“So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance…”

In the United States, we are often taught that we can “achieve prosperity through hard work”; this is the essence of the American Dream.

The problem is, that isn’t exactly true.

There are a variety of factors that influence our success beyond just hard work. Among other things, genetics, social status, and (as much as we don’t like to hear it) plain ol’ dumb luck play huge roles in our successes and failures. Yes, hard work is almost always a necessary ingredient for the highest levels of achievement across all fields, but hard work does not guarantee success. (For more elaboration on this point, I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.)

Week10 EthicsThere is a related dilemma I face as a professor, which is fresh in my mind as we approach Spring 2015 advising: what is my ethical responsibility in telling students whether or not their goals are achievable? Allow me to elaborate.

KINE 1301 Introduction to Kinesiology is a “Leadership Enhanced Course”. As part of that initiative, I ask my students to write about their long-term career goals. Inevitably, there are always students that write that their “Plan A” is to play professional basketball or football. Knowing that this response is coming, I usually have this ready: the most-recent version of a regular NCAA study that shows the miniscule chance of a person making a major professional sports league. I then further explain that the vast majority of THOSE successes are not from Division III. There were only nine D3 football players on NFL opening day rosters and there are only eight MLB players with any D3 baseball experience.  Furthermore, D3 representation in the NBA has been virtually non-existent for years.

“So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance…”

Usually these statistics help the student gain perspective. However, there are still those students that see the long odds and assume it is a challenge to be overcome. In other words, their reaction is pretty much like this…

In essence, I sometimes inadvertently encourage that small group to try even harder since their odds are so small, often to the detriment of other aspects of their college experience.

Now, the example I gave just deals with students that think they are going to be professional athletes. However, most of the circumstances I encounter in which students have unrealistic goals happen in a more scholastic environment. For example, the average GPA of students accepted to Physical Therapy programs is over 3.5 and climbing, so beyond sharing that information, how do I best-prepare a senior with a sub-3.0 GPA for the very likely circumstance that he or she will got get accepted into a program? What about a student that wants to teach (requiring a 2.75 GPA, at minimum) but that bombed out his or her freshman year before legitimately turning things around? Yes, that person may actually be a GREAT teacher, but the difficulty of digging out of a GPA hole must be realistically discussed, regardless of how hard the person works now.

Sometimes you just know.

The worst feeling I ever have as a professor occurs when I have the realization that a student isn’t going to “make it”. I am not referring to those times that a student is taking a class and does poorly enough to clinch an “F”, though that is discouraging. I am not even referring to those instances when a student leaves college entirely after multiple class failures, although that is sad.

No, the worst feeling I get happens when after first meeting with a student or after receiving the first assignment I immediately realize the student will be never successful at the college level; that is tragic. “But all students can be successful if they just work harder!” No, that is false. “Dr. Walker, that is overly negative and you are being defeatist!” Maybe, or maybe I am realistic.

To clarify, it VERY rarely happens that I have a student that cannot achieve; usually the problem is that the student does not achieve, despite being capable. ETBU has admissions standards that generally eliminate students that are not adequately prepared. Furthermore, we have a university-wide commitment to academic support that is much better than other university settings that I have encountered. Even including those students that do “fail out”, 99.9% of ETBU students have the prerequisite abilities and available support to be successful. Is it easier for some? Yes, but I honestly think that nearly all of our students can achieve and graduate. Most only need a redirection of priorities.

It is the 0.1% that bothers me. I am now in my 8th year back at ETBU as a full-time professor, and of the hundreds of students I have encountered in my courses I can think of less than a handful that fit this profile: it would not have mattered what they did, what I did, or what the Academic Success Office did. They were not going to be successful in college.

There’s the dilemma. Ethically, which is worse? To honestly think that a student cannot reach a goal and keep it to myself?  Or to tell a student that you don’t think a goal is achievable but it is?!

There is a psychological term known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It says that “unskilled individuals tend to suffer from illusionary superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate”; in short, it is believing in one’s self too much. This term helps explain how both in my role as a professor and in my former life as a college coach I have had athletes in my office that were Division III reserves explain to me that their talents were being misused and that they were professional-level  players. However, don’t you think that a large percentage of CEOs, presidents, generals, and other high-level achievers (such as athletes, i.e. Kobe Bryant) would be Dunning-Kruger effect “victims”? Isn’t success at that level predicated on the fact that those people have an irrationally high level of self-confidence? What percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs have “illusionary superiority”? When then, should anyone stifle that confidence?

