By Ann M. Pearson
During one in-service meeting several years ago, our Chancellor, Dr. Brenda Hellyer, asked us to consider what an incredible difference we could make if we helped just one more student in each of our classes achieve the goal he or she entered that class to accomplish. The idea became a tagline across the College, and it could easily have gone the way of well-intentioned ideas that fall flat, but that the simplicity of the proposal made it seem do-able and intriguing. The idea stuck with me that semester as I met over 100 students in my five composition courses that made up my standard teaching load. I wondered how on Earth I could reach all of the ones who tried diligently to succeed anyway, let alone the ones who won’t show up or don’t engage in the classroom.
When the Chancellor first challenged the entire College to consider helping just one more, she was discussing statistics of the students we lose from one semester to the next. Where do they go and why? Her reflection became poignant and very personal when we think of the stats as actual individuals. Even if that lack of persistence number is a low percentage loss, that could represent hundreds of students who didn’t come back. Students who had an idea of pursuing a degree or certificate in a certain discipline at one point, but then stopped. Some of the reasons are identifiable—they moved to a different location; they changed jobs and had to sit out a semester; they ran out of money. That covers some of these individual students, but not all. What could we have done, while we had them with us, to help those other students finish what they started, make a better life for themselves and their families, and fulfill the promises they made to themselves when they started into the college experience?
So I started to scheme what I could do that semester for these missing-in-action students that wouldn’t 1) involve an inordinate amount of my limited time, 2) cost me any money, and/or 3) cast me in the role of in loco parentis. Surprisingly, it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had feared. Small changes on my part seemed to make a dramatic difference with some students. Of course, tracking this impact is tricky since I couldn’t be absolutely sure that the students with whom I interacted might have been the ones who didn’t come back but for my interaction. I decided casting a large net would give me the best chance of reaching the students I needed to encourage, and it wouldn’t hurt the others.
Here’s what I tried. I deliberately orchestrated face-to-face meetings will all my students early that term; the sessions were understandably brief to accommodate all the students. Some were conducted as we walked out of the classroom to allow the next class to enter. But that was enough to make a personal connection. Most were ordinary, even banal, but they established a crucial link to one person on campus who knew that individual student’s name. My favorites though were the unusual ones that are memorable even several years on. Jessica was going to be a teacher because that was all she had ever wanted to be; she stayed in my office pelting me with questions about what it would be like to have her own classroom of 6th graders because I had mentioned once that I had previously taught middle school. Tom brought me his sci-fi novel manuscript after we discussed the publishing business and how he planned to design computer games with elaborate plotlines. I’m fairly certain he came to class a couple of times just to show me new chapters, but he came. And Melanie was going to walk over to Enrollment Services to drop the class because she couldn’t afford the textbook but first wanted to thank me for trying. Together, we came up with a plan for her to pay me back in increments and walked to the bookstore instead. That was the only one that cost me front money, but I got it all back eventually. She said no one had ever asked her if they could help like that before. More and more, I think, we need to ask and act and be that person for our students.
The semester wasn’t perfect; I lost some students who disappeared and didn’t answer my attempts to contact them. Not all students appreciated my meddling, but I’m convinced I helped a few cross the finish line and stay focused on their goals, so I’ll keep trying. I don’t need to be their friend or get a thumbs up on social media. I simply promise to help just one more.