Mar 08
Responding to Students' Lives
  • “I can't make it to class, because I've landed in the Remand Centre overnight and won't be released in time." 
  • “I've been late for class recently, because I don't have a place to live yet and I've been couch surfing at my relatives." 
  • “My family isn't financially secure, and I can't afford to feed myself properly."
  • “I know I'm falling asleep in class, but it's because I work the midnight shift and come straight to school from the plant." 

These are all actual statements either a colleague or I have heard from students. Maybe you've heard something similar, too?

I think a lot about the burdens our students bring with them into the classroom, and I try to keep those burdens in mind when weighing the importance of a missed deadline or poorly completed assignment against the life challenges they are facing. And I get caught sometimes. Caught between holding standards firm and clear for each and every student, and making allowances for circumstances the likes of which I have never had to face in my privileged life. 

Students must earn their credential from RRC, I know that. And I firmly believe we must hold them to account as adult learners. But what margin is the right margin to give them in the face of sometimes very challenging personal circumstances? 

How can any student learn effectively when hungry? When sleep deprived? When homeless? And how can we best teach for learning when our students are carrying heavy burdens in their personal lives?

​I'm not looking for easy answers here, because there are no easy answers. But I am wondering what your experience is with students who are struggling with life's circumstances. I'm asking for your wisdom in how you deal with them.

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Comments

I don't hesitate to adjust ...

I don't hesitate to adjust due dates and make other arrangements when I know that students are facing such highly challenging life circumstances. Checking in on students regularly to see how they are managing is a way of showing care and this effort alone can be very helpful to students. Helping students access college supports is a way to provide assistance without taking on too much responsibility ourselves.

I think it's also important to remember that for every student that tells us about the problems he/she is facing, there are others who struggle on silently with similar issues. Sometimes reaching out when we notice a change in a student is a good way to uncover these issues so that we can offer our own help and that of our institution.
Picture Placeholder: Gail Horvath
  • Gail Horvath
 on 3/8/2019 8:45 AM

In our ECE classes it is no...

In our ECE classes it is not uncommon to have students with multiple children and multiple jobs. Being flexible with timelines not only shows compassion but also role models for learners what we hope they will in turn model for the children that they will/do work with in Early Learning and Child Care Programs. I am always amazed when a student who is learning full time, also has one or more jobs on the side  and takes care of their family. Working multiple jobs affords them the opportunity to provide for their families but also to attend PSE, a privilege that not everyone has easily.
All I ask for is upfront communication, I encourage students to build relationships with others in the class, sometimes they provide a lifeline of becoming a note taker/sharer, or catching up on what was done in class if it had to be missed. I also try to build relationships with learners so that they can trust me and ask for an extension if necessary. I'd rather have a student hand in something late than not at all, and I'd rather have a student experience feelings of success than feelings of inadequacy from not finishing.  Thanks for this post today!
Picture Placeholder: Ruth Lindsey-Armstrong
  • Ruth Lindsey-Armstrong
 on 3/8/2019 9:20 AM

I value your perspective Ga...

I value your perspectives Gail and Ruth, thank you for sharing.  And, thank you Amanda for initiating this challenging subject.

Among other considerations, when asked to make an exception for a student, internally I question the truthfulness of the story being told.  I worried about this more my first year teaching than I do now, since I noticed something that relates to your point, Amanda, about RRC credentials being earned. 

Ultimately erring on the side of supporting a student does not lead to a misguided life lesson, or gifting a credit.  The students that put in the effort will earn the designation, and those that do not, will not.  If there are repeat requests coming from a student then the issue of recurrance can be addressed on a separate basis, and in a different manner than granting a single exception.

Depending on the circumstances, sometimes I make the students work for it (inspired by the legendary Teresa Menzies), by writing a brief paper from multiple perspectives (ex. A summary on how working during school supports learning, and how working during school can undermine academic performance).  I hope that the student will at least be more aware of complexities of the situation (and of life).

Picture Placeholder: Lindsay Mulholland
  • Lindsay Mulholland
 on 3/8/2019 9:39 AM

I often think about this is...

I often think about this issue, and increasingly I want to err on the side of compassion, rather than as enforcer of rules. I think it’s fair to say that effective teaching requires more than an expert knowledge of the subject area, more than simply a by-the-book approach to all students. In my own experience as a student (and one with the privilege Amanda points out) when teachers made allowances for something in my life that interfered with school, it shored me up in such a way to make learning more meaningful. It gave me the confidence to continue, made me feel seen in a way that was powerful, and quite simply, meant I could continue in my studies.
I absolutely concur with Lindsay that students earn the credits they achieve, and rare is it that supporting a student means they receive an unearned gift. I want to present myself as a teacher in such a way that shows care and consideration for the humans in my classroom. There are, as Amanda points out, no easy answers. I try to use my judgement, and look at each request on its own rather than apply a rule across the board.
Picture Placeholder: Jayne M Geisel
  • Jayne M Geisel
 on 3/8/2019 11:22 AM

This is such an big, import...

