What Maslow means to teaching

I have run across the phrase “meeting students where they are” quite a bit, and it seems to have multiple meanings.

I’ve seen it used to mean meeting them at their level of ability or understanding, instead of assuming that they should be at some predetermined level. I’ve also seen it used to mean meeting them where they are culturally. Additionally, I’ve seen it used to argue that they need to be met at their emotional level when it comes to teaching public speaking.

No matter how the phrase is used, it has one underlying tenet for instructors, which is to make every effort to get to know students as individuals.

Professors at community colleges, who often teach 100 students a semester, might think, “That sounds great, but it’s not very realistic given my student load.”

Maybe another interpretation of the phrase, however, could simply mean meeting students where they are on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

I understand that this could lead to generalizing, but isn’t that the thing about generalizations… they are generally true?

When it comes to community college students, most of their behaviors are driven by the first three tiers of Maslow’s pyramid: physiological; safety and security; and love and belonging needs.

Most of their professors, however, are driven by needs noted in the top two tiers: esteem and self-actualization.

A world of clashing values and priorities often results.

Understanding your students

Most college professors have been frustrated by the student who emails to say she’s missing class because she had the chance for extra hours at work or because she was needed for a monthly inventory count. How could she do that when we were going to discuss the nuances of such-and-such theory?

Well, she did it because she likely needs money to pay for utilities, and that security need trumps the esteem need that might be met by understanding said theory.

Yes, understanding said theory is connected to passing the class, which is connected to finishing a degree and earning heightened security. That future security is distant and ethereal, however, compared to the immediate security that is gained by having some extra cash. Much of what we teach is not immediately applicable to our students’ lives. Theoretically, it will be, and sometimes it might never be.

We are often disconnected from our students because we approach the academy differently from them. Most professors, when they were students, developed or already had a profound love of learning for the sake of learning. Our students, on the other hand, often see the academy and learning as a means to an end … a higher-paying job with more security.

What we teach can feel remote to them and their lives. In some cases, we have to teach what we have to teach, and students have to find a way to get passionate. That’s part of being a student. In other instances, we can change what we teach without changing the rigor of the course work and make our courses more immediately applicable.

It takes transcending a vision of what we want the course to be for us and instead recreating it into the course it needs to be for them.

Making a connection

At Delta College in Michigan where I work, I teach a course entitled Preparing for College Writing. It’s a developmental course, and students who pass it are able then to take a college-level writing course.

When I teach the course, I always have students read a book and then write papers related to themes in the book. In the past, I have chosen fiction books that in some way excite me, though I imagine that my thinking is that the books will also excite my students. Who wouldn’t want to read Fahrenheit 451 or Catcher in the Rye or The Joy Luck Club?

As it turns out, my developmental students don’t want to read them. It might be easy to chock their lack of interest up to laziness or lack of intellect, but that’s usually not the case.

They don’t want to read them, or at least they don’t get excited about reading them, because the themes are too far-removed from where my students are in terms of Maslow. Take Catcher in the Rye. A spoiled rich kid whose main problem is that most adults seem phony or inauthentic? Many of my developmental students would say, “I wish I had his problems.”

A few years ago, I tried something new in Preparing for College Writing. I themed the course around money management and financial planning. My students read a book in which they learn budgeting, saving for emergencies, the dangers of credit cards and how to approach long-term planning for retirement.

They write four papers, all of which are themed around money-related matters. They analyze themselves as spenders, savers and givers; they write formal letters of complaint and compliment letters; they look at how their parents might have influenced their own relationship to money, and they reevaluate a period in their lives when having had an emergency fund could have really made a difference.

With a money-themed course, my students feel immediately how what they are studying can have an impact on their lives. They actually get excited. Sometimes when a student comes in with a soft drink, and she sees me eyeing it, she’ll say, “Don’t worry Mr. Van, I bought this in bulk and brought it from home. I didn’t overpay by using a vending machine.”

Other students will report to me that they called their car insurance provider and were able to negotiate a lower rate. Recently, a student told me she was able to get a bank loan to pay off her credit cards, and now has a 5 percent interest rate rather than a 24 percent interest rate.

Another student said she and her husband moved from an apartment where they were paying $1,200 a month to one where they pay $690. She said, “We are living within our means, and now we have more to put away for retirement.”

My developmental students are actually excited about the course they are taking, rather than seeing it as some arbitrary hoop they need to jump through. I’m meeting them where they are on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Not only do they learn important life skills, but I can tell also that they write with more passion and skill when they are writing about a topic that actually means something to their lives.

I’m meeting them where they are and that is making all the difference.

About the Author

Jeff Vande Zande
is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan.