Lately, I’ve noticed that in addition to my roles of administration and teaching, I’ve been spending more time coaching students. It tends to come up in small ways, such as offering suggestions on how to word emails or how a student should approach talking to their professor about something in their class. At first I was a little uncomfortable with taking on a coaching role when it wasn’t really part of my job. That’s not to say I’m uncomfortable with doing tasks that are not explicitly written into my job description. Instead, I was uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure if it was my place to offer guidance. Sure, I might be a decade older than most of the students, but I sometimes struggle with the impostor syndrome: what do I know? I’m just a lowly administrative assistant.
Having said that, I recognized a fundamental truth that I think many people take for granted – students are young. I don’t just mean young in age, but also young in experience. Most students haven’t had the same experiences I’ve had, whether that is my post-secondary schooling, grad school, or work. Things that I take for granted that come second nature to me are wildly new for students just coming into school. It’s even worse for students who are first-generation college/university students (like I was). For some, they haven’t had a lot of experience navigating systems on their own.
We bemoan the helicopter parents and make snide remarks that students don’t know anything (i.e. “life skills”), but I think we should have more empathy. Post-secondary is a big, scary place to navigate. If it’s your first time living away from home, having to manage your own schedule, finances, and life, would you not also feel overwhelmed?
Instead of starting with the assumption that students are lazy, or wanting everything fed to them on a silver spoon, I try to take the approach that students don’t know how to narrow down their options or choose a path. They are the modern Buridan’s ass stuck between competing options with no practical way of making decisions or selecting priorities. Instead they focus on what’s immediate and take the path of least resistance (for them at the time). Without a longer view and a chain of successes, their choices may seem short-sighted, but in their context it makes sense to them. If you couple that kind of decision framework with the complex, convoluted machinery that is “real life,” you can hardly be surprised when students make sub-optimal decisions.
In light of this, my response is not to infantilize them, nor chide them for what one would judge to be their bad decisions. Instead, I offer my perspective and anecdotes to provide teachable moments. I provide insight into byzantine rule structures and explain my reasoning. And I ultimately leave decisions or action up to them. They must take ownership of the process because they have to be accountable for the outcomes. The point of education is to create a safe space to fail and learn. Therefore, our goal should be to set students up for success but also provide them with the opportunity to learn through their mistakes, not by punishing them into doing the right thing. Rote learning works in some contexts, but in order to make deeper connections between ideas and develop ones ability to reason, students need to be coached on how to shift their perspective and see new connections.
And so, I sometimes coach students. It’s pretty interesting so far.