The kids who keep good teachers up at night

Pam Whitfield, profiled on NewsCut a few years ago, has a way about her that allows her to reach students that other teachers and professors can’t.

But she can’t reach — or save — them all, she writes in an article this week for Insider Higher Ed.

She has, she writes, 60 to 80 developmental students writing students in her class each term Rochester Community and Technical College. Many are wounded, vulnerable, and unprepared, she says.

One third of them are doing fine. One third of them are squeaking by. One third rob her of sleep.

Because the more I care about my students, the more they break my heart.

I wish that I knew less about them, that they could simply be students to me. But the best subject matter for fledgling writers is their own lives, and my students love to tell their stories. While my colleagues in other departments are feeding multiple choice bubble sheets into Scantron machines or ticking off points for math equations, I am scribbling comments in the margins of my students’ papers. I am writing things like, “Do you know how to get a restraining order? Please ask me; I will help you” and “Here’s the counseling #. Ask for Robert.”

I am also writing letters and emails, to both these students and their advisers. I am seeking student services and support agencies for them. I am trying to put a finger in every hole in the dikes of their lives so that they can stay in my class, they can learn, they can move on to college level English and the rest of their lives.

I am teaching the disciplinary material which I was trained to teach, but I am also serving as a life coach, student success skills instructor, and amateur therapist, and I have no training in these areas.

Some of her students “hover on the brink of ‘I can’t do this.'”

I could teach the students who are college-ready, who passed that arbitrary, high-stakes placement test, or who have already schlepped their way through a remedial course like mine.

But then who would encourage John to get tested for dyslexia? Who would ask my Hmong student about her pregnancy, or my Somali student about her father’s heart surgery? Who would watch the 30-year-old veteran’s face for signs of anxiety and reassure him?