Every semester begins in the same way. Students show up, a bit disoriented, and try to figure our their instructors and their classes. We instructors usually have the advantage of more experience (although some of our students have been here a long time), but we're a little disoriented, too. What will the new crop of students be like?
One thing is all but certain. Some of them will fail.
I know. That sounds like a defeatist attitude. Is the fact that it's true a defense? There are solid reasons why a college instructor cannot realistically expect to shepherd an entire class of forty (or more!) to passing grades at term's end. (Please take it as read that the instructor has actual standards and does not simply hand out C's for “trying.”) I'll enumerate some of them:
In a class of any size, you're going to have students who run afoul of emergencies, whether anticipated or unforeseen. I've had students distracted by health issues (all the way up to and including life-threatening physical conditions or debilitating emotional difficulties), family problems (divorce, custody disputes, offspring with behavioral issues), and legal matters (such as probation violations, lawsuits, restraining orders, evictions, and incarcerations). While some of these circumstances could be mitigated by high-functioning and responsible individuals, many would overwhelm any mere mortal. Severe illness, in particular, is not something easily managed. No one blames a student for not doing well in a class if he or she is simultaneously struggling with a debilitating illness.
The lazy student exists. I seem to have a few every semester. They're apparently not quite sure why they're in school, but perhaps it was the path of least resistance. They like to sit in the back row and drowse—or play surreptitiously with their electronic toys. Each semester I fight the temptation to label students as indolent too quickly—their characteristics are often so overt—and instead give a good college try to getting them involved and learning. If they don't snap out of it, they're doomed. But they mostly don't care. At least, not enough.
Perhaps this one is new to you, but it's a commonplace to me. My struggling students frequently suffer from singular situations—or so they think. No one has ever suffered as they do! It finally occurred to them that I should try to disabuse them of this notion.
Sure, absolutely everyone is unique. Even identical twins (DNA isn't everything). But people are unique in their assemblage of traits and experiences, not in their components. The various traits and experiences, when viewed individually, are part of the common legacy of humanity. In other words, you have more company than you realize.
The poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal said it in a way that impressed me back when I was in graduate school. The original German is not at my fingertips (as if it ever was), but the English sense of it is this:
Quite right. And thus I try to get my students to understand that they are neither the first nor the last to have a problem with mathematics. Literally millions of other students have had problems with algebra, for example. No professor during office hours or tutor during drop-in assistance periods in the help center is going to recoil at a student's question and say, “Oh, my God! I've never heard that question before! No one has ever had this problem before!”
Been there. Done that. Students and teachers and tutors alike. (Okay, a few of the newer teachers or tutors might have that reaction, but they'll get over it pretty quick.)
You are unique yet the same. No one else has quite your special combination of characteristics, but every part of you is shared with others. Don't fall into the trap of thinking, “No one has ever been this confused before. No one has ever made such mistakes before. No one has ever been this bad at math.”
Plenty have, and they have done so in ways that are both different and the same as your missteps and failings. Many of them have found assistance and solutions that are also as different and as identical as the ones available to you. Go find them and swell the ranks of the successful.