Why I Teach
Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students.
— Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa 1st century CE
Every February, I struggle with the same question: Should I commit to teaching freshmen calculus in the Fall given the time and energy required to really do it justice?
And then I remember that in those rare semesters when I do not teach, how much simpler our work in improving higher education seems to be. That, and the considerable pleasure I get from teaching, and I sign on the dotted line.
I take special pleasure in teaching students with backgrounds like my own—those from families with limited financial resources and college experience. Many come to UT not only as the result of their own individual efforts and accomplishments, but because of the collective work of their families, teachers, and communities. They represent the hopes of all those who supported them on their journey to college.
In teaching these students, I join the larger community that has nurtured them. I build on their work and investment. So the ramifications of failure—the students’ and mine necessarily comingled—are always in my mind’s eye, because I understand that failure would be felt widely and deeply. The stakes are high for all of us.
I marvel at my students’ resilience, their willingness to work hard, and their drive to succeed. But I know from long experience how fragile their pathway to graduation can be and how seemingly random are the events that can throw them off course.
This past fall, in week 5 of my 100+-student freshman calculus course, I noticed that a student who had been excelling on quizzes and diligent in every other regard hadn’t done any of her homework in our online system. As class was ending, I asked to speak with her. With considerable reluctance, she acknowledged that she didn’t have the $60 to buy access to the University’s online homework platform. And it was clear from the condition of her shoes that she didn’t have the money to take care of some of her basic needs. She thought she’d barrel through and do what she could.
The same week, a second student who had excelled in all his work stopped coming to class. It took a little legwork, but I tracked him down. I learned that he didn’t have the money to pay his tuition, in part because his application for independent status to access federal student financial aid hadn’t been acted upon. He felt he had nowhere to turn.
With the first student, it took just a few calls to colleagues in the administration to establish her eligibility for work-study and to find her a job tutoring mathematics. That, and a small gift from an anonymous Dana Center staffer, got her back on the A train.
The second situation was more complex. The student, who had been homeless in his senior year of high school, lacked key paperwork that is required when applying for financial aid as an independent student. By happy accident, the Dana Center is home to the Texas Homeless Education Office, and the THEO program director’s office is next door to mine. We were able to draw on our collective expertise—and university connections—to collaborate with enrollment managers and administrators, who helped mobilize a team to quickly and efficiently address this student’s needs.
In both situations, the university worked at its best, with dedicated staff from different offices coming together to help these students solve their problems. I’m happy to say that both students earned an A in the course and are now thriving in their second semester of college.
I’m privileged to teach at an institution that has excellent support services for students and a superb student affairs staff committed to student success. But had I not observed my students’ difficulties when I did, both might have failed my course.
Even when you have all the system pieces in place, the factors that affect student success are so complex, and the things that interfere with student success can seem so random, that relationships with individuals really matter. It is this textured understanding that is so important to our work building institutional support systems.
And however strong our university systems are, they depend upon faculty and staff to realize their full potential. We faculty and staff are the connectors between our students and our institutions. We cannot educate our students unless we know them, and we cannot support their success unless we know our student support systems. It’s that connection that leads to student success.
My students continue to give me the motivation and inspiration to work on the big problems in our education systems. It is an enormous responsibility, and I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.
Editors’ note: To ensure privacy, we changed a few personal details about the students mentioned in this post.
Get in Touch
How can the Dana Center work with you to ensure that our nation's students are ready for postsecondary education and the contemporary workforce?