Baby Steps

The student stared at his feet as he sat in the waiting room. I rounded the corner and called out his name (we'll pretend it's Bill for the sake of this post). He didn't respond verbally, but stood up and followed me down the hall, without a hello or acknowledgement of my existence.

He sat across from me and stared awkwardly at the corner of my bookshelf, somewhere up and to the right of my head. No eye contact. Communication on his end was sparse, aside from a few "yeahs" and head nods. He was certainly a "good" student, but just couldn't seem to get the words out. It was my job to help this guy successfully navigate the internship application process, develop a polished resume, nail his interviews and eventually find a job, and he wouldn't even speak or look at me. I knew it would be a tough road, and he was certainly representative of the 20% of students who would need 80% of my time.

The job search was painfully slow, but salvation appeared in the form of a research position that required tons of technical skills but few communication skills. Four months later, the same student showed up in my office, sat down, made direct eye contact, and said "hello." I needed a forklift to hoist my jaw from the floor.

The ability to hold a basic conversation is a given to many, but for him it took work. Even though his communication skills were still below par, they were certainly leaps and bounds above his skills when he left for the work term. This student's progress helps me through the rough days where I wonder why I chose this profession. Every year I work with hundreds of stellar students who work for top notch companies, but for some reason I consider the guy who learned to make eye contact and say "hello" to be one of the most successful students in the program.

My colleagues and I often talk about meeting students where they are and measuring success by the distance travelled, not by the final destination. Although I teach this way, I have trouble applying it to my personal life. As a junior educator, I understand that learning is a lengthy and individual process, but as a human I immediately expect success in my work and to perform on the same level as my senior peers. Of course the work and breadth of knowledge of a three year newbie won't come close to that of a thirty year veteran, but I tend to be hard on myself when it doesn't stack up. It's easy to see the results of thirty years of work, but it's harder to understand and accept that it takes thirty years to get there. Deep down I understand this, but sometimes it helps to be reminded. Just as I attempt to meet students where they are, I need to do the same for myself.

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