Teaching Challenges at a Community College: Student Time Management

I have written before about the contrast between the student I was during my undergraduate career at Allegheny College and the students I teach at my community college. In some ways, our experiences are similar but mostly, they are vastly different. When I was an undergraduate, I worried about my coursework, my roommate, my sorority, my extracurricular activities and what party I was going to on Friday night. This is not to say that I didn’t deal with heavier issues, but my one and only job when I was in college was to be a student. That was it. My students are not just students; they are parents and employees. Their jobs are many and their responsibilities are great. Their situation is no better or worse than mine was but it is different.

These differences are often the topic of conversation in the office between colleagues and most of the time these conversations wind up falling onto the subject of time management. Faculty, advisors, administrators and staff spend a lot of time thinking about how to help our students in this area, but it is a never ending battle. It is particularly difficult because of the unique nature of the problems our students incur. There is never a simple solution and just when you think you’ve solved one issue for one student, another one rears its head. 
The issue of time management is complex for our students. I find that part of this problem stems from the fact that my students are not quite sure how to be students. They don’t know what it means to come to class, engage in the class, take what they’ve learned from class, go home and apply that classroom knowledge to homework and then come back to class and discuss those assignments. They don’t know how to do this because they lack skills in active listening, reading comprehension, note taking, class discussion, collaborative work, etc. This is not to say they are not smart or willing or enthusiastic. They are all of these things, but they don’t have the basic skill set and that can prove to be quite an obstacle to overcome. Why don’t they have these skills? Some of it is a question of their previous educational experience. If they are coming from high school programs that were overcrowded or underfunded or understaffed (most likely all three) they may have slipped through the cracks. Another common case is that this student is a returning adult and the last time they were in the classroom was thirty years ago. Needless to say, the classroom as changed a lot in thirty years. In addition to the skills above, these returning students also struggle with the technology. They have to do assignments online, type papers on word processing software, and interact with platforms like Blackboard. It’s a lot to take in. 
The other issue with these skills is while they contribute to the overall problem of time management, they also exacerbate the problem. It’s a vicious cycle. For example, if a student has a problem with note taking, they can hire a tutor, or go to a student success workshop, or seek help from a peer or their professor. However, in the time that it takes for them to realize they need help with note taking and then in the time that it takes for them to put the necessary steps in place to fix that problem, they’ve already fallen behind. This is also assuming that the problem in question is easily fixed. However, it may take students several weeks or even an entire semester to get the hang of note taking. In the meantime, what does their performance in your class look like? 
This lack of basic student skill is definitely a problem, but in my opinion it is not the difficult part of the problem to solve. Why? Well, because we as members of an educational institution have resources at our disposal to help with these types of issues. While our resources are often stretched and far from perfect, they are present and available. I can send my students to the writing center, I can arrange that they get a note taker, I can set up study groups with their peers, etc. In my mind, the tricky part of this time management problem is that piece that I have no control over: their personal lives. 
It is easy to dismiss a student’s personal life as “not your problem” or “not my job” and move on from there. After all, what can you do if this students car breaks down? If they are evicted? Kicked out of their house? If their child, mother or grandfather is hospitalized? If they are hospitalized, arrested, deported or otherwise incapacitated? If they lose their jobs? If they are going through a divorce or battling a terminal illness? 
It is true that I am not a medical professional. I am not a psychologist and I know I am not equipped to deal with half the issues that my students deal with on a regular basis. I am painfully aware of the fact that some of my students deal with more in a single week than I probably dealt with my entire four years in college. How does this relate to time management? Well, as we were discussing in my office the other day, it is difficult to focus on a history test or a set of math problems when you’re not sure how you’re going to pay rent next month. When you are staring down the prospect of living in your car (and this did happen to a student of mine), dangling modifiers seem slightly less important. It would be one thing if this one or two students or even five over the course of the term, but it’s not. The problem is that our students are (sometimes to their detriment) determined to succeed. They do not believe in “stepping back” or “re-evaluating” or “coming back when things are better.” They want to push through. They want to prevail. Succeed at all costs. 
The position of professor becomes especially tenuous when you have students who do prevail, because then how do you handle the rest? Several years ago I had a student who suffered from Lupus. She was in constant discomfort and she struggled to attend class regularly. However, she was bright and determined and despite her constant pain and exhaustion, she came to class prepared, participated in outside study sessions, worked with her peers and ended up with an A in the course. I was constantly concerned about her physical well-being but she proved that she could manage her time and her illness, and who was I to say otherwise? However, not all students are that student and sometimes you have to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you can realistically handle. What I find difficult is being the one to facilitate that conversation. And as some of my colleagues have wisely acknowledged, “sometimes a student has to learn the hard way.” 
So what do I do to “help” this problem? I pay attention and try to remain pro-active. If a student begins to slip, even a little bit I try to nip it in the bud right from the start. Admittedly this approach yields mixed results. At the end of the day, a student has to be willing to take the help they are being offered. Sometimes this takes more than one pass at an an assignment or even an entire course, but if they figure out that “weakness” is really just learning, they leave me with something valuable: growth. 

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