A Boss Example

A few years ago it occurred to me that I was probably among very few employees whose first response to an email from her boss was a smile and a pleasant anticipation. I knew that regardless of the challenge that her email might also include, it would be embraced with warmth, respect and always a bit of humor.

endicottWhen Kathy indicated at the beginning of last semester that I might not expect to have her at the helm if I agreed to take on additional students –I didn’t. I love my job and the students. But I know that both sentiments are likely true only because of her steadfast and wise leadership. I never would have been allowed to forge such close relationships with my students without her trust.

Kathy cares passionately about all of the students under her charge, but also believes in the ability of her staff to make good decisions, on their own. The fact that I might not have always followed a college-scripted, by-the-book path wasn’t lost on her.  But she understood that I—and most all of us—always placed the best interest of our students as our top priority. Just like our boss did; we had an awesome example to follow.

She did our jobs—along with her own—for many years so she remained fully in the trenches even as she led the charge. She always understood exactly what we might be going through, because she was often going through it herself.

The you have no idea phrase is ill-suited to account for the myriad scenarios that too closely resemble fiction with regard to some of our students’ antics. But as fabricated as the tales may have sounded, Kathy believed –in what we were telling her, and way more importantly, in the students and all their potential.

She also believed in our abilities to weather whatever student storm came our way and never lost a chance to tell us. I can’t count (seriously, the number is too high) how many times her emails offered appreciation and accolades for the jobs we did.  She never took us for granted, ever.

As to the job(s) she was doing? Amazing doesn’t come close to describing her own job performance. Not only did she know each and every student by name; she also knew their personalities, their parents, their issues, their majors –often even the classes they were taking and what might be tripping up their chance at success.

If her first priority was helping them attain that sometimes illusive success, her second one was loyalty to her staff. She always had our backs. When I first started at the college, a parent contacted me directly with news about her daughter. Kathy made sure I knew that it shouldn’t happen again; parent contact was her department, not ours. It wasn’t because she was worried about what I might say or do, but rather that she knew just how crazy-involved millennial parents could be and wanted to always be a protective buffer against them. She’d handle the crazies if we handled the students.

But when handling the students sometimes got out of hand, we always knew we could turn to her. No matter what she was doing, when it came to her chickadees, everything else could be put on hold. When I switched to nights and began to touch base at the close of her day, I felt a ping of guilt for keeping her from an easy exit out the door. It didn’t stop me, but I knew I was delaying her day’s ending. She never seemed to mind. Whatever she was doing, she stopped. And gave me—and my students—her undivided attention.

To say her departure will leave a gaping hole, is crazy understatement. Her higher-ups are likely unaware how much worse off their cozy little college will be without her. Someone will step into her role –more likely more than someone—but no one will ever fill her shoes. Her staff will miss her beyond words. But the void that will be most profoundly felt, even if only in a reverberating resonance, will be with the students. To those lucky enough to have known her, she is irreplaceable. But even for those who will never know her, she will likely remain a phantom presence, one of hope for their futures and in an unwavering belief in them—all of them—to accomplish great things and become great people.

Cheering for Failure

GradesI meet most of my students when they’re freshmen, unsure and uneasy about the demands of college life, in and out of the classroom. I follow them through senior year, onto graduation and even beyond, and witness their personal growth with pride and pleasure.

I like to think that I’ve helped more than a few of them cross the stage at graduation with a little more knowledge, competence and confidence. I suspect they consider me a cheerleader to their success, audibly shouting from the stands, but more silently relishing in all that they have accomplished.

I wonder if they know, though, that I’ve also rooted for their failure.

When one of my students had atypically gone a full week without showing me any of the work she’d done on a soon-to-be-due paper, I confronted her.

I passed it in.

Huh? I hadn’t caught a glimpse of it yet. This from a student who once worked back-and-forth with me on more than a dozen revisions to a single paper. On the one hand, this is exactly the trajectory I hope for. Eventually, students hand in papers on which they’ve worked hard and long and feel confident enough to put their best work before their professor for a grade –without any assistance from me whatsoever.

In this case, with this girl, I was thinking there was another hand. I asked her why I hadn’t seen it.

She looked me straight in the eye and said, Because it sucked.

The one quality I always loved about this kid was her honesty.

She went on to explain to me that she just didn’t want to do the work I would make her do and that the paper she passed in would earn her a B; she was fine with that. In truth, the paper probably didn’t even deserve a B but she knew the professor. She also knew I held her to a higher standard than he did.

I never saw the paper. She got a B.

I wish she hadn’t.

Just as I’d hoped for that C another student received in final grades instead of a B-. And was glad for the 10 point penalty for the late paper.

Don’t get me wrong. I like receiving those texts with the got an A followed by exclamation points. I really do cheer on their successes –that is when they deserve them.

So many times they don’t.

They take short-cuts, make excuses, do shoddy work. None of it at all surprising. Some of my own college papers were less than stellar. The difference though, was that I usually received grades commensurate to my effort. Lots of work and lots of effort got me a well-earned A. Not so much work got not-so-good grades. No excuses. I got what I’d deserved.

My students seem less likely to acknowledge that their instructors aren’t giving them grades so much as they themselves are (or are not) earning them. They don’t often appreciate that C- as the gift that it is. Really, they want the B.

One of my students bemoaned a poor grade saying the professor could’ve cut him some slack. He likely didn’t appreciate my dude, you’re in college comeback. But called out, he gave me a reluctant admission that he could have submitted better work. Then, he flashed his winning smile. He’ll go far on that alone –he’s counting on it. And today, he may not be wrong.

Maybe my students know better than I. Many of them seem to be doing just fine with minimum effort and maximum manipulation of a system they have a better handle on than I do. They often get the grades they want –even when I wished they hadn’t.

So I’ll keep wishing them ill. Or at least a handful of them.

It’s only the students who are most capable for whom I truly cheer for defeat. Because they may know all the short cuts, but I know all the scenery they miss when they don’t take the full ride.