Many of our students think about college as job preparation. The focus tends to be on the job and not whether it suits their skills and abilities. A lot of students are pretty convinced about what they can’t do but much less certain about their strengths—what they could do, want to do, and would be happy doing for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, a lot of people end up in jobs that don’t make use of their talents. They have a job, not work with meaning or that brings satisfaction. Sometimes the fault lies with the job, but an education is supposed to lead to work that has personal value and relevance.
We do our best to prepare students for their chosen professions. We pay close attention to what employers tell about the skills graduates need. It’s harder to deal with the match between person and career, but teachers have a role to play, and it’s lovely to be a part of that emerging self-awareness.
I’m enjoying seeing it in Kirby, my recently acquired coonhound. He belonged to my friend Lisa, who picked him up at a rescue facility without knowing what kind of dog he was. Kirby lived with her in the suburbs, walked on leash, wore a soft muzzle, and moseyed around on sidewalks. Dogs do adapt. When Lisa got sick, Kirby let her set the pace. Home from chemo, she headed for the couch, and Kirby followed. He stayed beside her, eyes open and watchful. He gave Lisa companionship, protection, and love when she most needed them. Now Kirby lives with me and my family in our rural environs, and he’s discovered it’s a different world.
When I first walked him on leash through woods, he started wearing his ears up. He air-scented, followed scent trails on the ground, and picked up the pace. I trained him on a collar so he could be off leash, and he quickly settled on a loping graceful gait. Then one day he decided to run—flat-out, flying, leaping, bounding. Three trips between the house and dock and he collapsed, tongue hanging out, joy and drool dripping off his face. Now he jumps over ground cover, runs on fallen trees, scrambles up boulders, leaps across water on to rocks. Recently he started standing at the bases of trees and looking up, but for what? Finally he saw it—a squirrel! Paws up as far as he could reach on the trunk, head way back, he sounded forth with a baying bark—just like Treeing Walker Coonhounds are supposed to do.
Kirby was able to be the dog Lisa needed, but that wasn’t the dog Kirby was born to be. Life calls us to do and be many things, not all of which play to our strengths. But that doesn’t change what’s deep inside—that inner truth about who we are and what we should be doing.
I couldn’t teach Kirby how to be a coonhound; he had to figure it out—or maybe, in his case, rediscover it. We can’t teach students who they are. Self-knowledge is self-learned, and sometimes it’s a lifelong project. What I did for Kirby was get him in the right environment.
College is made for self-discovery. It’s “required” exposure to the world of ideas, and for some students it works beautifully: they find their field and the place they belong. But others wander through an array of courses, have a major because they have to declare one, or have several because none seem quite right. Those are the students who need a teacher—one who nudges them to look inside, who asks questions without easy answers, and who speaks clearly about the skills needed for a profession. It’s background music played in every course. Who are you? What are you good at? How do you know that’s the only thing you can do? I have a colleague who counters students announcing they can’t do something with “and what can you do?”
Kirby owns the woods where we walk. He’s on the path and off it; he backtrails and reconnoiters new spots in the woods. He’s got favorite squirrel trees and never misses the chatter in a treetop. Many of us are in fields that fit us perfectly. How did we find our way there? Was it a teacher who pointed us in the right direction?
To sign up for weekly email updates from The Teaching Professor, visit this link.