I'm supposed to be writing my weekly to-do list but I just scrolled through my Twitter feed and saw commentary and reactions about police in schools and student discipline, so I'm writing this instead.
In one of my past career lives, I worked in a dean's office at a large, public university. We were a bit of a patchwork office, jacks and jills of all trades, but in short, students came to us when they needed help. One of the things we handled was notifying faculty when students encountered personal or family emergencies or deaths.
A typical situation was this: a mother would call the office and tell us that her mother, her child's grandmother had just passed away. Her child would be home from school for a few days and would miss classes. Could we notify the professors? We would offer our condolences, find the student's schedule, and send an email before moving on to the next crisis.
Ninety percent of the time, things would sort themselves out from that point. The student would return to their family to grieve. The professor and student would make a plan for making up missed work upon her return to class. We'd rarely hear from them again.
In the other ten percent of cases, I'd receive an email back from one of the student's faculty member, asking me to provide an obituary connecting the student to the recently departed, and in some cases a certificate of death. When I'd explain to them that we were student advocates, not detectives, they would get angry. They would sometimes tell me that they'd been "burned" in the past by fake deaths. Sometimes all you can do is repeat yourself: Sir, I'm not a coroner.
I've talked and reflected upon the pros and cons of our approach over the years. Did we get duped? Were we too soft? Should I have honed my investigative skills to "catch" some bad guys, a.k.a. students looking to get out of the mid-term exam?
Through all the talk and reflection, I've never once thought we should've moved in that direction.
In another past career life, I was teaching a land-based first-year seminar course. A student of mine who was generally talkative and lively in class entered class one morning, placed his head on his desk, and closed his eyes. One of my rules of teaching and advising is to notice patterns. So instead of reacting, I decided to notice. I continued talking, moving through the room, pausing next to his desk to see if that would illicit a reaction. It didn't. A couple of minutes later, a colleague of mine walked passed the classroom and looked in. We exchange a wave. I felt his eyes on the back of my sleeping student.
Later that day, he came to my office.
"Why'd you let that kid sleep? Why didn't you throw him out?" he asked.
What he didn't know is that after he walked by, I transitioned my students into a small group activity. I knelt down next to Mr. Sandman.
"Joe, come on, head up." He lifted his head.
"What going on?"
"My girlfriend is in the hospital. I was there all night but I didn't want to miss class. I have perfect attendance," he said.
I asked about his girlfriend, reminded him that the attendance policy gave him three free absences, and encouraged him to head home. But Joe wanted to stay. He put his head back down and I let him. Maybe he was too tired to leave. Maybe he didn't want to be alone. Maybe he didn't want to get back to whatever situation awaited him at the hospital. I don't know.
What I do know is that there was a moment where I could've chosen to read him the riot act. I could've embarrassed him in front of the entire class, made his day go from bad to worse. I'm so glad I didn't make that choice.
Could Joe have been lying? Might he have tied one on with his roommates the night before? Did he stay up all night playing video games? Maybe.
In both of these situations, with Joe and with the students in the dean's office, I had a choice to make. Option 1: show compassion and risk being a sucker. Option 2: kick someone when they're down. Which person did I want to be? I always have, and hope that I always will, opt for the former.
And if my students were working these compassionate systems? Well what then? Then they were making their own choices, some born of laziness and manipulation, but others likely born of survival and desperation. That's their choice and their consequence. Have I ever lied? Have I ever taken the easy way out? Of course. And have I ever had a day so bad that being accosted or accused by a person of power would've brought me to my knees? Well haven't we all?
Walking the line between accountability and compassion is much more of an art than a science and there are certainly situations where the best interest of the student is to challenge them a bit. But when there is uncertainty, when there is doubt, when there is a deviation from the norm, I would rather be the person, the teacher, and the advisor that errs on the side of kindness.
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