Also, Muggsy Bogues was in Space Jam!

Also, Muggsy Bogues was in Space Jam!

I mean, how many people do you think told 5’3” Muggsy Bogues that he’d never make the NBA? (Check out this story.) How many people told Barack Obama that there’d never be a black president or told Bill Gates that people would never have a need for a personal computer? I wonder how Steve Jobs reacted when some people thought the iPad wouldn’t be successful because of the name.

As professors, we must intentionally seek out wisdom and discernment in all situations. In particular, I must help students discover and accept God’s path for them, even if that means a particular occupation (or college in general) is not a part of that plan.

WW

The Fear Factor

I went to an academic conference over the summer.  Several of the speakers zeroed in on an area of research that is finally getting some traction.  The question they addressed concerned student success in college.  One survey, taken at the Community College of Baltimore, discovered two primary reasons students drop out of school—They are overwhelmed by life problems.  Or they are overwhelmed by affective issues, mostly centered around “fear, anxiety, and a suspicion that they are just not college material.”

In other words, ability is usually not the problem.  Life is. The fear factor is.

So, how do we help these students?  The suggestions given are common-sense ones—“Create a safe atmosphere” in the classroom.  Find a balance between “flexibility” and “tough love”—between “compassion” and “firmness” (a lot harder than it might sound).  Implement “confidence-building experiences” early on in the semester.

And be aware of mindsets—because students will have “fixed mindsets” or “growth mindsets.”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says that a fixed mindset is “the belief that intelligence is fixed [which] dampens students’ motivation to learn, makes them afraid of effort, and makes them want to quit after a setback.”

So when classes get hard, students give up.  Because when they struggle, Dweck says, they “feel dumb.”

Do I have students who have this mindset?  Of course.  But my confession is this: Sometimes I have the same mindset.

I fear failure.  And in my profession, where performance is evaluated and measured each semester, I often feel like I’m not measuring up.  And when I struggle, I feel dumb.  This doesn’t motivate me to be better.  It discourages me and makes me want to give up.

I guess the question is this: How do we establish growth mindsets?  How do we establish the belief that just because something is challenging and causes us to struggle, this is not a reflection of our intelligence or ability?

I’m pretty sure that most of the speakers at the conference did not embrace a Christian world view.  If there is such a thing as grace, I learned, it is merely a human grace we extend to each other.  And as teachers, we know the expectations of gracious teaching.  Help students to realize their potential and to be true to themselves.   Encourage.  Uplift.  Reinforce.  Reaffirm.  We do this because we care about them.  But we do this too because we care about retention, and we must always be looking for ways to keep students from dropping out.

But is this all there is to teaching?  Just getting students to finish college and get jobs so we not only identify them as successful but ourselves, as well?

I worry a lot about leaving God out of this equation.

Do I care for my students? Yes.  Do I want them to graduate?  Yes.  Do I want them to get good jobs?  Yes.  But. . . .

If this is all we are about as educators, we only address part of the need.  Because each one of us has a soul.  And souls don’t have expiration dates, like milk.  We will all live forever.

I take education seriously.  But I take eternity much more seriously.

I admit to my students that college is a big thing.  But it is not the whole thing.  God has opened this door of opportunity for you, I tell them, so seize it.  Work hard and be successful, not to bring honor to yourself, but to bring glory to God.

And when they get scared.  When they start to struggle.  When the challenges seem insurmountable.  I remind them that they can do all things through Christ who gives them strength.  Trust Him, I say.  Lean on Him.  Because He is real and He is relevant.

I work hard in the classroom.  I take the material seriously.  But I am also serious about modeling a life that glorifies God, the author of grace.  If they don’t see that life in me, I have failed.  Measure me all you want.  Evaluate me all you want.  But I have a greater judge.  And when I stand before Him, I hope I hear these words—“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

I want that for me. I want that for you.  I want that for my students.  Because that is true success.  

SC