Overcoming the “College Students As Children” Mindset

In 2007 I began working for a nearby community college, my third such institution in Kentucky. In Kentucky, the community college system operates by a set of guiding principles and policies yet each institution also operates as a sort of franchise. The best way I can describe this is the application process. A person must apply to each particular community college for employment. Just because you have been employed part-time at one college for seven years does not mean you will be automatically hired by the second college. They don’t share employment records, in practice. If you ask nicely, the HR staff might do you a favor and place a call on your behalf to request your employment records to ease your portion of the hiring process. Each institution has their own rules pertaining to sexual harassment training, technology training, and whether or not one must also achieve a certain number of hours in professional development. I often found myself driving an hour-and-half to one campus to attend a mandatory PD session on a Monday night. Tuesday night, I would drive an hour to the other campus for yet another mandatory PD session.

Community colleges hire scads of adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty typically begin with no teaching experience and copious amounts of work experience. The idea is between communicating textbook theories and private sector practice students will benefit. However, the community college teaching experience can be very daunting to those not prepared for non-traditional students. Non-traditional students is basically a safe way of categorizing all students who did not come to college directly out of high school. So, think about what that entails for a moment.

students who did not come to college directly out of high school.

Where were they, these people who did not come to college right out of high school? The question and potential answers are interesting to contemplate. The question itself forces us to challenge our biases and prejudices, too, our preconceived notions of people. From my own experience I can say my adult students, i.e. people, have had a variety of life experiences. A few examples:

  • Jail or prison.
  • Armed forces.
  • Traveled the world.
  • Deckhand on towboats.
  • Welders.
  • Machine tool operators.
  • Route sales.
  • Drug rehab
  • Homeless
  • Gas station owner
  • New immigrant to the United States

My mother has taught every grade from preschool to high school, including Special Education. Her mother was a career educator in Nebraska. My aunt taught school. My uncle taught in the university system in Arizona for over a decade. I’ve been teaching in higher education since 1994. One trait I can admit to is that after a few years ago did I see my students as adults. Educators have built this very draconian mindset into their teaching model I feel is really a detriment to learning and education. When we stand behind our lectern, or as I do, pace in front of the course my sentiment is that we educators place ourselves as the “superior” position in the classroom. I argue this is potentially is a bad idea. Here is why.

During professional development sessions I sit upfront. Not dead-center, but I want to be part of the discussion. Plus, being up front helps me focus, helps me stay on topic, stay awake. Model good behavior for my students, right? Why should I tell them to sit up front and then when the tables are turned I go sit in the back and dig out my cellphone and see what’s happening on Twitter? Not that I am perfect; I will differ the front row to others if the PD is one I have been through before. Sometimes, that happens.

In one community college PD session a few years ago the topic of cellphones hit the floor. A mature woman sitting behind me, who I’m sure has probably passed away as of this writing as I am sure she began teaching somewhere around the invention of chalk, piped up with her cellphone policy. “I give them one warning and then I talk them away. By the end of the night I have 3 or 5 cellphones on my desk.” There were murmurs of agreement throughout the room. Sitting in the front row I dropped and shook my head.

“Can I say something?” I turned so I could face the room. “No one is touching is my phone. Here is why. I have a babysitter at home right now, watching my kids. My wife is pregnant and is due soon. My kid is in the hospital with pneumonia and I want to know if her condition changes. Are all of those things happening to me right now? No. But having been in a classroom for a few years those things are legit reasons to have a phone out. Our students are adults. This is a community college, with a wide range of people taking classes, people with all sorts of life circumstances. I’m not sure we have the right to judge for another what is appropriate or not, and certainly no one is taking my phone away from me. My policy on cellphones has always been,

We are all adults. Just be an adult with your cellphone use. I don’t care if it is out, just please set it for silent or vibrate. Not our of respect for just me, but all the people in the room you are going to irritate. And, you might think about this: one day, you could be teaching a class or workshop. What behavior is going to piss you off that you don’t want? Then, don’t you do it, either.”

People presume either far too much, or perhaps, not enough. People tend to think in the moment. “What right does he have to tell me to silence my phone?” People, it’s not about this moment. It’s about all the moments after this moment, and your future moments to come.” Once I explain this to my class and see the vast majority of my audience have that “light bulb” moment everyone is on my side.

