There are moments when I look at children and felines and other groups of living entities and they suddenly have very guilty faces and clearly are involved in a variety of things about which I know nothing and (a) probably should and (b) really don't want to. There are moments like that in my classes as well. There are things I don't know and perhaps shouldn't -- these range very widely, from the really important to the really not. Or at least not to me.
I know my students speculate about me and my life, even though I really have nothing to hide. They tend to know that I am a Democrat and rather liberal, that I am unmarried with cats (who tend to chew on papers) and am from Kansas (if they notice the pro-Jayhawk comments that get made with more frequency this time of the year). Not that any of these are particularly important to their lives or my class (except for the chewed papers). That is about the level of things I knew about my own professors as an undergraduate. None of them terribly earth-shattering, but these kinds of things tend to make profs or teachers seem human.
There are lots of things I don't know about my students, and many of them are not things I want to know, but some are things that would be helpful to me in evaluating work and potential. And some are just things that make my students seem more human. And some are just things I really don't want to know...
Come with me beyond the orange cruller for more.
Today I was on campus for a recruitment event and as I walked out of the student union building there were two students practicing swing dancing in a hall. It reminded me of the various student activities that I only occasionally intersect with. For example, for almost one week in the fall and one in the spring, the campus is convulsed by a round of "Humans vs. Zombies." It is a big deal here and we have become all-zombies-all-the-time (if you have high school kids looking for a week-long cool summer camp/ zombie experience, send them to Missouri). But still walking out from a fundraising dinner into a horde of zombies is a bit disorienting. These are the fun things about student worlds that I don't know. I am okay with not knowing them, but it is fun to discover them at random.
There are the interpersonal relationships -- you can sometimes see a relationship grow between two students and sometimes you can see it fall apart. I have heard in advising meetings about these situations. Sometimes it is uncomfortable, and sometimes it is rather sweet. I have had students tell me about medical issues (their own and their family's), about deaths, and about financial issues (again, their own and others'). I can usually do no more than listen and sympathize. Sometimes I can offer potential strategies for coping, but usually I am not much practical use. That is usually not what they are looking for when they share; they just want sympathy.
But it is harder when there are things that are clearly upsetting students and they choose not to talk with me about it. That is also completely appropriate. Outside of our academic relationship such things are clearly none of my business.
I have students who are registered with a disability services office on campus and some take advantage of this to get leeway, or even understanding from me and other faculty in test and note taking, permission to tape lectures, have additional time on tests, etc. But there are students who clearly are having some type of aspect imparing their performance. I would like to know how to evaluate these students and how to help them. It is up to them if they would like to claim the help that is available to them. I have spent years trying to get one of my students to get the testing done that would help get the official disability designation. For many it is requiring them to admit something is out of their control. For others the necessity to make appointments and follow through with them is exactly the skill set that they are lacking, and so getting registered is not working. For still others it can be used as a reason that university is not for them, no matter how bright they might be. I can't help if I don't know what the reasons are. And I really can't help if I don't know there are reasons they need help. Or at least I can't help beyond the norm -- come to my office hours, please make these corrections in your paper before you turn in the next one, here are the tutoring times for the class in which you are enrolled.
Then there are the other students whose personal lives are overwhelming. I have had at least one student who attempted suicide while in my class. But there are others I suspected after the fact were much more troubled than I had known. I haven't had students who are violent, thank heavens, although my second year here I was called at home and a student left a threatening message on my home answering machine. You don't know what leads to that kind of reaction. I didn't want to and I was so relieved there was no follow-on to that event (I was leaving town for a conference that night, so I was not immediately concerned for my safety and by the time I got back I quite naively assumed that all would be fine -- I was right, but it could have gone very differently very easily).
You don't know what is going on with your students. Sometimes there are wonderful things, but sometimes things are very dark. How do you tell the difference?