How I changed an awkward student interaction to a lesson in resilience

Michael Scott Long

STEM Writer and Editor, Washington, United States, Email: mslong79@gmail.com

I changed the narrative in a way that will help my student succeed elsewhere in life

 In today’s world people often see you simply through the lens of success. More often than not, no emphasis is given to the journey that takes one to success. Add cut-throat competition to the mix and you get the temptation to resort to unfair, unethical, and unprofessional means to gain leverage over your peers. Sometimes, otherwise honest people face especially challenging circumstances and see no honest options. A peculiar situation arises when a student is ready to barter intimacy (sexual) for better grades.

What does a lecturer or professor do when a student makes a sexual advance? Your initial inclination may be to immediately admonish the student, a directive of every faculty training video I’ve ever seen on interpersonal misconduct. Doing so may solve the problem of the student trying to gain illegitimate favor, but not what I see as the larger issue: the student’s lack of self-confidence.

I presume that students who sexually proposition their teacher are often stressed about their course grade and are desperate for a way out. Students know it’s unprofessional. They don’t want to do it. They simply see no alternative. As a teacher, you’re in a perfect position to change the narrative and give your student an alternative.

I clearly remember one instance in an organic chemistry course I taught. A student, who wanted to eventually attend medical school, badly failed the first exam. More than likely, the student had strived for medical school for years: succeeded in appropriate secondary school coursework, and worked hard at the university for perfect or near-perfect grades. Now, with a possible failing grade in organic chemistry, this medical school dream probably seemed over. My student needed to dramatically improve a critical course grade from what may have seemed like an irreparable low point. I don’t blame my student for being desperate.

I gave a realistic alternative. I told my student how to improve by self-effort, and that I would collaborate to help make it happen. In my office, once a week for perhaps the next five or six weeks, we discussed course material. We began by me asking a quick series of questions to give me a better handle on what we did and didn’t need to review. Based on this assessment, we moved on to foundational content such as building and interpreting bond-line structures, and how to propose resonance contributors. I emphasized how these principles would help in rationalizing substitution and elimination mechanisms coming up later in the course. We would also go over any questions from the lecture and homework problems that were especially difficult. We both had certain responsibilities here. The student’s responsibility was to bring specific questions to me. Mine was to answer these questions in a way that led into upcoming course content, to clearly give a solid foundation for the future.

After about a month, my student spent less time in my office per weekly visit, and by the third exam stopped coming by regularly. This wasn’t attributable to lost interest or no longer finding office visits useful; the student simply was able to better handle the course material without any further assistance. My student’s exam grades improved dramatically, from proficient to an excelling fourth exam score that was among the top 10% in the section. This turn-around, along with my lowest-exam weighting policies, led to an excelling grade in organic chemistry—immeasurably better than the failure that initially was so concerning.

This story isn’t simply about turning around a student’s course grade. It’s about giving a student confidence going forward in school and professional life. Like everyone else there will be times when this student struggles academically or professionally. Hopefully, this student will remember of the successful struggle in organic chemistry to attain an important goal—and understand that success is entirely possible now by doing the exact same thing. I care about that much more than how much of the course content my student still remembers.

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