The vast majority. I did have one case I will never forget. One semester a young female student had a front row seat in my Wednesday night geography class, a front row seat on those nights when she graced us with her presence. During one class as I am talking about something geographical the young lady’s phone rings. She answers the phone and proceeds to have a conversation, a conversation like one might have in a bus station or airport seating area, as if nothing else is going on around her.

“Hey! What are you doing?!” I exclaim, incredulous, stopping in mid-sentence during my lecture so the train-wreck of colliding thoughts and circumstances in my brain could have a moment to sort out details.
She looked up at me from her desk. “I’m on the phone,” she said, casually, softly as if I was interrupting her.
“Clearly! Get out!” I demanded. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m on the phone talking to my mother. We’re planning a cruise.”
“Great! Go outside and plan your cruise in the hallway! Oh, my god.”
She drops her head slightly and speaks to her phone. “Hang on a second. I’ve got to go talk in the hallway.” She gathers all of her belongings and leaves for the night, actually. The class is giggling, most everyone is just as agog as I at the audacity of our class member.

Later in the semester, the student would miss two class nights for the very same cruise she had tried to use class time to plan. Then, she wanted and exception for the homework and assignments she missed due to the cruise. Mind you, this was a spring semester course. Spring semesters usually include a mandated week-long holiday of decadence and debauchery we call, “Spring Break.” Did the student plan her cruise for Spring Break? Nooooo. Her cruise occurred the week after our return from Spring Break. Thankfully, these folks are not the rule of behavior. So, even if you, as an educator, hip your audience to adult codes of conduct, you will have one or two feckless individuals who believe themselves immune to adult decorum, much like Donald J. Trump.

I’ve been working on removing students from my teaching vocabulary. Every time I want to use “students” in a sentence, I simply replace “students” with “people.” Now, this can be a little awkward as I discovered the other morning when I referred to my class as “you people.” I stopped for a moment and apologized. “Oh, ugh. That sounded really derogatory. I’m sorry about that.” And then I went on talking about technology and cartography. Beginning a comment like, “You students need to consider …” turned into “You people…” This modification is a work in progress, I admit. My rationale for doing so is the changing circumstances and life experiences of people in my classes. I have a retired Army fellow and a former Navy intelligence officer in my cartography course. I’ve had a former Marine sniper and a respected business owner in class. A number of my students have participated through their churches on mission trips to Honduras, South Africa, Nicaragua, and Kenya. Some of my so-called students are younger than I yet probably have as much or more life experience than I do, honestly.

Our academic environment is convulsing into the 21st century. Higher education for all the lip-service given to being progressive and evolving and adapting to new technologies, is having an extremely hard time dumping the historical mindsets of 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Mindsets that impose the same set of rules and conditions pertaining to adults coming right from high school onto adults coming right from Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, Germany, or from a girls-only school in South Africa.

Our universities do not exist in the climate of the 1950s any longer. College and university shootings are now occurring with almost the same prevalence as primary and secondary school shootings. I personally have had to file two reports against students for threatening me which had the effect of banning them from two college campuses. If they were simply just pissed off they really didn’t consider the consequences their threats might continue to have on their own life as now they will have a really hard time getting an education without literally moving to a new geography. While I have been threatened, as have others, I do not advocate for increased guns on campus, either. That is just a really bad and irresponsible idea, for the record.

This semester was removed from her classroom by police. Not because of anything she had done but because of someone who was threatening her. The faculty person teaching the class became enraged, literally enraged, the police should interrupt his course to remove a student. As a faculty peer, I don’t think we get to make that call, any more. In this time we live, it’s not about your class, not about your dislike of law enforcement. In this time we live, it’s about your safety, the safety of that particular student, and the safety of everyone else on campus, really. When a person threatens someone, everyone around that person becomes a potential victim.

