He is tall, muscular, and handsome — a confident ex-soldier who only moments earlier was keeping a lively class discussion percolating along with his entertaining observations and quips. It’s the first day of the semester, and within the first few minutes I can see that he will be one of those students every professor loves to have in class: bright, engaged, friendly, funny.
In short, he’s the very picture of success by our cultural standards.
But now he is on the verge of tears. Not noisy, gut-wrenching sobs that would draw attention to themselves. These are silent tears that well up in his eyes as he toils away at the simple writing assignment I’ve asked the students to complete. I wouldn’t even be aware of them if he hadn’t asked me to come over to check his work. Up close, I can see them threatening to spill over, but I can see also that he is struggling with every ounce of his being to keep them in check.
He’s embarrassed. He’s hoping I won’t notice them. So I oblige him by pretending I don’t.
Voices of failure
So, what was the assigned topic that has reduced him to tears? I asked the students to write about their deepest fears surrounding having to take a college English class. I gave the assignment knowing that it would open up a Pandora’s box of painful memories for my students: discouraging comments from other teachers, repeated failures in other English classes, the slow wearing-down of confidence until the student decides, somewhere deep inside, that “I just can’t do it.”
But that’s not why he’s crying at the moment. Right now, this veteran of fierce combat conditions is crying because he’s flat-out scared.
He’s scared that, even though he has answered every single one of my questions and formatted his writing just as I specified, he must be doing something wrong. Those relentless voices of failure that he’s internalized over the years insist that it must be so. And when I reassure him that he has done exactly what I asked him to do, he presses his fingers to his eyes, blinking hard to stanch the fresh threat of tears.
A regular occurrence
It’s a delicate business, this teaching at a community college. So many of our students arrive at our doorstep perfectly equipped to do the work as far as mental capacity is concerned, but so badly damaged by difficult life circumstances that I sometimes wonder how so many of them manage to muster the wherewithal to sign up for college classes, much less show up day after day, week after week.
Which is why I give a small, rueful laugh inside when I run across the occasional article by a fellow academic posing some form of this question: “How do you handle it when a student starts crying in front of you?”
The way the question is framed, it has a “has-this-ever-happened-to-you” quality to it. As if the notion that a person struggling with the everyday challenges of adult life might experience a meltdown here and there is something of a curiosity.
I don’t know where these other professors do their teaching, but in my realm, tearful students are a relatively common occurrence. I have regularly witnessed students shed tears of frustration, tears of relief, tears of sadness and loss, occasionally manipulative tears as an alternative to doing any actual work — and, more often than not, tears of sheer terror.
Nobody had ever asked
Consider the case of Tammy, a young woman who took one of my basic grammar courses several years ago. Defiantly decked out in giant hoop earrings and skin-tight animal print, she had all the swagger and bravado of the quintessential Tough Chick. On the first day of class, she stalked past my desk without so much as a glance in my direction and found a seat near the back of the room, sullenly cracking her gum.
That steely facade held up for the first several class sessions. Then one day I noticed she was staring blankly at the wall rather than listening to the class discussion.
Suppressing my annoyance, I walked back to her desk and leaned over.
“Tammy,” I said softly so that no one else could hear. “Are you with us?”
A pair of wide, startled green eyes swerved from the wall and locked on mine. “No, Professor Price, I’m not,” she whispered. “I’m trying, but I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying.”
And before I knew what was happening, her whole story came tumbling out, there in that classroom while the other students waited patiently: a whispered litany of failure after failure in her English courses because she could never understand what was being said.
And then she whispered the clincher: “You’re the first teacher I’ve ever had who asked.”
The journey of a thousand miles
Thus began a slow journey that Tammy and I undertook together over the next several months, meeting after class, painstakingly breaking down simple classroom tasks into even simpler tasks. And over the course of that semester, we talked about all those voices she had internalized, voices that told her she would never succeed in English class, in college, or in life. We talked about possible ways to silence those voices.
And through it all, I could never really tell how much of it was taking hold.
Then came the final exam. I held my breath, knowing that Tammy often became so anxious taking tests that she completely blanked out.
Sure enough, when I looked at her desk, she was staring at the wall with that blank look. But wait. No, not completely blank. As I looked closer, I could see that her wide green eyes were slowly filling with tears.
“Tammy,” I said quietly, and motioned for her to follow me out into the hall. And we talked. We talked about the internalized negative voices. We talked about the importance of believing in herself. We talked about all the hard work she had done that semester. We talked for a solid half-hour, and when I sent her back into class, I told her she could take as much time as she needed.
She finished nearly two hours after her classmates, but she finished.
And the result?
I would love to report that she passed the test with flying colors. The truth, however, is always far more nuanced than we would like it to be. The truth is that she made an attempt to complete the exam. By objective measures, it would not be considered a good attempt, but I knew it was the best she had in her. I had my work cut out for me trying to find ways to give her even partial credit for her answers. I tweaked and twisted and bent the rules so far in her behalf they all but screamed in pain.
But in the end, she did not earn a passing grade on the test. She passed the class — barely — because I gave her lots of points for effort. But even so, I was pretty sure her failing grade on the exam signaled a failure on my part to help her get past her destructive self-talk.
Until the last day of class, when students were asked to write out their evaluations of the course and the teacher. There sat Tammy, struggling as always to put down some semblance of a cohesive thought on paper. When I saw what she had written in her halting prose, though, I knew I had my answer.
“God bless you, Professor Price,” she wrote. “No one has ever tried as hard to help me but you. This is the first time I thought I could maybe achieve my dreams.”
What’s a professor to do?
So with all due respect to my colleagues at colleges where apparently the students are an admirably stoic lot who barely bat an eyelash under stress, I return now to the question: What do you do when a student starts crying in front of you?
I don’t know what the others do, but I can tell you what I do.
I do whatever the student seems to need me to do.