My current job is as an adjunct instructor at a local university and an (almost) local community college. I really enjoy teaching and working with the students, who come from all walks of life. Lately, however, I have come to realize that my job goes beyond teaching the concepts and skills outlined in the syllabus. I also have a role in helping these folks figure out what to do when life jumps up and bites them in the butt.
I am going to change the scenarios a bit to protect confidentiality, but some of the issues that my students have been confronted with lately (and that I have then been asked to consider as reasons for missing class or not getting assignments done) have included a parent with a recurrence of cancer, a foreclosure on the family home, sick or injured children, car accidents, and increased work responsibilities to help the family after parents have lost their jobs. Yes, these are all stressful and terrible things. Yes, I agree that, in most cases, some leniency is reasonable. I certainly feel sorry for them when I hear their stories, but another thought also quickly flits in my mind. And that thought?
Ok, so I don’t actually say that out loud, but it is becoming the underlying theme of my response. Most of these students are young and they may or may not have experienced bumps in the road before. But now that they are adults and in college, their response has to start being different than it was when they were children. I am more than willing to work with each of them to find a way to get their work done in the midst of their personal or family crisis. I have been there myself, more than once, and I still remember and appreciate my professors and bosses who supported me and worked with me to manage all that I had going on in my life. Some of these students, however, do not make it easy to be supportive. Instead of coming to me and explaining the situation, they drop off the face of the earth, only to emerge days or weeks later asking me what they missed and how they can make up the work.
Heres’s a tip for anyone out there who may be in a situation where something happens to upend your life and you miss some work or drop the ball on your responsibilities – don’t just pop up one day with your (very valid but late) excuse and ask someone else to “fill you in” on everything you’ve missed. Perhaps this is part of the life lesson – people are usually quite willing to work with you IF you communicate with them along the way and treat the situation as a collaboration and not a “you must help me dig myself out because my life sucks” expectation. This is true in school, at work, and in relationships. No matter how bad things are, you still have responsibilities that are not necessarily going away. And by the time you tell those who are also affected by your situation, if you don’t choose to do so as soon as possible, it may be too late to fully recoup all that you have missed.
In my case, the semester keeps rolling and the other 20 or so students in class are motoring on towards the end of class. Missing one assignment may not seem like a lot, but sometimes assignments build upon each other. So missing one piece early on is like missing the foundation of a building but then trying to add to it anyway. At some point, the whole thing might crumble down on all of us.
So, I hope that I convey empathy when my students approach me but I also hope that I make it clear to them that they need to communicate with me (and other teachers, bosses, and friends) so that I am in a better position to compromise and collaborate with them on what they have missed.
There is simply no way to avoid this simple fact of life – stuff happens. And the corollary is equally important – life doesn’t stop when stuff happens. The sooner we all learn this, the better.