The Dangers of First Impressions (for Teachers)

I just finished the third week of the semester, and it never ceases to amaze me just how wrong I always am in my first impressions of my students.

I hate to admit that I even have first impressions, but there they are, often floating just beyond my awareness. The kid doodling in the front row is not only not listening but is clearly trying to advertise his boredom to me. The pretty girl who plays with her hair all class will champion the idea that feminism is outdated and unnecessary. The enthusiastic hand-raiser with pages of notes will write brilliant essays with nary an error for me to mark. The young lady who squints her eyes and tilts her head at every claim I make is clearly convinced that everything I say that deviates from her opinion is garbage.

Every year, I’m proven wrong. In fact, I learn I’m not only wrong, but actually kind of a jerk: the doodler doodles because it helps him think, and he never misses one word of class discussion; call on him, and he’ll always have something brilliant to say. The pretty girl is actually intensely insecure and has no idea how smart she is; her eyes grow misty whenever you praise her. The hand-raiser insists on having his say about every point and rarely is his input more than an announcement of other books he’s read or an excuse to relate personal anecdotes he thinks make him sound sophisticated. (“I actually read Freud in the original German when I was studying abroad in Heidelberg, and blah blah blah I really have nothing of importance to say.”) The eye-squinter and head-tilter, it turns out, is politely trying to show just how interested she is in the discussion, even though she doesn’t talk much.

I’ve become both more aware and more dismissive of my first impressions of students over the years, but it’s taken a lot of rude awakenings about my generally ungenerous nature when it comes to other human beings. Whereas I once spent most of my time grumbling about lazy, spoiled, and ill-prepared students, now I assume those “types” are the exception not the rule. Whereas I once would have rolled my eyes internally in response to someone who sang the praises of teaching, I now am one of those people (though I refrain from singing its praises in the hallway, which would only earn me the enmity of my overworked colleagues.)

I was not this person ten or even five years ago. Probably not even three years ago. But what a difference it has made in my life to enter each classroom assuming that it is filled with hard-working and well-intentioned students rather than plagiarizing slackers. And a bigger difference: to not make any assumptions about why students who don’t seem to take the class seriously are behaving that way.

This lesson has been taught to me frequently in the past few years at Northern Arizona University. Because I am the only person who teaches American literature surveys, one of which is required for certain majors, some students can’t avoid me, poor things. If they withdraw or fail, we’ll have to meet again. Almost every time I’ve had a student repeat, I’ve been surprised by just how different they seem and how well they do. Students who cause me to groan when they reappear on my roster often end up not only being entirely competent but also some of my favorite students.

I forget sometimes that students have lives and that sometimes these lives interfere with their schoolwork. And it’s not simply that students are self-indulgently inflating what we as adults might see as petty problems. Many of my students are dealing with far harder issues than I had to at their age. I have seen students struggling to pay medical bills because they don’t have insurance and others trying to balance schoolwork with their participation in Navajo or Hopi ceremonies that don’t unfold according to our academic calendars. I’ve watched students deal with siblings who overdose on drugs, who run away from home, whose parents kick them out of the house. I’ve had students who had to take out restraining orders on abusive ex-boyfriends or who needed to return home to care for ailing parents. And I’ve seen these very same students return to my class later when life has calmed down and simply kick ass.

Look, I’m not saying that all students who slack are facing huge life problems. Nor am I saying that you should bend your standards for each one who is–that’s not fair to other students. And I’m certainly not saying that you don’t have the right to lose your patience every once in a while.

I suppose what I am saying is that there’s no harm in giving each and every student the benefit of the doubt. I am happier now that I don’t feel I have to play detective and sniff out every student who might be taking advantage of my good nature. I am much happier now that I no longer assume I have any inkling why students behave the way they do. I am worlds happier now that my first conscious thought is to not assume a student’s seeming lack of engagement or effort has anything to do with me or my class.

To coin a lame metaphor, the seeds of this perspective were planted years ago. I like to call the reason I began to change my perspective the Eli contingency. Eli was a student in the first class I taught as a Ph.D. student at UConn. He came to class minutes late almost every day and usually wearing sunglasses. Often I had to ask him to remove the sunglasses. In my memory, Eli looks a bit like Tom Cruise in Risky Business sans the cigarette.

Needless to say, I dreaded meeting with Eli for our first individual conference. He had just turned in an entirely incoherent paper with short, choppy paragraphs, none of which seemed to have an overall point. Eli and I sat down, and I wanted to accuse him of turning in a lazy, half-assed paper and send him on his way with the simple advice of “work harder and do better.” Instead, I decided to play as dumb as I assumed he was. “You see, Eli,” I said, “it really helps if each paragraph has one main point, and it really helps if that main point is expressed somewhere near the beginning of a paragraph in what we call a topic sentence.” I illustrated by pointing out a few examples, expecting at any moment Eli would stop me, confess to having written the paper an hour before class, promise to do better in revision, and we could call it quits.

Eli did stop me, but instead he asked, “Why hasn’t anyone told me this before?” The moment has obviously become romanticized in my memory, but I swear there were tears in his eyes.

In short, Eli really hadn’t learned any of this stuff before, and he literally devoured the instruction I gave. By the end of the semester, he wasn’t writing great papers, but they were pretty darn good, and they definitely showed that he was desperately trying to put to use any feedback I gave him. He was, by the end of the semester, also one of my favorite students simply because he worked so hard.

So, the point of this story, as I’m sure is quite obvious (one might say “ham-fisted”), is that you simply don’t know what’s going on in your students’ lives and to speculate negatively is not only dismissive of them but also likely to make you unhappy. So don’t.

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