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Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors

Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors

We’ve had good ones; we’ve had ones who were not so good. We’ve had ones who changed our lives, our career paths, who opened us up to new ideas and ways of thinking; we’ve had others with whom we just tried to get by with a passing grade. We’ve all most likely had a wide spectrum of relationships with our teachers and professors, both in primary school and college, so we know that those relationships can be as rewarding, fraught, and complex as any others. For university students, these are important relationships, even if only because these people hold the power of the grade, and thus it’s important for students to learn how to interact with their professors.

The students I’ve worked with who have had difficulty in this area have had such difficulty for a variety of reasons, but often the power structure that puts professors on a (for some) intimidatingly higher plane than students is at the heart of it. Simply put, students are scared to talk to them. Scared that if they take advantage of office hours or express a need for help, the professor might think they are dumb. Scared to talk to any authority figure, but especially one who has the power to decide the fate of their GPAs. For some, the issue is cultural, which is something we’ve found at our university with international students from a few specific countries. Not all international students face cultural barriers to effective communication with professors at American universities, but some do. In these cultures, the status differential between students and professors is even greater than it is here. These students hold their professors in such high regard that to actually talk to one seems unthinkable, and to really open up to one about having difficulty in the class- totally anathema. Even classroom participation can be restricted by notions that one simply cannot for any reason express a point of view that might conflict with that of the professor.

International students aren’t the only ones who have to develop the skills to build successful student/professor relationships, and the first thing I tell all my students who seem to be having trouble is to remember that their professors are…spoiler alert…actual human beings! They are people too! They are at times happy and sad and energetic and stressed out. They have, at times, blind spots and biases and holes in their own knowledge. And they are almost always not only willing but excited to interact with students who show enough interest in their class to actually talk about it with them outside class time. I tell my students that what they may see as showing weakness (asking for help), their professors almost always interpret as showing interest. It’s a professor’s dream! When I’ve had students who were particularly daunted by the thought of meeting with a professor one-on-one, I’ve actually walked with them to the professor’s office door. The walk there often looks like a scene from Dead Man Walking, but when they emerge? Smiles! Relief! It wasn’t nearly bad as they thought it might be; in fact, the professor turned out to be a real person just like I said he or she would be! Weight lifted, and a bridge crossed forever.

Now, we all know from our own experiences that once in a while you will come in contact with a professor who is not the ideal. Who for whatever reason is NOT open, friendly, or helpful. It’s the other side of the “professors are people too” coin: people are not always at their best. So how should students navigate those relationships? It starts in the same place: remember that this professor is a person just like you. You know how you have a life outside of class, and it’s not always perfect? Well, so do they. Maybe they or someone they love is going through a difficult time. Perhaps he or she is facing the same burnout toward the end of the semester as you. So don’t take it personally because it may not be about you at all! But since you still have to get the grade, figure out what makes this professor tick. Figure out what kind of behavior and work is going to get you the result you desire in this class and do that. (A good place to start is by getting insight from students who’ve had that professor before. If it’s the material in the class that is at issue, find other resources- like peer tutoring- that can help.)  It’s also good training for the real world- sometimes the relationships we have to cultivate and make work are not the ones we would always choose. Sometimes we have co-workers or bosses who are difficult to deal with, so what do we do? We figure out the best way to succeed in an imperfect environment. When students realize this, it’s just another thing that they now see can be applicable to the rest of their lives, and that in and of itself can be a motivator.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how the student/professor relationship is growing and changing with the evolution of online education, and even those who have never taken an online class themselves can probably see both the positive and negatives based on their own experiences with things like social media. Often, online students find the relationships with their professors comes even easier online. Shy students who would never dare speak up in a lecture hall become poets in online discussion threads. Those who may have difficulty approaching a professor face-to-face find it much easier to communicate by email. These relationships can still be as complex and as rewarding as those with professors who are standing in the same classroom as their students, and each year that online education grows will provide us with more information as to how success coaches can help our students make the most of these relationships.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

 

Peer Relationships In College: Skill Building for the Real World

Peer Relationships In College: Skill Building for the Real World

I recently wrote about the changing relationships between students and their parents when a young man or woman enters college. The conversation made me realize that this particular relationship is only one of four “P”s. The full roster? Parents, peers, professors, and professionals. As students go from “moving out” to “moving in” in these next few weeks (don’t forget the t-shirt sheets!), I’d like to discuss the second of the four: that between students and their peers.

The relationships students form with their peers, both on campus and online, can hugely impact their college experiences personally, socially, and academically. Many would argue that these relationships are actually of more import than all the rest combined during this stage of life; physically removed from family (often for the first time), one begins to build a surrogate family of friends. It’s the blind leading the blind as they all try to figure out this brave new world together! This level of intimacy and shared experience, I believe, is why friendships that begin in college often last decades if not a lifetime, but it is also why it is so crucial to find friends who have your best interest at heart.

