Grade 8 was not a particularly defining year in my life. If I’m remembering correctly, it was the year I made a 3D cell with all its little organelles, the year I learned a whole lot about fractions, the year I met Ponyboy, and the year I constantly fought with my French teacher to have my work graded. It was the year of Hurricane Juan, and therefore of White Juan, and the first season of Canadian Idol. I’m sure it was an excellent year, but not one that really influenced or changed my life in any way. Except for one thing.
Grade 8 was the year in which I learned to judge other people.
I was a bit of a late bloomer in this regard, it seems. Prior to grade 8, judging other people, asking myself whether or not I liked them, evaluating what I liked and didn’t like about them, had never really occurred to me. But it had occurred to my classmates, and they had all developed opinions on our homeroom teacher.
I don’t remember the exact scenario. I couldn’t tell you exactly what they were saying, or who was there, or where we were. But I do remember the feeling I had as they all listed what they didn’t like about her. It was like everything had frozen and stood still. I couldn’t contribute to the conversation. I had no real opinion, because I had never stopped to think about whether or not I liked her, never stopped to judge her.
In the student affairs world, October is Career in Student Affairs Month. Essentially, this is a month when student affairs practitioners promote the field, and recruit our young, naïve undergrads to join our ranks. This month is often sharply criticized by some practitioners as misleading undergrads as to what our work fully encompasses. In promoting our field, we share all the stories of good, but don’t let anyone become any wiser to the bad, to what makes our work difficult, heartwrenching, and frustrating.
To a degree, however, I don’t think it’s the undergrads, our potential recruits, that we’re misleading. Often, I think we’re misleading ourselves.
I didn’t really realize how many things I disliked about my former job until the job wasn’t there anymore. It took conversations with several people for me to realize that having my contract end early was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I liked my job, I did. I liked planning events, interacting with students, running workshops, seeing ideas come to life, constantly learning, and welcoming new student to campus. But I didn’t like the excessive politics involved, the lack of direction I was given, how left out of decision making I was, and the constant feelings of frustration. It took having the job pulled out from under me for me to realize just how much those things bothered me. Like my grade 8 self, I had never really stopped to judge. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.
It’s human nature to focus on the positive. It’s often how we get through difficult, heartwrenching, frustrating times. If we went in to work every day focusing on the negative aspects of our job, we would all be unhappy, and likely would leave. So, we don’t. We focus on the positive, on what makes us happy, and downplay the negatives, both to our students, our friends, and to ourselves.
We tell undergrads all the positive stories of student affairs because it’s easiest. We don’t tell our potential recruits about the hard, frustrating, and undesirable parts of our jobs, not because we think that would turn them away from the field, but because telling an undergrad about it would mean acknowledging those parts exists, even to ourselves.
I don’t think my grade 8 self gained any benefit from judging my homeroom teacher, but I do think we would all benefit from judging our jobs, at least every once in a while. Knowing what we like and dislike, what we actively seek out, and what we shy away from, allows us to take steps towards making the job more of what we want. And it allows us to more accurately represent the field to our potential recruits. We have to be willing to ask ourselves the tough questions, and we have to be willing to share some of the tough answers.
We owe it to our undergrads. And we owe it to ourselves.