The Limits of Compassion: Reprise

What does being “compassionate” really entail?

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

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11 responses

  1. As someone who has missed work and other events due to tragic circumstances, I can relate to both sides of this coin. I have been in shoes of your student, having to provide documentation when it’s the last thing on your mind. However, I also know that being consistent and clear about the reasons for this are actually helpful. She may not have immediately remembered that you’d already explained why you needed the documentation, but she probably remembered that you had when you re-explained it. Her shift to coldness could be a result of numerous things. The bottom line is that you have learned you need to be firm and clear with the reasoning for this, and that consistency is most fair for all students – whether their reasons for absence are real or imaginary.

  2. I have had this problem too when teaching. It does seem like your general rule is working well, and I think that having clear guidelines is a necessity. However, perhaps chatting with her again when she is in your office hours or if she is delayed a bit after class might be something you are interested in. Obviously, you know your student best, and perhaps bringing it up again might just worsen her attitude towards you. I often found that addressing something like that helped me teach better, but I am also one of those students who is too worried about their students’ emotions during class a lot of times. In college, I think those one-to-one conversations work a little better too. If I were teaching much younger students, I wouldn’t recommend it.

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. People may have unexpected reactions, but I think that it’s important for students, anyway, to know you are being consistent in the wise and compassionate way that you demonstrate. They may not always like it, but that doesn’t make your approach any less meaningful and important. I wish more teachers had such clear and compassionate boundaries.

  4. It is a tough nut to crack. You empathize with their situation and hope they are being truthful when you extend time for assignments.

    When I taught at the community college level, I had to have clear avenues for emergencies so it was easier to manage.

    At the HS level, however, it is a totally different animal. Establishing relationships with the students is very important at my school, yet I also have to enforce the rules in order to be fair to all.

    I go by the rules, with the flexibility to trust my intuition and give the student an out to be successful. It is a never ending balancing act.

  5. I just finished two days of teaching seminars. Even though we discussed many issues including student accountability, “how to deal with students who have experienced a death in the family” was only brought up in passing.

    I had a student who had two emergency surgeries in the same semester… and I am still unsure if I handled it properly. The student missed half the class but did all the reading and all the written assignments… and all the tests, but missed HALF the class. I had the student write an extra essay to make up for the in-class time missed… but I am still bothered by that. There is no doubt the student was telling the truth… but in-class time is also important.

  6. Sometimes death just makes people angry. Alexandra may need someone to be angry at and you’re there, and it isn’t that she truly believes you have done anything unfair. You may be her scapegoat because it’s too hard to be mad at God or at the friend she misses because the friend is dead. There may be a lot more going on here than is on the surface–especially if the friend is dead because he or she made poor choices. It may be worth reaching out to parents or the counselors just to register concern at her changed demeanor.

  7. I have been called the “B-word” many a time for my hard stance on late work, but I realized early on that accepting late work hurt me as the teacher. It made the song and dance and keeping track of excuses an endless battle. High school students are notorious for having “emergencies” the night before an assignment is due, no matter how far in advance you give it to them. Their parents will even lie for them (this has happened to me too many times) and it becomes an issue. My policy now is no late work period, unless a formal conversation has taken place in class or via e-mail in advance. Obviously extenuating circumstances come up, like I once had a student get hit by a car on his way home, but by and large, I have become immune to excuses and “emergencies.”

  8. I like that you describe it as a dance because it truly is. After years of teaching, you come to amend your policies to reflect snafus where they had not been in place. Case in point, I’m pretty liberal about the use of technology in my classroom. I encourage students to bring their “Smart” devices, but it isn’t an invitation to Facebook or text friends. I had to write into my policy that students would no longer be permitted to keep bags or backpacks on their desks because I find them using it as a screen so I can’t see them texting! Unfortunately, when we are forced to draw a hard line because of those who take advantage, often those who don’t take advantage suffer.

  9. As a high school teacher, I struggle with this balance in a variety of ways myself. I am planning to do a blog similar to this one relating to in class discipline. Many kids have a variety of problems and reasons for: lateness, misbehaviour and a variety of other things. Walking the line between being fair and reasonable is often the line between being in control and being a doormat. Thanks for that food for thought.

  10. Thanks very much for all of your comments. It is interesting that no one has brought up an argument I’ve sometimes heard – that “deadlines” place artificial constraints on the learning process, and that if a student misses an assignment, especially if it’s for a serious reason but even if not, he or she should be able to do the assignment regardless of how late it is (i.e. assignments should measure learning, not punctuality). Do any of you have thoughts on this?

    • My thought is that I’m baffled by the “deadlines place artifical constraints on the learning process” idea. There is lots that we do in the course of a semester that is not subject to deadlines — we develop concepts, have conversations, study independently, re-read books or articles late in the semester that make more sense now than they did earlier, and on and on. On the other hand, we also have assigned work that (for the teacher) is not manageable if it all comes in at the very end, or at times that the teacher had not planned for. Students who want to learn through a formal class (as opposed to learning on their own, or through self-paced on-line classes) just have to adjust to scheduled work. It’s the only way that’s practical.

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