Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

That innocent, hopeful look…

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I recently started noticing an interesting “look” in the eyes of undergrad (particularly freshman) students. Has anyone else noticed it? Noooo not the glassy-eyed look of someone on a drug-induced high, but the clear-eyed hopeful look?

Been wanting to write this post for a while, ever since I started teaching freshman students last semester. Was inspired to actually write it based on something I read on Michael Weller’s blog (a comment in reply to my comment: about differences between adults & high school students). It also reminded me of lots of faculty I know who prefer teaching undergrad to grad students.

Last semester was my first time teaching freshman students as a PhD-holder & mom, who is more than 10 years older than them. Previously, I had (sort of) taught freshmen, but had been a relatively-fresh-grad TA’ing for a freshman course, so was only a few years older than the students. Big difference in perspective, apparently.

Because I normally teach adult students (in-service teachers) and am a faculty developer (so consult with univ professors) I rarely used to deal in depth with undergrad students except during classroom assessments.

Coming back from a two-year maternity leave (which, you know, also changes your perspective, given the crash-course in motherhood/parenting and also the staying home part) and having just finished my PhD (again, life-changing experience, I think, in how your perspective shifts)

Last semester was transformative for me in the strangest way. I fell in love with the “look” in my students’ eyes. It was… I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was… Something that represented hope? It reminded me of the look in my toddler’s eyes, this look of innocent wonder, excitement to be seeing something new, or in a new way, feeling empowered by one’s ability to try something new, like for a toddler, being able to suddenly take off her own clothes, or speak a full sentence that people understood, or make another person laugh, or climb a new object.

What was most interesting for me is that this hopeful look in the freshman students’ eyes wasn’t there constantly. The first class (not in my module, but the previous one) where I introduced myself briefly, the students had horribly blank looks on their faces, like they were shell-shocked (whatever that means, it sounded appropriate here). Not a single one responded to my question of whether they like playing games or video games. Seriously! Not one!

I didn’t see them again until like 6 weeks later, start of the second module (not mine), slightly less blank but still strange looks on their faces when they saw the new teacher for the second module. I vowed then and there that my first class with them would not consist of blank looks. And so I thought for weeks about how to create community quickly (the idea being that they already knew each other by then, they just needed to let me into it, and feel we were all a community not just a group of ppl taking a class together. Because of some weird vacation and scheduling mishaps, I only had 2 weeks with them instead of 4, so had to make up some class time on extra days n hours, but bottom line is, I needed to create community on day one, and I blogged about how I did this during week 1 of clmooc.

But I digress. My point is that during the two weeks I was with those students, whenever one of them came to speak to me individually, I would feel something. I loved that look in their eyes. When I read their reflections at the end of my course, I saw in them this sense of “I can do anything, I believe in myself”. They attribute that to the course (not necessarily my module, though some attributed it to that). But I have a feeling that it is easier to help someone who is a freshman feel that way, than it is to help a more established adult feel that way.

It’s kind of, I think, because at that stage in their lives, they’re leaving school, feeling that they are embarking on a new, more independent experience of college. It could turn into drugs and parties and rubbish, of course, as their approach to independence. Or it can turn into sparkly eyes as they realize the potential for learning.

I don’t know that college really provides the promise to meet those hopeful looks (it largely doesn’t, in my experience), just like childhood does not usually meet the promise of what a toddler probably thinks is possible, and marriage does not meet the promise of what a new couple think it might. Life is so much more complex and disappointing.

But you know what? That moment of hope? That’s priceless, and I am addicted to it now. For me to keep having hope, I want to keep seeing toddlers and freshmen. And I want to keep trying to keep that look in their eyes, that attitude inside of them, as long as possible before life turns it upside down and they become jaded, until the next life event that gives them renewed hope, like graduation šŸ™‚

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