Smile – though your heart is broken…

benchI was sitting in a coffee shop the other day sneaking a quiet cup of coffee by myself when I recognized a lady who walked by.  I wasn’t sure how I knew her.  She was laboring under the weight of many bags of groceries, and she stopped for a rest just outside the coffee shop window.  She sat on a park bench with her groceries around her feet and next to her on the seat. She had the look of someone tired, beaten down, and struggling.

Then I remembered who she was.  I had taught her.  I remembered her, an older woman, one of those students we sometimes call a “second-time learner”.  After lectures I remember she would come up for a quick chat, ask a few questions but I most distinctly remember her for smiling a lot.  I don’t remember picking up any particular signals about her abilities or lack of them until the first assignment was due.   In that particular paper I used to let the first assignment be quite loose – they could be quite creative on how they presented the information and so when I received her draft I was a bit surprised.  It looked like a preschooler had written it.  However, as I say, there was room for creativity in the assignment providing the content was accurate.  But this was something else …..  this was actually reflecting her literacy ability.  And she was trying to do a degree, and I was trying to teach her science. 

This story could be about a lot of things – it could be about formative feedback, diagnosis of learning disabilities in the classroom and various other pedagogical issues around detecting and supporting learning needs in the tertiary environment, but this time I am making this about entry.   This woman did not pass my course, nor did she pass her other courses.  In fact, I have never before issued a student as lower grade or mark as I had to for this student.  Yet still she smiled as I tried to work with her. 

When I think about that smile and how she looked the day I saw her on the park bench I can detect a distinct change.  I think about how proud she was about being on this degree, that she was making her way towards her chosen career path, I can imagine how proud her children were of her, and probably her extended family, I can imagine how difficult it was to find the money to pay the fees, how financially difficult it was to stop her work as a carer so she could pursue fulltime study.  Yet she smiled. 

Of course she failed the programme and could not continue.  I think about the cost of that to her.  The disappointment, the financial burden, the covert message to her children, her own self-esteem and I feel angry that we put her through that.  Entry criteria is not there as a barrier but as a indicator about what skills you need to meet the cognitive and learning needs of the programme of study.  If students do not meet the entry criteria, we need to support their career aspirations by giving them fair and transparent advice on how best to staircase to their desired destination.  It is not about letting people in and giving them a go.  We need to be sure we are not setting them up for failure.  I think sometimes we relatively successful people underestimate what it takes to be a fulltime student, and most of us have no clue what it takes to be a fulltime student who is inadequately prepared for academic study, and most of us have not experienced that sense of utter failure.  It is not fair. Whoever let her into her the programme of study probably thought they were being kind.

That day I know why I didn’t recognize her immediately – she was no longer smiling.

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7 Responses to “Smile – though your heart is broken…”

  1. Lesley Pitt Says:

    Hi
    Just a quick comment – I get your point Christine I just wonder about people’s right to fail. What about if she had never tried and spent her life wondering about what could have been.
    Lesley

  2. bellstreetfiles Says:

    Thanks Lesley

    Indeed, but could we have staircased her to that – tried and succeeded at a level more suitable? She still may not have succeeded at her dream, but maybe she may have altered her expectations. The expectations when you enter a programme of study are that you have a good chance of being successful.

    All good discussions – thanks for participating.

  3. Staff member Says:

    Oh you nearly made me shed tears!! You have sooo nailed this one! Couldn’t agree more. J

  4. Savannah Says:

    Awesome blog!

    I thought about starting my own blog too but I’m just too lazy so, I guess I’ll just have to keep checking yours outLOL

  5. Westside Says:

    It was rather interesting for me to read that blog. Thank author for it. I like such themes and everything that is connected to them. I would like to read more on that blog soon.

  6. Aristiada Says:

    Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would love to mention that this post extremely forced me to try and do therefore! really nice post. thanks.

  7. Katia Dadd Says:

    Very interesting read. Thanks.

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