Example 1: When prompted to answer a question in class, David responds, somewhat unfazed, “oh sorry, i was just spacing out staring out the window.” While a little disgruntled at first, I later learned that he has a learning disability. Because the college doesn’t recognize it, I wasn’t informed.
Example 2: Katie and Rick, a couple, had an argument just outside of my classroom before coming in for class. They were engaged with each other and their relationship woes throughout the class in such a way that it proved disruptive to them as well as the rest of the class, and myself on a few occasions.
Example 3: On the day that outlines for final papers were due, Tom asks to speak to me after class about why he has not submitted his paper yet. When we chat he painfully explains he is juggling a family with a young daughter, and a full-time job. He remorsefully says he will get an outline to me by the end of the day. I receive a draft from him by the following class.
Example 4: Allie rushes in at least fifteen minutes late to class looking exasperated and takes a seat. During independent work I call her up to see why she was late. She informs that her father was in the hospital overnight for surgery he had yesterday and she, a 17 year old, was the only family member available to sit with him through the night at the hospital.
These examples get at what I consider to be an important tension that exists in the classroom – are students automatically ‘students’ when they enter the classroom? Do they leave their personhood at the door? Do we expect them to? Should we expect them to?
As a new professor i’m still surprised by the issues that characterize the lives of my students outside of the classroom and the multiple hats they wear and responsibilities they have. As an undergraduate i worked, but ‘student’ was the dominant persona I assumed, and accounted for much of my responsibilities. Even now in graduate school, perhaps particularly as a doctoral student, my life and personhood have continued to be dominated by my student-hood. Often times I find that my students are dealing with things that i couldn’t possibly have understood at their age, such as Allie and her father. Or they may be older and their lives are more complicated by having a family, or a sick spouse such as in the case of Tom.
Though each case must be assessed on its own, my reaction in general has been less then harsh. I tend to give students the benefit of the doubt and that they are in school because they are trying to head in a certain direction, and ultimately, that they understand and accept the responsibility of being a student. Should it matter if a student turns something in a few days or week late? Especially if the extra time help the student engage the assignment more fully? Perhaps it comes down to our priorities and how we rank our responsibilities as a teacher. In cases where it comes down to one or the other, do we emphasize the importance and often inflexible nature of deadlines, or should we emphasize engagement with the assignment?
Important to note, I am not saying these priorities (and others) are always in conflict. Often they are not – and often we wish for both priorities equally (that students would engage deeply with their assignments as well as meet deadlines). I am specifically referring to instances where there is a conflict between the two.
As a TA for a class this semester, I have had the pleasure of observing another teacher’s style. She takes a ‘leaner and meaner’ approach which emphasizes, in addition to engagement with the readings, strict deadlines and formalities (using certain language and structure in emails, and hierarchy of command, etc.). This approach seems to perceive the individual first and foremost as a student, and assumes that this class can and is a priority in their lives – which is should be.
I can certainly see the importance of this style as well. Though I did feel like students felt a little cut off though, and as though I was unapproachable in the beginning, they have complied with the stricter regime. When students have confronted the hard deadlines and there is nothing I can do about it, they are still fine, they accept the consequences, and it goes on. And maybe they learn that deadlines are important.
I guess, perhaps because I’m a new teacher, I’m just having a conflict between seeing my students as only students, or understanding the complexities of their New York City, often transnational and bilingual, and otherwise complicated lives. I’m interested in hearing what others think and do, and how they balance this – and if its even a consideration. As their teacher, they are my students, but as I am also a person, are they not as well?