One of my major preoccupations, in my teaching life and my life in general, is the line between “real compassion” and “idiot compassion”. In March 2009, I was struggling with this dichotomy; I didn’t resolve it, but I often look back on this event when I am wondering how to respond to a student’s difficulties.
A few weeks ago, a student named Alexandra emailed me. She was going to miss a week of classes because a friend of hers had died suddenly; she had to fly home to attend the funeral and help his family.
I sent her my condolences. I also explained that if she wanted to make up the in-class essay she would miss, she’d have to bring documentation of the reason for her absence. The funeral home was used to these requests, I explained, and would know what to give her. I also reminded her that her lowest in-class essay mark would be dropped, so it wasn’t essential that she make this assignment up if she wasn’t up to it.
On the day she returned, at the end of class, Alexandra slammed a pile of scraps from the funeral – a copy of the obituary, some decorations with the deceased’s name on them – onto my desk and stalked away. She was gone before I could ask what her gesture was supposed to signify.
At the beginning of the next class, I called her to my desk and asked if she’d brought those “documents” because she wanted to make up the essay she’d missed. She said, “I brought them because you said you wanted to see something.” I gently reminded her that I’d wanted to see something only if she wanted to retake the essay test – that documentation is always required if a student wants to redo a major assignment. I explained again that she was welcome to make up what she’d missed, but that, given the time that had elapsed and the circumstances, it would be understandable if she wanted to let this one slide, as her lowest essay test grade would be dropped from her average.
She seemed to soften. She said that she probably couldn’t do a good job on the essay, so she’d pass on this one. I got the feeling that she understood: the request for documentation had nothing to do with her personally, and everything to do with a general rule that I had to apply equally to everyone.
In the weeks since then, however, Alexandra’s attitude toward me has been considerably colder than it was. I don’t know whether that’s a general change in her mood, because of the terrible loss she has just sustained, or whether she still harbours resentment over her [mis]interpretation of my request.
When I first started teaching, I gave students a lot of chances. If a student said his grandmother had died, I took him at his word and helped him make up the work. Over time, though, it became clear that students were taking advantage of this, and it was making my life more difficult and wasn’t helping them in the long run. Putting clear rules about late and missed work into place, and applying them consistently, has helped me deal with some ambiguous situations.
A case in point: another student in Alexandra’s class, Peter, emailed me more than a week after the due date of a major at-home assignment to ask if I had received his essay, which he had “put in internal mail.” I hadn’t, and reminded Peter that if he didn’t put an essay directly into my hands, he was required to email it to me immediately after submitting his hard copy, as proof that it was done. The next class we spoke about it – he still hadn’t brought it to me – and I told him that if he sent me the essay IMMEDIATELY, I would read it and consider giving him a very small portion of his grade. Four days later, I received an email with Peter’s essay attached. His aunt had died, he said, and so he had forgotten to email it to me “IMMEDIATELY”. I replied that it was too late, and I wouldn’t consider his essay (such as it was – it was too short and made little sense.)
Peter would have failed the course even if I had graded his essay – maybe this is why I didn’t hear any arguments from him. I suspect, though, that he didn’t protest because I had called his bluff. I put such deadlines in place, and ask for documents to confirm legitimate reasons for missed assignments, because I don’t want to make decisions about who’s telling the truth and who isn’t. Most students understand this – not just students who make up excuses and then can’t back them up, but especially students who have real, compelling reasons for missing work or handing things in late. Alexandra seems to be an exception.
Of course, it’s difficult to explain to someone in Alexandra’s situation that, because of students like Peter, rules have to be created, and have to be enforced, for everyone. But it’s also difficult for teachers to know when to trust our intuition, and when our intuition will get us into trouble. If I had relaxed the rules for Alexandra, and then Peter had come back to me and said, “Well, you made an exception for her, why not me?”, things would have gotten messy.
How do we create structure and accountability for our students without sacrificing compassion for their very real troubles? It’s an endless dance, and sometimes we make the wrong moves.
Image by Gesine Kuhlmann