What We Don’t Know About Our Students’ Lives

I was reading the latest issue of The Sun this Thanksgiving week (a magazine you should check out, should you have the time), and I came across part of an essay that relates to teaching in a way that interests me a good deal.  In Rose Whitmore’s “Swarm,” she talks about her father’s death and bees, which he raised.  About halfway through, she writes,

“I went to college.  I wondered at the people around me, their constant striving.  I tried, but grief lived within me, speaking to me through my days, muting the din of college.  I became aware of the lengths to which we go to stay sane, comfortable, safe; how we gloss over pain for the same reason we pave roads: to smooth our way.  The men and women who lived with me in my co-ed dorm had never met my father.  They’d never seen the sun wrap itself along the horizon of our ranch or collected the honey from a hive of bees.  But still they advised me on how to handle the memories in my bones.  A friend kindly told me to ‘let the dead bury the dead.’  One day I walked into the common room of my dorm and saw everyone’s name on the dry-erase board.  As a pseudo-intellectual joke, someone had invited others to write each resident’s Freudian ‘issue’ beside his or her name.  Next to mine an anonymous hand had written, ‘Daddy.'”

Whitmore goes on to talk about abdominal pain she developed when she was there, which was never clearly diagnosed, but which she sees as a physical manfiestation of her grief.  The pain increased whenever stressful times of the semester came around.

I’ve been talking to a number of alumni over the past month or so, and I’ve found out more about them than I ever knew when they were students.  They were going through a wide variety of personal issues that I never knew about.  At least in my classes, these concerns never caused their grades to suffer.  They might have kept them from doing better work than they did, but none of us will ever know that.

I’m not trying to argue here that we need to know everything that goes on in our students’ lives.  That’s simply not possible, nor is it advisable.  What I will say, though, is that we should always remember that we have no idea what students are suffering with and through.  We shouldn’t take it personally or take it out on them when they miss a week of our class with no explanations.  If they turn in a paper a week late, we shouldn’t do anything other than treat it as a paper turned in a week late.  If we’re honest, we often want to “teach them a lesson” by grading it more harshly, as if they have turned it in late simply to spite us.

What I’m arguing for is humility and empathy.  We must remember that we don’t know what students’ lives are really like and that they are quite often nothing like our lives when we were students.  Also, unless we’re given reason to distrust them, we should give them the benefit of the doubt.  Until we know they are simply not doing the work because they are lazy or making poor choices or whatever other reasons we use for why they don’t prioritize our classes, we should assume they have a good reason for not doing the work we’ve assigned.  Whenever students try to bring me doctor’s notes, I explain to them that they’re adults, and I assume they have a good reason for missing my class, and I let them keep the doctor’s notes.

I know students try to mislead us, but I also know that students suffer in ways we don’t see.  I’d rather spend my career being duped by a few students than bring more suffering on those who are already enduring more than I can imagine trying to deal with at twenty years old.  I’ll continue to have late policies and give students zeroes for not turning work in, certainly, but I won’t take their absences personally, and I’ll try to convey that they should come and talk to me if they have something serious they’re dealing with.  That’s a fair trade for me.

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