“Another chronically late student, so disrespectful;” “Oh sure, just keep checking your phone, it’s not like I’m trying to teach up here or anything!” These are some of the thoughts that may enter the minds of instructors during those first few days of class. I used to think that my first impressions of students were quite accurate; after all, I have been an instructor for several years and hold an advanced degree in psychology! Then I met Rebecca, and I learned how wrong first impressions can be, and that potential is not always displayed on the surface.
At first Rebecca showed all the signs of a student that was not taking class seriously. She always arrived without any essential materials. She seemed disinterested in the course, and had trouble staying off of her phone during class. Needless to say, my first impressions of her were not overly unfavorable. Rebecca was late on the day of our first exam. However, when she arrived, I was surprised to see that she had all of her materials and seemed prepared. At the same time, I noticed that she looked like she might have been crying. Was she finally realizing the effort that this class was going to require? Was she going to ask for an extension on the exam? No. She said she was ready to take it. We talked a bit more, and she disclosed that her fiancé had passed away from a chronic illness just days before. I was stunned. How could she possibly manage to be coherent, let alone be prepared to take an exam? But she was. She had studied and explained that she didn’t want to fall behind. We made plans for her to take some time for herself and worry about the exam another day.
Rebecca’s previous behaviors suddenly made sense. Whenever she had appeared to be distracted, unprepared, or disinterested she was actually dealing with a tremendous personal and emotional issue that ultimately culminated in the death of a loved one. Her dedication was nothing short of amazing. I realized that I had judged her completely wrong.
This experience caused me to reflect on my own unconscious biases. As educators, we need to really know our students. We need to start with the thinking that everyone is trying to better themselves as students, but they all have personal/family/professional stresses they are trying to balance with their academic pursuits. An essential part of our role must be to support students in their achievements in spite of, or in addition to, any obstacles they may be encountering outside of school.