End of Semester Lessons: What My Students Taught Me

It’s another finals week here at Penn State, which means the campus is slowing its pace, faculty are storing away their lectures and exams, and the air is vibrating with the excitement of seniors heading off into the next stage of their lives. The end of each semester brings with it a bittersweet taste–satisfaction looking back on another semester completed, but also loss as the tethers uniting each of my classes come unmoored and we go our separate ways.

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I had the pleasure of starting each Tues/Thurs with this incredible group #HDFS429

If there is ever a constant in teaching, it is change itself.

This semester was particularly powerful for me, as it coalesced with shifts in my own private life. I’ve been writing more nonfiction along with fiction, and with this emergence my own thinking has shifted into territories I’ve failed to explore before, much to my own detriment.

Growing up as a white woman in the privileged middle class amidst an essentially homogeneous white community, my cultural experiences were limited. Likewise, my abilities to comprehend what it means to be a person of color in our country or a person in economic disadvantage were similarly limited.

This is one of the reasons I so greatly treasure my role as a university lecturer–every semester I interact with 400+ new students from a variety of backgrounds, each bringing their own experiences and uniqueness to the classroom. It is such a gift to have a profession where I am guaranteed the opportunity to interact with individuals different from myself and to explore these cultural distinctions within the supporting framework of developmental science.

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Next up came my HDFS 497A: Autism course–do I look excited to see them? That’s how I felt every day coming to class 🙂

This semester, the main lesson I’ve taken away from my students is the value of authenticity and honesty.  Heading into my classroom in anticipation of tackling topics such as the intersection of race and poverty in the US, or the impact of media stereotypes on children’s ethnic and sexual identities, I remained unsure of myself, semester after semester. How could I, a privileged hetero white woman, speak to the challenges, prejudices, and violence directed at people of color in our country or to the confounding of race and financial opportunity in the US?  How could I speak to the experience of being a religious or sexual minority or as a parent of a child with special needs?

The answer, of course, is simple. I cannot speak to these experiences with any element of truth, because I have not lived them. Although I can provide evidence from the scientific inquiry into these topics, the essential components of human experience that embody each of these life paths is out of my grasp.

And this semester, I finally owned this fact. I did not avoid the subject or bury it under statistics and references to various studies. I admitted my limitations, and I asked my students to help me. This was the most relevant in my HDFS 429: Advanced Child Development course, where we specifically discuss risk and resilience and examine media and race, although all of my courses collide with these social justice issues in some way.

At the beginning of these specific discussions in HDFS 429, I stated outright that I’ve benefited my entire life from white privilege and that I have no way of knowing what it is to be a person of color in this country. I don’t know what it means to be poor, either. And I absolutely don’t understand what it is to be both.  In my other courses, I made similar efforts to disclose my authentic self, in order to provide it as a contrast to the breadth of the human experience.

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And then my day ended with my largest class–HDFS 229 #LovedEveryMinute

In this disclosure–in owning my white privilege rather than pretending it did not exist–something wonderful happened. The atmosphere of my classrooms opened up, and my students began to incorporate their own authentic experiences in our discussions of developmental science, whether those experiences mimicked my own or provided a new perspective I could not provide. I felt a freedom in the classroom that I hadn’t felt before, and I can look back and realize that this freedom emerged from me acknowledging what I did not know to my students, thus giving my students room to teach me.

The greatest joy this semester came when my students accepted who I am and am not, and then offered to educate me in part by sharing their reflections on their own journeys in life thus far. In every class meeting, my students took me by the hand and pulled me forward, closer to understanding, empathy, and wisdom.

And this is where I find myself at the end of this Spring semester–wholly myself and wholly listening.

What You’ve Taught Me: Semester Wrap-Up for Fall 2016

Today marks the thick of another finals week here at Penn State University. As comes with the end of all semesters, there is a whirlwind of questions about exam materials, stressed students coming and going from my office, and papers to grade.

