Give Students a Break

“Don’t Be Hard to Get Along With,” by Anthony Aycock, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/16/15

 When we’re implacable, we’re not teaching our students how the world works. We’re just being jerks.

I had worked on a master’s for two years when, just before graduation, I made a joyless discovery: I had forgotten to apply to my company for tuition reimbursement for that semester. The application had been due in December; it was now April. Would my employer show me the money anyway?… I talked to an HR rep. The response: Send us your stuff, and we’ll get it approved.

Things work differently in the classroom. As faculty members, we often reject late work or extract penalties for it. If a student repeats a question for which the answer is on the syllabus, [we often] decline to repeat the answer and tell the student to reread the document. We don’t allow makeups on tests. We get irritated when they text on their cellphones in class.

We defend our tough stance by saying it helps students grow up…. In the real world, we argue, they must meet deadlines and follow rules. No exceptions! But…in most workplaces, exceptions occur all the time….

When we are implacable as faculty members, we are not teaching our students how the world works. We are just being jerks.

In class we get irritated at having to repeat information. But repetition is common in the workplace. [In meetings, my boss] frequently asks for information we have already given him. My boss is not disorganized…but when he has a question, he finds it faster to ask than to look through his notes.

Could I say to him, “The answer to your question should be in your notes from last Thursday”? Hardly….

So now I give him midweek updates that refresh his memory…and shorten the weekly meetings since he isn’t asking so many questions. I do the same thing as an instructor now, too, starting each class with a syllabus review—five minutes of what’s coming up, what I expect, and what they need to do. That minimizes confusion (I’m getting fewer flummoxed e-mails), and it models a valuable workplace skill. If my students end up with bosses like mine, they will be glad for the praxis of repetition.

Even when it comes to personal problems, the real-world sector takes a much more accommodating approach than many faculty members do. I know faculty members who back away when they are faced with students seeking help with a personal problem. Professors call that “blurring boundaries,” and some consider it unprofessional to get involved…. Yet those boundaries get blurred all the time in the work world in ways large and small….

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, one of the world’s foremost yoga instructors, said that a good teacher “comes to the level of people,” understanding “where they are, what their position is.”

To me that means treating student circumstances with respect. It means allowing late work (with a grade penalty), repeating instructions (don’t we all have to be told some things more than once?), and setting reasonable boundaries. Of course some students have problems that are beyond my ability, and I refer them to the appropriate experts. But many students are simply looking for someone to listen to a garden-variety problem. I can be that listener and not fret about blurred boundaries.

Rigid rules, no second chances—those are less prevalent in the real world than we imply in our classroom codes, whose actual impact, I fear, is to make us hard to get along with.

So don’t be hard to get along with. Of all the real-world lessons, that may be the most important.

Anthony Aycock is an adjunct instructor of English at Campbell University and works full time for the North Carolina Department of Justice.

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