It had been a difficult morning in Minot, North Dakota. My husband was in intensive care in Bismarck, 130 miles away. After visiting him for hours the night before, we had gotten home late. The children were late getting up. On the gravel road from our house to the highway, the muffler had come loose and was dragging. I had to crawl under the car in the snow to wire it back on. Finally, I dropped one child off at elementary school and two off at the preschool.
Sitting down at my desk to a stack of teaching evaluations, I read the first one:
“Dr. Rousey piles on the homework. She has nothing in her life but statistical analysis, and fails to realize that the rest of us have other things …”
Oh, really? Really? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I decided to laugh. Yes, I did have four degrees by age 31, and I was younger than many of my graduate students, but I also had three children. Believe me, I knew very well about the challenges people face when they have 36 hours of obligations to fit into a 24-hour day.
So, how do you do it?
My first piece of advice, which I am a bit of a hypocrite about, is stop trying to be perfect. Graduate students tend to be more motivated and have higher standards than the general public – that’s how they got to graduate level. I can’t tell you the number of students who have been crying in my office or on the phone because they received a poor grade on a test. I teach courses like biostatistics, advanced quantitative data analysis and multivariate statistics. These are not cake courses. No matter how brilliant you are, you make mistakes. I make mistakes. Tonight during a lecture, I gave the wrong answer – I had used the square root of N as the divisor instead of the standard deviation divided by the square root of N. My immediate response was,
I can’t believe I did that. I’m such an idiot!
Well, I’m NOT an idiot, and you’re not either. Cut yourself some slack. Like me, I’m sure you get distracted – maybe you were in the middle of solving an equation and the phone rang, a child needed lunch money – and you forgot to divide, you forgot to add, or you just misunderstood what formula to use. Give yourself a break, learn from whatever the mistake was and resolve to do better tomorrow. As you can see, I’m not unwavering in following my own advice, but I try, because I realize that much of my stress is of my own making.
I think my students who return to school after ten, twenty or sometimes forty years after their last time in the classroom are amazing and admirable. They could have just ‘retired in place’, go on doing the same job for the next twenty years and just settled for getting by, but they decided they wanted more – to learn more, earn more, be more. I really respect that. Pat yourself on the back a little. You deserve it and it will help you not to feel so depressed about the fact that you haven’t cleaned your bathroom in so long that you are starting to suspect that the mold in there has organized and formed its own government. Your children are going to benefit a whole lot more from that degree you are getting than a lemon-fresh bathtub.
Trust me. My daughter was on the Jimmy Kimmel show tonight talking about her childhood and not once did she say,
“My mom always ironed all of my underwear.”
She was lucky to be able to find clean underwear.
My second piece of advice is to identify priorities. That paper due on Thursday – priority. Taking your child to the mall (no matter how much she whines) – not a priority. Attending the Christmas concert in which your child has the starring role – priority. You don’t have to be there all of the time, but do try to be there the times that matter. If something happens and you just can’t (I was winning the Pan-American Games when my oldest daughter took her first steps) – well, see point number 1.
Since it’s getting late and this post is getting long, I have one more very tangible piece of advice. Start early. DON’T procrastinate. Every course I have ever taught, whether it was online, a three-week summer class or a regular semester course where students sat in rows for 50 minutes, the students who put off studying or writing their papers until the last minute were more likely to fail. Maybe that IS exactly the same advice your mother gave you. Mothers can be pretty smart. Some of them are so smart they’re in graduate school right now.
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