Nervous About Semester Success? You're Not Alone!

Jackie Cooney, Supplemental InstructorMy palms sweat as I wait for my cue. I run through the words I’m going to say. Though I have done this speech many times, I’m always afraid I’m going to forget something. Every semester is like my first semester because every student is unique, and I need to meet them where they are and adapt to them as they have to adapt.

There’s my cue. The professors introduce me differently every time. Sometimes it’s “Teaching Assistant”. Other times it’s “Co-Instructor.” But the title isn’t important to me. It’s the job. There’s the part that is written in the job description, the part I recite from memory…

 “My name is Jackie Cooney. I am the Supplemental Instructor for all the geology courses. The reason I have been brought to this class is that the geology courses have a high D, F, W rate…”

I watch the faces react. Some stare at me with blank expressions. Others shock from believing this course would be easy. I will win those students over eventually. It’s the ones with the wide eyes and worried faces that I’m focusing on today.
 “What I do is help you build the necessary skills, concepts, and geological relationships to succeed in this class…”
A student raises her hand. Her eyebrows are scrunched together and lines wrinkled her forehead. She says in a soft, insecure voice, “Should we just drop now?”

I smile. This is the other part of my job. I’m part therapist, part life coach, and part cheerleader. During the Summer 2017 semester, I acquired a new moniker from my students, Mama Jackie. I listen to them panic, dry their tears when they cry. I hold their hands when they are scared and show them there is no need for fear. I’m firm when they test my boundaries, but I encourage them when they doubt themselves.

 “No,” I say. “I don’t think you or anyone should drop. I’m not going to lie, this class is hard work. But I am here to show you how it's done, to teach you critical thinking and spatial reasoning skills that you can use later in life. In fact, those who show up to my study sessions and take my advice have seen their scores raise a whole letter grade. Stick with me and you’ll go far.”

Her face as well as a few other faces soften. I’m done talking and I am no longer nervous. I look at them for a second longer before I sit back down. I see such beautiful diversity, so many different talents and learning styles. It's going to be a challenge for them and for me. But the challenge is worth it.

Though it’s only the first day, I know how it’s going to end. It ends the same way every time. It’s a beautiful thing to see the wide smiles or the gleeful emails from students saying they passed and got a good grade. They always tell me they didn’t believe they could do it. I have the same response, “See! I told you that you could do it! I never doubted you!” And that’s when they hug me and thank me profusely. I say, “I just showed you the path. You decided to take it. You earned this grade. No one gave it to you. Thank you for your hard work! I am so proud of you!”

It always makes me happy to see friend requests on social media from former students right after finals. In the years that follow, they will still ask my advice on career, relationships, and coping mechanisms for anxiety. They may leave my classroom and I may not be their S.I. any longer. But I will always be their Mama Jackie.

The Supplemental Instruction (SI) program targets traditionally difficult academic subjects and provides regularly scheduled, out-of-class, peer facilitated sessions. SI leaders are students who have successfully completed the course in a previous semester, and they are chosen by the faculty member with whom they will work. Research here at Harper has shown that students who attend SI sessions are more likely to succeed in their classes and more likely to continue the following semester.