John Spevak: Getting inspiration from my students

September 29, 2012 

What are your students like? Do they really want to learn?

Those are questions I'm often asked when I tell people I teach at a community college.

People who ask these questions wonder about today's college students. They hear a lot about college students in the news, usually in a bad light. Some students borrow too much and end up in debt. Some party too much and study too little.

When the discussion turns to community colleges, where enrollment fees are relatively low, some people wonder if students who aren't paying a high tuition or receive financial aid are really committed to college.

Friends and relatives, moreover, often ask why I'm still teaching at a community college. "Didn't you retire four years ago? Why are you still at it?"

The answers to all of these questions were crystallized this semester when I read over the answers to a questionnaire I had asked my students to fill out.

Each semester I use a student survey form developed by Professor Meg Withers, my colleague at the Los Banos Campus of Merced College. Questions on the form deal with the students' career goals, life aspirations, family obligations, work schedule and so forth.

This semester, as in previous surveys, students expressed a desire for a meaningful career paying a living wage. They also expressed their hope for a better life for themselves and their families.

My students, who range in age from 18 to 40 and beyond, told me how many hours they work each week in part-time jobs while attending college, ranging from eight to 35 hours per week. They told me about the people for whom they're responsible, including spouses and small children, as well as siblings and parents with medical problems.

But the most striking answers for me came in response to this question: "How can I, your instructor, best assist you?"

I might have expected answers like, "Take it easy. Go slow. Give me a break." Instead, the answers showed a strong desire to succeed and the willingness to work to achieve this success.

One student wrote, "Don't make this class too easy." Another wrote, "Push me to succeed." Others wrote, "Make sure I understand" and "Give me good feedback."

Other students wanted me to know they needed my help. One wrote, "Be there whenever I have a question or problem."

The students also felt they needed my encouragement. One student said, "Don't give up on me." Another wrote, "Help me not to get discouraged."

I understand this need for encouragement. Many students, including mine, come to a community college with an inner desire to learn but a shaky self- confidence.

Some of my students haven't done that well in high school. Some have been out of school for a while. Some have had challenges in life -- with work, family, medical issues -- that they're not sure how they can survive in college. But in almost all cases these students have the intelligence and knowledge to succeed, not only in college but in a meaningful career. Often, however, this intelligence is hidden, sometimes from themselves.

Community college instructors can make a significant impact on the lives of these students, not only by presenting knowledge but also only by bringing this intelligence to light and empowering students to succeed.

Instructors also need to push their students beyond what the students believe they can do, just as good coaches need to push athletes beyond their apparent capabilities.

That's why I still teach. I have students who want to learn and are willing to work. And I still have the opportunity and the desire to help them succeed.

On another note: I was saddened to hear about the recent death of Nick Califro.

What a good guy Nick was, not only a fine shoe repair man but a congenial fellow to all the kids who came into his store to buy penny candy and all the adults who needed their shoes fixed.

His kindness will long endure in the memories of everyone who visited his shop.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 29 years, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to

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