Yesterday classes ended for the Fall 2009 term at Seneca College where I teach part-time. My course is called "Leadership in Society," but I wasn't feeling very leader-like.
I was feeling more like an "academic assassin" akin perhaps to how the George Clooney character, Ryan Bingham may at times feel as the slick corporate assassin (read "professional downsizer") in his latest flick Up in the Air.
With one difference. Clooney's character is a shark.
I'm a swan. At heart, and mine happens to be soft.
As a teacher, this combination is killer.
Normally no one arrives early for my Tuesday 8 a.m. classes, except me.
Yesterday's was different.
Students were lining up to speak to me. Their two major assignments were due in class – worth 50 percent of their final mark and without which they automatically fail the course. This was an extended deadline. Their last chance.
They came early to negotiate, request, plead, beg and appeal to me for time, but time had run out. In most cases, all they needed was an hour or two to polish and print their papers in the library where the printers are located. It doesn't open until 8 a.m. That was easy. I gave in because I'm human. After all, what's half an hour in the large scheme of things?
But one student was in big trouble. I knew it and he knew I knew it.
At 4:22 a.m. yesterday morning he emailed me during an "all nighter" he wrote, struggling to catch up on all his overdue assignments in my class and others – "urgently needing to meet" with me.
He came 15 minutes early – he rarely ever attended these early morning classes. He looked sad, exhausted and contrite. Sheepish. Guilty. He seemed like the compulsive gambler (think Owning Mahowny) who has finally run out of all his credit options and is desperate for more credit when he knows the bank has gone dry.
He didn't deserve more than a few hours. Certainly not days. He admitted that he would try to finish two major assignments, but I sensed he knew it was futile.
That's when I had to morph from the soft-hearted swan into "the academic assassin" for the first time in my two-and-a-half year teaching career.
"You're going to fail the course if you don't get these papers in today," I said, reminding him of the promotion policy of the course and all the extended deadlines he had already missed. "You had weeks. You procrastinated."
"I know, Miss. It's my fault. I'm sorry," he kept saying.
"You have a time-management problem. You can get help with that. It's probably too late for this course, but if you've learned a lesson and if you get that help, this isn't a loss, it's a win in the long run."
(Who doesn't have time management problems, these days, especially at this time of year? Talk about stress!)
The first day of every term, I stress that there are no real mistakes, if you learn something from the ones you make. This encourages risk-taking. Creativity. Right brain thinking.
How much do you learn from what you do right?
But I bet you never forget your major mistakes and if you're smart, you only make them once.
For this fellow, failing my course on the last day of term ranks as a big mistake. The mother of mistakes. A doozy. He needs it to pass. He'll have to make it up.
I kept thinking that "Failure is the mother of success." One of my favourite old Chinese sayings.
Trying to soften the blow, I said he'd be welcome in my class in January if he wants to give it another shot. He already has the textbook – though I doubt he ever opened it.
He could skip this last class, I told him. "Take the extra time and see if you can finish these papers." He skulked away to the library.
At the end of the day, he never handed in any of his overdue assignments or his two required papers. He missed this final deadline. He failed. Perhaps I failed him.
Some "academic assassin" I am. Was I right? Was I fair? Did I commit yet another new mistake? Did he learn anything? What did I learn?
I was sleepless last night, tortured by the possibility of my killing this student's academic spirit.
You must be wondering what all this has to do with mental health and wellness.
The answer is – everything.