Despite the whirlwind that is finals week, I find it edifying to take a moment to reflect on the lessons the semester brought for me. As the old adage goes, my students teach me every day.

I love my job–every Fall and Spring I’m presented with the opportunity to meet, connect with, and learn from 400 new individuals as we meet in classrooms across University Park campus and discuss topics I find compelling and fascinating. Seriously–what could be better?

Reflecting on Fall 2016, I have only become more enamored with my job and with this cohort of students who represent the future of our culture and our world. Here’s what I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  1. My students are Resilient.

It’s an unfortunate statistical likelihood that, given my large group of students, I will work with men and women who are coping with a variety of tragedies and traumas as they pursue their studies. This semester was no exception–death, grief, sexual and physical assault, and mental health crises all crossed the threshold of my office. And yet, even as these students coped with their trauma, they demonstrated such strength and  determination. They sought out support from friends, family, and faculty. They pursued treatment from mental health professionals and counselors to heal their psychological wounds without shame or  embarrassment. And they actively sought to advocate for themselves and other students coping with similar situations in their own lives. Although these students suffered, they refused to be victims, and their personal power inspires me every day.

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My HDFS 432: Developmental Problems Class (and the first selfie of the day, as you can tell by my less-than-composed expression). My class, though? They look fabulous!

2. My students are Kind.

I cannot count the number of  times I noticed students sitting with each other before class, sharing notes or readings, and asking each other relevant clarification questions about course material. Within class discussions, especially when we would cover topics that ranged into the personal (e.g., mental health struggles, histories of peer victimization, parental loss/grief), my students showed each other not just respect, but empathy. In one discussion, where the topic was Attachment in Adult Relationships, one student shared her experiences with maintaining her long-distance relationship with her significant other. Immediately after, another student raised her hand to comment on her own experiences with her long-distance relationship, and to offer support and commiseration to her classmate seated across the lecture hall filled with 150 students. Even when we don’t ‘know’ each other, there is a shared knowledge and compassion inherent in humanity that my students express regularly with each other.

I can also add, from my own personal perspective, the kindness students have shown to me. E-mails they’ve sent to express their enjoyment of a topic of the course sit in a special folder in my inbox, where I sometimes go to read them when feeling stressed and less-than-competent (as we all do at points in our careers). Students thank me for holding review sessions, answering e-mails, answering questions, meeting with them to go over study tips. All of these are activities embedded in my job, and yet my students take the extra step to thank me for it. It’s certainly not necessary, but it does bring a brightness to my work that sustains me.

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Second Selfie with my HDFS 229:001 Infancy and Child Development course. Getting better. (Can you spot the students taking a photo of my photo–how meta!)

3. My students Care.

Today’s university students are often maligned for being focused entirely on grades, and not on growing as thinkers and professionals. My experience, though, is quite the opposite. My students regularly asked questions in class that delved deeper into material–not because they were worried about being tested on it, but because they were genuinely curious. My meetings with students after exams and papers were returned often involved students coming to review what they missed in order to edify their knowledge-not to argue over points.

As one example, a young woman stopped by to review her paper–which was excellent already–just to discuss the two small issues noted on the rubric about her paper. Not to argue for points, but because she sincerely wanted to improve her scientific writing skills further. After she left, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. The Millennial generation, however often maligned in the media for its lack of accountability and determination, seems to be doing just fine from my perspective.

Students ask to borrow books for further reading. They ask to sit down and chat about career options, volunteer opportunities, ways to give back to populations and organizations whose missions they value. They are not afraid of hard work and they are not afraid of challenging themselves. If there is one thing my students seem to be afraid of, it is of not challenging themselves enough to grow during their college experience.

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Selfie #3 in HDFS 229:002–look at all those smiles! What a great semester we had.

So, for those in our country worried about the next generation of professionals, parents, and thinkers–don’t be. We are in good hands.