I have worked with more than a few students whose relationships within a disadvantageous peer group became huge boulders to their success. Especially for students who may be already lacking in the motivation department, hanging out in a friend group made-up of similarly unmotivated students, those who have a lax attitude toward academics, or those who simply do not understand what they want in life and therefore have no clear path to achieving it, can make it that much harder to stay on track. I had one student who was having such a hard time bucking the trend of “all play and no work” that I told him he could always use me as an excuse. “Tell your friends I am making you come study with me and there’s nothing you can do about it,” I’d say. Sure, there are days when the lesson should be how to tell your friends you can’t hang out because you are making you study, but you know…baby steps. And it worked! Jared began studying with me, and not only did his grades improve but his increased level of academic focus led another one of his friends to ask if he could come study with me too! Just as surrounding yourself with people who always have a second piece of pie is not going to help you lose weight, finding a jogging buddy can make dropping that stubborn 20 even easier!

Peer relationships are just as important inside the classroom, as they help students learn skills that will become incredibly valuable in the working world. Group projects can help you hone leadership skills, practice group decision making, and improve your ability to work with people who might have very different perspectives or ways of working. How do I navigate personality clashes? How do I deal with the man or woman in my group who is just difficult to work with?! College is a training ground for developing these kinds of peer-to-peer skills, and I remind my students that the relationships they develop in and out of the classroom will help them for years to come.

Again and again, I find my advice train arriving at the same station: identify what you need and then seek it out. In terms of peer relationships, that means finding good friends and good mentors. Whether that fellow student is next to you in class or 2,000 miles away logging in from her laptop- find mentors. Nurture those relationships. Ask for help. Pay it back and forward when you can.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Success Coaching Relationships – Students and Parents

Success Coaching Relationships – Students and Parents

We may be coming into the dog days of summer, but for incoming college freshmen and their parents all over the country, this is a time of major transition. Sons and daughters are preparing to set out into the world of higher education and independence as mothers and fathers steel themselves to do that most dreaded act (even if it should be so easy): letting go. All of us have, at some point, gone through the transformation of the parent/child relationship that occurs as children become adults. For some, the change feels natural, easy, at times even imperceptible; for others, it can be a tumultuous and confusing road. In any case, one of the many jobs of a success coach is to help students understand and navigate these transitional relationships.

Knowing how to help a student in this way depends, of course, on the kind of relationship a student has had with his or her parents prior to arriving on campus. Some students are 100% ready for the independence of college life; others have never spent a night away from home. On the extreme ends of the spectrum, some students are used to having their parents do practically everything for them while others have basically raised themselves. While many students move through the this transition relatively easily, those with more complicated or co-dependent parent/child relationships can face significant roadblocks.

One phenomenon that has garnered its fair share of ink in the last few years is that of the “helicopter” parent. The picture most often portrayed is one of parents whose over-involvement in their children’s lives comes despite the protests of their son or daughter.  However, I find that, more often, this kind of relationship is a two-way street (albeit one that parents have been primarily responsible for creating). I’ve had students who are used to talking to their parents three or four times a day, and so that is what they continue to do in college. They are in near-constant communication (most often by text) with their parents, and they often feel incapable of making decisions of any importance without their parents’ input. This situation is not necessarily unhealthy, but it can prevent students from taking initiative on their own or thinking and acting independently.

Sometimes, though, the pressure does come primarily from the direction of the parent, and those are the cases I find particularly frustrating. I vividly remember one Fall, a few years ago, running into our track coach while crossing the quad. School had only been in session for a few days, and already he seemed run-down and stressed. I asked him what was the matter. “I recruited this amazing runner,” he began. “She’s smart and driven and, as an athlete, I could build my whole team around her.” So what was the problem, I asked? “Her mother has been distraught ever since she left home. She keeps calling, begging her daughter to come home, saying she can’t live without her.” And so? “And so she left this morning.” I didn’t know this woman or her life, obviously, but I wanted to try to get her to see that it was her child’s future, not her own, that she needed to keep in mind. This particular student was not one of mine, but I have had students facing similar pressures, and I understand how difficult it can be. Even those who stay must build up a wellspring of courage in order to combat the stress and guilt that can accompany a parent or parents who are controlling or who just cannot seem to let go.  Other students arrive at our university having dealt with all sorts of manifestations of family dysfunction. I’ve had more than a few students whose family lives were simply terrible and who were thrilled to have finally escaped, only to find new challenges at college which stemmed, in part, from their lack of good role models at home. I’ve had students who have no parental support whatsoever- who’ve grown up in foster care, who were begrudgingly passed around from relative to relative, or who simply had parents who did not seem much to care about the future of their children. As a parent myself, it seems unfathomable, but it happens.

Obviously, the way in which a success coach helps to guide someone through these complex relationships and changes varies from student to student, but I find myself at some point giving a version of the same advice to all, “This is your life. From here on out, it’s all up to you. You have to make your own decisions and try to build the life you want. It may not be easy; in fact, at times it may seem nearly impossible to tell your mother you can’t come home because you have to study, or to apply for financial aid when you are the first person in your family to go to college and the weight of the world seems to be on your shoulders. Perhaps your struggle is seemingly as simple as the journey to learning how to do your own laundry. But that’s why there are resources here to help you!” I tell my students to seek out mentors, whether they be fellow students, RAs, coaches, professors, or administrators. “Find someone who seems to know something you’d like to learn and let them show you how to do it,” I say, “for though we and we alone are in charge of our own lives, we all need teachers, mentors, guides, and friends.”

And in terms of a student’s relationship with his or her parents, I remind them that this process of transition is normal. We all go through it. And for most of us, when we come out on the other end, our relationships with our parents are often deeper and more meaningful than ever before. 

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.