Dear Captain Awkward,
This question is not so much about a single major situation or a crisis as it is about a recurring, if minor, situation that I encounter again and again. I am a graduate student at a medium-sized research university where graduate students do a lot of teaching. As a result, I encounter former students on campus on a very regular basis. I hope very much to keep teaching college students long-term, though who knows what my future holds.
The problem I have is this. My classes are often fairly popular with students, in part because my teaching persona is very warm and approachable, and in the classroom, I am good at not taking myself too seriously and putting other people (i.e. students) at ease. In real life I am none of those things: I am awkward, introverted, and ill-at-ease with social acquaintances, and I overread Every. Damn. Detail. of routine social interactions. I often feel that students who run into me in public social settings (at coffee shops, libraries, etc.) are surprised by what they perceive as a change in my affect, and that–put bluntly–I make them feel uncomfortable when they greet me after our class is over. I hate that. I feel I talk too long, or not long enough, or that I greet them when they’d rather avoid me, or that I avoid them when they’d rather greet me.
I should say that, while many college instructors resist or resent outside encounters with students, I don’t feel that way at all. I enjoy keeping up with former students. Even more importantly, I think that students at my large, cold, competitive institution need as many one-on-one adult contacts as they can get, and that it’s important for them to feel like they are part of a supportive social network made up of people of many different ages. I think that having good, positive, low-key, supportive encounters–not with every single student, but with students who actually want to say “hi” or catch up briefly in passing–is an important part of my job. But I’m not good at it.
I’m asking you because I know you are a college professor, and I imagine that–like me–you have a lot of students who would like to keep in touch, or who check in when you pass them in the hallway. Any advice on how to make these encounters productive, or at least comfortable?
Wants to Be That Supportive Former Teacher