I give advice for a living. Naturally, I always try to give the very best advice that I can.
I have been a community college counselor and teacher for a long time, and it’s not a job you do for immediate gratification. There are no bonuses or commissions, and very few reminders that the pearls of wisdom I think I’m dropping on a classroom full of Snap-Chatting young adults are even getting through. Rarely do I see, first hand, any paying rewards in changed lives and lessons learned.
But there was one time someone took my advice and ran with it, totally surpassing my expectations.
I had a student in my first year seminar course, who we’ll call K, a 17-year-old student who was really smart. He was also a hyper-verbal, former star athlete, and was chief among a group of guys who made fun of a young lady in my class whose disability caused her to speak many of her — often inappropriate — thoughts out loud.
They don’t tell you when you sign up to teach college that behavior management is involved, but it can be, and I maintain zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. The purpose of this class is to teach students how to be successful in college, and disrupting the class and making fun of other students doesn’t work. I kept the offending students back after class to address their conduct, and to ask them for their help in maintaining a safe classroom environment for everyone.
K stayed behind after the other guys left. I explained to him that he had paid for his seat, and I could tell that he was smart. What I didn’t tell him is that he was the kind of funny that I would have laughed at, instead of discouraged, if I weren’t the teacher. I also didn’t tell him then, although I think I did later, that he reminded me of me at that age: so many ideas and energy, and utterly bored by the day-to-day demands of college.
My basic advice to him: He could help himself and take his classes seriously, or he could waste his time and mine. I told him that I had a feeling that he was capable of more, but that he had to start acting like a serious student.
This “act your age” approach often fails, honestly, but I still take it, with one or two kids who seem to have potential. I don’t wait for extreme behavior problems. And now, I am even more acutely aware that these students have little time to waste, and if they don’t get this honest input from me, I don’t know if they’ll get it anywhere else.
Amazingly, somehow, I got through to K. He decided to make a standing appointment with me and showed up in my office once each week for the rest of the semester. He worked hard. He never spoke back to or teased that girl again. And when his mother came in from out of state, he brought her to my office to introduce us, and she thanked me for helping him. I told her then what I still believe today, which is that any teacher or counselor can give a kid advice, but it’s up to the kid to change his or her behavior. K listened to what I said and he ran with it.
I had given a person advice, and he had taken it! And it made his life better! Score!
I watched K. graduate a year later, and promptly lost touch. A few years ago, in a ridiculously sweet coda, I received a LinkedIn message from him. He was in his second year of law school, and he loved it. He wanted to thank me, to say that he smiled when he thought of the others I may have helped along the way.
He had no way of knowing that on the exact day that he messaged me, I was feeling personally and professionally low. I felt like a terrible teacher, and a not much better person. His note helped me back up and turned my thinking around. It was the rarest kind of luck.
I still say things like I said to K to the almost-grown kids who show up in my classroom, so many lost and confused, and as defiant as I was as a college freshman. It’s still really tough getting through to these students, but there are occasional wins, and I love them all. K. was willing to listen to some critical feedback, and he was at a place where he was willing to change his behavior to meet his goals, once someone told him it was possible. Like so many kids, he was overwhelmed by what had gone wrong, and he needed someone to tell him he was capable of making things go right. It isn’t always that simple, but in this case, it was.
K, alone, is enough incentive for me to keep telling my students the truth, to keep giving them advice, whether they hear it or not. It’s the best way I know to help people — and it works if they are ready to listen and help themselves.