I hope you’ll indulge me on a bit of a rant. I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching lately because I’m teaching one more summer class before my likely career change out of academia. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about students and what they go through outside of school. In a recent tweet I saw, a professor noted that he occasionally teaches students who are effectively homeless. As someone who’s spent a few years teaching at City University of New York schools, I can tell the same story. A report in March 2019 found that 49 percent of CUNY students went hungry at some point in the last month and 55 percent had been without a secure place to live in the last year. I remember family members hearing that report and expressing their shock, but unfortunately I didn’t find it surprising. I’ve never had students outright tell me they were homeless, but with the slew of other struggles they have told me, I’m certain I’ve taught homeless students. Every semester I have single moms and pregnant women, people who have to appear for court dates, people involved in custody battles with abusive exes, people who write their homework on their phones because they have no access to a computer. Many of these people also work full shifts and come straight to school without a rest.
Working in this environment shaped the way I teach. In the past I’d heard that students should treat college like their job and give it their full attention. Maybe that works in some environments, but it doesn’t work for me. I have to accept that for many of my students, school is not their primary concern, for good reason. If you have kids or a full-time job, then no, my intro history class is not your primary concern. If you don’t have a stable place to live then this homework assignment isn’t the first thing on your mind. And do you know what happens when I accept that? In my experience, good things. When students know I appreciate the struggles they might be going through, they know I’m on their side. It counts for a lot when the students view you as someone who legitimately wants the best for them.
What I’m trying to say here is that I’ve never found it productive to act as if the students are my enemy. I’m not saying most academics view students that way. I have many friends who, like myself, consider working with students the highlight of their jobs. But we probably all know a few who do. They’re determined to make sure the students don’t “get one over” on them and come into the room with this adversarial attitude from the first day of class. They scrutinize excuses and deny requests for an extra day to hand in an assignment. It seems to me like this style treats the classroom more like a battlefield than a learning environment.
In my experience, that’s no way to get the students on your side. The way I’ve had success getting students on my side is by treating them like people. Sometimes a bit of encouragement rather than a punishment goes a long way to help a struggling student. This is especially true if the student is struggling for a non-school issue, like not knowing where their dinner will come from tonight.
Am I too easy as a professor? Probably. But if I am, it’s because I’ve seen what students go through firsthand and don’t want to be yet another problem in their lives. I’m certain that students in the past have gotten away with things in my class. Maybe they offered a fake excuse for missing class or not turning in an assignment. Do I lose sleep over this? Nope. I’d rather be wrong 10 times than make one student suffer when they were offering a legitimate excuse. Furthermore, if a student is actually slacking off, then we all know that 9 times out of 10 giving them an extra day won’t result in better work – they’ll just continue procrastinating until an hour before class like they did the day before and produce the same result. On the flipside, a student who couldn’t get an assignment done because of getting stuck at work or an emergency with their child will almost always (in my experience) get that assignment done with some extra time. Just some understanding is all they need.
All I’m saying with this semi-rant is that let’s remember our students are people. Some could be facing challenges that we couldn’t imagine going through. I don’t think the standard operating procedure should be “Assume the students are trying to fool you.” I believe in students having the benefit of the doubt. After all, it wasn’t students that drove me away from academic work. Consistently students are the best part of what I do. It was the lack of stable employment and terrible pay that made me want out.