This is such an big, important topic. I tell them all the time "this is a communications class. Communicate with me and we'll figure it out." They don't have to give me specifics, they just need to let me know something is up and they need a bit more time or some leniency. As Lindsay wrote, the students that put in the effort will make it through, and those who don't, won't. The ones who take advantage of a lenient instructor ultimately do themselves no favours, so I don't worry too much about it. I'll also make them work for it if need be with similar short papers to those that Lindsay mentioned. Like Ruth, I try to build relationships between the students so that they have a lifeline in the class.


"Well in the real world, your boss won't care." I heard this message loud and clear as a student struggling with mental health issues and financial difficulties. My response to that now is "Just because that's how it is doesn't mean that's how it ought to be. Some day these students will be the bosses. Isn't it better that we model how they could be compassionate, empathetic managers and coworkers and still have good productivity so that we can change the system?"

The comments I value most from my students are the ones that tell me that I was patient, understanding, and caring, and that I made our class a welcoming place. I'm open with my students. I tell them that I struggled in school. I talk about how I got tutoring and, had I known about it, probably should have received some accommodations. I tell them it's ok to get stressed out and overwhelmed, that we all do, even if we aren't telling anyone. I tell them I'll walk down to counseling services with them if they're shy or nervous. I don't wait for someone to speak up; I tell them right up front and openly. I was lucky to have compassionate and understanding core instructors when I was a student here, and it made a big difference in my success for a multitude of reasons.
Picture Placeholder: Jocelyne Olson
  • Jocelyne Olson
 on 3/8/2019 11:29 AM

In the settlement world at ...

In the settlement world at the Language Training Centre, students' lives interrupt at every turn. 
One of the first strategies I like to teach them is how to effectively communicate that they need time to be late or absent. This involves explaining to them that they do not have to ask for permission or explain their business in detail and that it's not unreasonable to have to miss some class time for health issues, family stuff, etc. However, they do have to explain what action they will take as a result. 
A little room/dignity and some strategies seem to empower my students without compromising the learning standards I try to maintain.
Thanks for this post and for the insightful and compassionate perspectives.   
Picture Placeholder: Kevin Boon
  • Kevin Boon
 on 3/8/2019 12:31 PM

No time to comment today......

No time to comment today... but excellent topic!
Picture Placeholder: Andrew Warren
  • Andrew Warren
 on 3/8/2019 3:44 PM

Hello to faculty readers an...

Hello to faculty readers and I hope you will not mind if a non-faculty member chimes in to this discussion.  It occurs to me that you might also have a student make a disclosure to you about a situation involving sexual violence in this kind of situation.  I am willing to bet that some of you have already faced that situation.  If that has come up for you, you might have wondered not just about giving extensions and the like but also what to do with that information so that you could support your student.

Please feel free to touch base with me anytime if you are wondering how you would handle a situation like that.  A few tips that I will offer here are to always listen supportively, make sure the person is safe, ask what they need, and offer to connect them with the supports available.  It is certainly possible that you might hear more of those kinds of disclosures given the "No Wrong Door approach" where we are telling students that they should feel comfortable to make a disclosure about sexual violence to anyone in the College Community.  You might be the door for one of your students.

I am available as a resource for you (and your student) anytime at NoWrongDoor@rrc.ca 
Picture Placeholder: Carolyn Frost
  • Carolyn Frost
 on 3/8/2019 4:28 PM

Thanks Carolyn for weighing...

Thanks Carolyn for weighing in on this discussion. It's helpful to know the services that are present in the college, even though we have consistent reminders in staff news and posters around the environment, it's easy to overlook when not in context. Your post is in context and it's appreciated.
Picture Placeholder: Ruth Lindsey-Armstrong
  • Ruth Lindsey-Armstrong
 on 3/8/2019 5:58 PM

Thanks for tackling this to...

Thanks for tackling this topic. Thinking it over it seems like this should be discussed on a much broader scale, with all levels of the College involved.
I have also lived a privileged life and am sometimes shocked to see and hear of the life circumstances some students are dealing with as they also try to be successful within an academic program here. It stops you in your tracks and makes you think.
I tend to be like those who replied above. I realized some time ago that while policies are needed and useful students are dealt with on an individual basis and patience, compassion and understanding go hand in hand with being a good teacher.
Picture Placeholder: Michael Whalen
  • Michael Whalen
 on 3/11/2019 8:41 AM
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