connections with “our kids.” I watch from afar as you take jobs, move up the ladder and become leaders in the field. I see you start your own businesses, fight for social justice and make a name for yourselves. I’m proud to tell people, “I taught that kid!” when you show up in the newspaper (most times… Stay out of the police blotter…) or you are broadcasting on radio or TV. I am thrilled to let people know about your accomplishments and your awards and your growth as a professional.

However, you don’t have to do any of that stuff and I am still ridiculously proud of you. I’m proud of my students who have the courage to work through their mental health issues. I’m proud of my students who courageously battle cancer or overcome sicknesses and persevere. I’m proud of you for making amazing life choices to get married or to have kids or to go a completely different way. I’m proud that you are who you are and that you can stand on your own two feet and say, “This is who I am. Take it or leave it.”

When our paths first cross, so many of the students seem like newborn deer: gangly, gawky and awkward as they try to stand on wobbly legs in a world that seems far too fast for them. Somehow they learn to steady themselves and improve their overall presence. They get stronger and faster and better as they learn from doing things right and even more from doing things wrong. We’re there to guide them, but they have to do this on their own, otherwise, they’ll never be strong enough to make it when we’re not around.

When they actually put the pieces together, it’s something amazing to behold.

And it’s worth letting them know what a big deal that is.

 

WILL THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY?

The people who enter my class tend to have a lot of questions. If they stick with me for the rest of the degree, they tend to have even more. I’m not sure if this means I inspire them to think critically and question their surroundings, or if I’m just confusing the crap out of them.

However, most of the questions they ask are geared toward a tangible outcome: “What do I need to know for the test?”¬† “Is it worth it to double major?” “Will this help me get a job?” “Is the salary for this job enough to keep me alive?”

These are all the questions we’ve been trained to ask in the college setting and they all make sense: You want to pass the class, graduate, get hired and earn enough to survive. The one thing that we tend not to think about in a real concrete way is if what we are doing will make us happy. Going through school always seems to feel like this scene from “School Ties:”

It took a long time for me to figure this out, but most of what makes life worth living and jobs worth taking is the degree to which you actually like what you’re doing. Dad always told me that if you find a job you love, you’ll never really work a day in your life. It’s mostly true, in that I have found that not every day is an Academy Award-winning performance and there are some days that are a lot better than others. However, when something makes me happy, I look forward to doing it. When something doesn’t, I tend to avoid it or do a half-assed job at it.

Students often tell me that they want to go to law school or grad school or start their own business or change majors or a million other things. The thing I immediately want to know is, “Do you think this will make you happy? If the answer is yes, plan well, hedge against failure and work like hell at it. If the answer is no, think again about why you want to do this at all.”

A lot of things that might make you happy aren’t going to be the smartest of choices, (“I want to start my own company where I blow bong hits in the lungs of people’s pets and post the videos on YouTube…”) which is where those other caveats come in. Still, we tend to consider the importance of happiness in inverse proportion to all the other things that are far less important than if we will really like what we’re getting ourselves into.

 

YOU KNOW I’M ALWAYS HERE IF YOU NEED ME, RIGHT?

I have now spent more of my life teaching college than I have not being a college teacher, and it doesn’t matter where I taught you or how long ago it was, you’re never really going to get rid of me.

The best part of my life is hearing back from students who have long since stopped needing my help on a test, my advice about an internship or my signature on a course override card. They have written more stories, covered more events, taught more classes, run more organizations and probably make more money than I ever have. However, when they really do need something, I’m thrilled to death when they show up in a chat or an email

A former student who is in her 40s sent me an email a few weeks back, asking if I’d support her effort to take a job at a big-name university. She has a doctorate, advising credentials that are amazing, a record as an elected public official and a lot more, so she needs me in the same way a Kardashian needs more publicity. However, I told her I was more than happy to do whatever she needed: Serve as a reference, write a letter or drive somewhere and talk to those people about why they’d be stupid not to hire her.

Another student got in touch a few years back when a source was threatening to sue him. I found the threat ridiculous and that his employer wasn’t doing more to support this kid, so I dug around and found some legal help that not only got the source to back off, but pushed the media outlet to leave the story alone.

I’ve refinished furniture for them as wedding gifts. I’ve seen their kids grow up in pictures and videos they post on social media. I’ve offered them condolences and heartfelt messages when they lose a parent or a loved one.

I’ve bought T-shirts and doodads from students who have started their own businesses. I’ve bought Girl Scout cookies from the children of former students, only pausing to think, “How in the hell are you old enough to have a kid who’s a Girl Scout?” (No matter how old they get or how esteemed they are, my students are eternally trapped in my mind’s eye somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22, showing up for an 8 a.m. bleary eyed and likely hungover.)

I’ve lit holy candles in my church for students recovering from cancer. I’ve prayed for all of them at one time or another, just because I figured they needed it.

Before we part company any time we connect, I always try to remember to let them know, “If you ever need me, you know I’m here for you, right?” I mean it every time and I know I’m not the only professor who feels this way.

If there’s one thing I hope they all know, it’s that the answer to this particular question should always be “Yes.”

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