Friday, March 9, 2012

What does it mean when a student cries in my office?

I've had an interesting week.  On Monday morning I walked into my office after having been away from campus for the better part of three weeks, attending conferences, going on vacation with my wife, and playing hooky so that I could spend time with a three-year-old girl who is growing up far too fast.  Being gone that long, coupled with the fact that this is a busy time of year in the department where I work, meant that work had piled up and deadlines were fast approaching.  I was extremely overwhelmed, didn't have any idea how I would get everything done, and wished I were 35 years older and could retire.  On Tuesday, I felt even worse. A day had passed, the list had grown longer, and was worn out.  On top of that, I looked at my schedule and saw that I had meetings scheduled with about 20 students, some who work in our department, others who would be interviewing for a chance to work here.  It was going to take a lot of time, I would have to be a good listener and ask good questions, and it was likely to be emotionally and physically draining.  On that morning (and even now as I type this) I felt guilty--guilty because I am supposed to care about students, be interested in their welfare, and show a commitment to serving them.  All I wanted to do was close my door, drop my blinds, and work on my list.  Listening to students, caring, and forgetting about my concerns takes work and effort.  And, I wasn't sure I was up to it.

Letting Microsoft Outlook run my life is typically not a virtue, but on that Tuesday morning it was and I kept all my appointments that day and every day for the rest of the week.  I survived the week and it's now Friday evening and I'm getting ready to head home for the weekend.  Although my list is still just as long and I have an entire paper to write and submit in the next 6 days, I feel both calm and reflective.  That strikes me as a bit odd because my meetings with students this week were just as draining and time-consuming as I anticipated.  And, they were some of the more unique meetings I remember having in quite some time.  Here's a summary of some of the interesting ones:

  • A student whose father passed away just before Christmas and who told me about how hard things have been and how much her grades have suffered.  But, who believes she is a completely different person--in a good way--than she was four months ago.
  • A student who is suffering from anxiety and depression, whose parents are in my estimation both  insensitive and unsupportive, who is at sea trying to find a major and life path, and who has felt like a failure in her work in my department for most of the semester.  But, who, after telling me all of this, somehow left with a sense of optimism and contentment I haven't seen in her before.
  • An applicant to our department who broke down in tears while telling us about her first failed test from the previous semester and how she recovered from it and finished the semester with an A- (I've written about this course in a past post).
  • An applicant who was so nervous, unsure of herself, and concerned about how she was being perceived that, when asked at the end of the interview if she had any questions, responded:  "Give me some feedback.  How did I do in this interview?"
  • A student who I had initially viewed as lazy or unmotivated, but who now has my utmost respect because of his courage to tell me about the anxiety and extreme self-criticism that have plagued him the last 10 years of his life.  

I honestly don't know what any of this means.  And, this is likely to end up as one of the most incoherent posts that will ever appear on this blog.  But, I feel like I've learned some important things this week that bear articulating, even if they are fuzzy and disconnected.

1.  Keep appointments, even if you don't want to.  You might help someone.  If nothing else, you'll feel good about being dependable.

2.  Students are incredibly reflective when invited.  All we really need to do is listen, ask a few questions, and try to understand.  Most often, they'll figure things out and leave feeling a whole lot better.

3.  It's better to listen than to try to give advice or solve others' problems.  We feel inadequate, they feel misunderstood or judged, and we both leave the conversation frustrated.

4.  If we work with students during times of transition (e.g. virtually any point in their college experience), we're likely to have someone cry.  And, tears (at least the sincere ones that seem to come unexpectedly) seem to make the crier feel better.  And, somehow, the rest of the conversation seems more open and comfortable (I still don't understand this).

5.  Just because someone cries in an interview doesn't mean we should hire them (or not hire them).

6.  Human beings are complex.  We never have each other "figured out" or know the whole story.  Give people the benefit of the doubt and listen (see #3 above).  You'll rarely be sorry you did.

7.  Being in relationship with people is both hard and incredibly rewarding.

8.  Focusing on people doesn't make the list get shorter or the workload get lighter, but you feel better about the list, the work, the people around you, and yourself.  

9. Going on vacation with your wife and playing hooky with your three-year old daughter are worth it, even if it means a lot of work when you get back.

10.  Things always look better on Friday night.

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