There are so many things I didn’t learn in graduate school that would have been useful to know as a faculty member. Some of them mundane, and some of them truly extraordinary. For example, no one talked about how to be a good colleague or team manager. I learned about college teaching and clinical supervision, but nothing about being an effective advisor. I learned about research ethics, but nothing about human resources issues and finance. (Heads up, no one told me how many frakking meetings are involved in running a research project, either.) The most important lessons, and the ones I so badly wish I’d had, aren’t easily covered in PhD course work.
In graduate school, no one tells you what to do when a student comes in to tell you they are pregnant, they came out and their family kicked them out on the street, they are food insecure, they had a miscarriage, they have cancer, they were raped, they are being abused, they are being harassed, or when a family member calls to tell you that your student died. I’ve been a full-time faculty member for seven years, and I’ve now checked all of these situations off the “Things I Never Learned in Graduate School” list.
I can tell you that there is a form and an office for just about everything in higher education. Need a medical leave of absence? I know whom to call. I even know health care navigators who can help answer your questions about treatment. I know who my Title IX officer is, and I have the numbers for the counseling center (emergency and regular hours) memorized. Student health? Yep. Emergency housing? I know them, too. My school has a food pantry, so we can handle that.
I’ve never experienced the death of a student before, and I was stunned when a family member called me last week to let me know. I love all of my students, but this one was different. He wasn’t a major student, nor was he the highest achieving member of my class. He was a “non-traditional” student, meaning he was older than me. He had a lot of life experience, and had taken the long road to earning his degree. He was the kind of student that stopped by just to chat. He told great stories, and he liked to hear mine. He noticed all of the little items in my office that help tell the story of me. He asked about my ugly picture, and patiently listened to my own story of perseverance. He was honest with me, and he treated me with dignity and appreciation, the kind that comes when we recognize how much time and energy goes into learning a skill or a body of knowledge. I can only hope I similarly honored him.
He talked about a very challenging history class he was taking, and what it felt like to be the only person of color in that lecture. He talked about how good it was going to feel to finally get his diploma. One of the last things I said to him was, “I’m going to graduation, and I can’t wait to cheer for you.”
How to help a family secure a posthumous degree was not on any of my doctoral comps, nor was it a part of any new faculty mentoring programs or orientations. It was, thankfully, available on the university website. (Thank you to my department chair who knew where I needed to go when I was too stunned to properly think.) His daughter asked if I was still going to graduation. “Of course,” I replied, “he is still my graduate.”
How to not cry through the graduation ceremony was also not in any grad school classes. Nor, was Going to your student’s funeral. A decade of hospice care experience did not prepare me for any of this. This sucks in an entirely different way.
His family was so gracious and kind. I brought them the commencement program with his name in it, and the bumper sticker given to students. The university had come through with his diploma, and the veteran’s student center gave him the challenge coin he earned through military service and academic excellence. His honor cords were draped in his casket.
I don’t have a coherent end for this post. If you’re a teacher, you know how much you care for your students. If you’re a student, please know how valued you are by your teachers. We get so wrapped up in lectures, assignments, papers, active learning experiences, student evaluations and grades that we forget the human value of one another. I see your value. You are treasured. They didn’t teach that in graduate school. either.