When I was threatened, my initial reaction was to shrug my shoulders and blow it off. The person who communicated a threat had been made against me was a local park ranger taking a night class in the room beside mine. He pulled me out of class to let me know. I turned and went back into my classroom, a little stunned. I looked at the people in the room getting notebooks and pens out and shuffling papers and realized, this threat isn’t just about me. This nutjob knows where I am every Wednesday night. All he has to do is show up, kill me…and then all these witnesses. And then I called the police. The fellow teaching on the other side of me was teaching Criminal Justice and was a current city detective. I went over and spoke with him. He said, “Well, if I were you, I’d start carrying [a gun].” I grew up around weapons, have fired everything from a .22’s to .45’s, revolvers to automatics, shotguns, to AR-15s. I’ve reloaded ammo for .44s and shotguns. In spite of my experience, I really don’t want to carry a weapon. And, the reality is, my personal safety is not the entire issue. There are plenty of lives in a classroom deserving a safe learning experience. When a person threatens an authority figure, like a teacher, everyone between the target and the perpetrator is a potential victim.

This is the life we have, for better or for worse. It’s not Obama’s fault. Putting a Republican in office is not going to automatically encourage angelic behaviors in mentally disturbed people. You’re more likely to get a Uber ride from a unicorn than altering the behavior of mentally deficient people. In fact, one could argue putting a Republican in office is more likely to increase outbursts from the mentally deficient, especially since the GOP has been stalwart against helping veterans and improving health care, which included mental health and then advocating more liberal gun laws.

I’m not sure we, as faculty, get to make that call, to tell the police, “No, you have to wait outside until I’m done talking before you can interview this student.” That student is an adult, by definition. Just like that teacher in my early anecdote is not going to take my cellphone from me, an adult, I don’t think a faculty person gets to make a choice relating to another adult’s safety simply because he or she is a professor. Not in this day and age.

More mundane topics pertaining to adults controlling the behaviors of other adults again concerns cellphone use. I told my students in my cartography course, “I don’t care if your phones are out. I’m not going to presume you are SnapChatting or playing Funny Crows. In fact, I’m going to give you reasons to keep your phones handy. First, your smartphone makes a brilliant digital voice recorder. You can record a bunch of lectures using your phone and then, when convenient, go back and listen to them. Second, you can take pictures of whiteboard notes. Snap a pic before the professor erases them. I will even give you an app that helps with this. Install Microsoft’s Lens app. It has a specific function for snapping pics of whiteboards and can even rectify an image if you take a pic from an angle. Use your phone to look up unfamiliar words; use Wikipedia to look up other information. Oh, and this advice only applies in this room while I am in it. I’m fairly certain for the most part my peers do not approve of my advice. However, I will tell you this. If you say, “I need voice recording due to my hearing loss,” I’m fairly certain professors have no option but to allow it. But, expect a hassle.”

I sat in a peer’s office recently and related all of this. “I would stop teaching if I saw someone was recording me,” was the reply. “Why?” I inquired. “Because I don’t want people recording my stumbles, uhs, uhms. I’d sound like an idiot.” I’m not a big fan of those reactions. We all have those reactions. We all suffer from those moments we never catch until after the fact, after we’ve heard or seen ourselves on audio or video. Uh that’s not uhm a good err excuse for not wanting to uh prevent a student uh uh from improving their notes and uh their content. “We work in a technology field. We have to demonstrate technology and also set a good model for technology use. We also coach other adults in the use of technology. If we treat people like children, don’t get upset when they act like children. Set the bar for adult behavior and for the most part you get that back.”

If we treat people like children, don’t get upset when they act like children. Set the bar for adult behavior and for the most part you get that back.

Professors keep throwing up obstacles to technology, to learning, and have an initial negative reaction to anything new or different. Funny, considering higher education is supposed to be riding the crest of the Wave of Change. Change is hard and as professors we are supposed to be the Vanguards of Change , the Advocates and Champions of Change.

Higher education has so many hurdles to overcome. Higher education is the Millennium Falcon navigating the asteroid field in ESB, being chased by GOP TIE-fighters and bombers. And, just when HE has caught its breath, realizes it has settled in the belly of yet another Tea Party beast and is now being pursued by yet another destructive adversary. There are proactive and preventative measures we can take to help navigate the treacherous zones promulgated by recalcitrant, unimaginative bureaucrats. We have to be willing to overcome complacency and detrimental mindsets, though.


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