teachers, students, and empathy

Last week I was waiting for one of my students to make me a drink at the campus coffee shop when another university employee, who is my fellow student in the online faculty training course I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, came over and started chatting with me about the course. I mentioned that I’d lost a lot of points on one of the assignments because I didn’t cite sources. I said that even though the rubric (“which I know I should have looked at”) specified the research requirement, the instructions did not, and I made the comment that requirement should have been stated in both places. My classmate agreed and said that she had lost points on the same assignment because her APA format wasn’t correct. This had been news to her, since she’d done APA that way all through her online master’s degree program, and no professor had ever told her the formatting was wrong. She said that there should be more consistency among the faculty, and I agreed. Oh, and somewhere in that conversation, I made a comment like “I know this isn’t a real class.” I meant that it isn’t part of a degree program, but as someone who used to teach a zero-credit course that many people did not consider “real,” I should have thought about how dismissive such a comment can sound.

The embarrassing part about all this, I now realize, is that my student was hearing all this as she stood there making my dirty chai. We were making the exact same kinds of comments that students make in my class and that I tend to respond to with stock answers like “The rubric was there the whole time,” or “I can’t help what your previous professors did, but this is what the APA manual says,” or “What do you mean this isn’t a real class?” I’m not going to presume to guess what was going through my student’s head while she listened to our conversation, but contemplating the irony of the situation has taught me an important lesson–well, really reinforced something I already knew: “Do unto your students as you would have your professors do unto you.”

This lesson was driven home for me today with humbling clarity when I decided to ask the instructor of the training course for an extension of the homework deadline this week. I laid out all my reasons in a polite email, explaining that I’d had an unusually heavy grading load over the past week and that I’d had family visiting over the weekend. I said I could probably rush to get everything turned in tonight, but it wouldn’t be of good quality. I apologized for not turning in “timely” work. This was all quite surreal for me because I have never been the sort of student who asks for extensions. One time, my sophomore year of college, I was excessively late for a class because I was finishing up the paper due that day in that class, but I did arrive about halfway through class, my paper in hand. That was probably the latest I’ve ever turned anything in. So today, for the first time, I found myself on the other side of a negotiation I’ve engaged in many times from the teacher’s side.

My instructor granted me the extension, but there’s one more bit to the story: I almost forgot to thank her. I almost waltzed away with my wish granted and no word of thanks for the giver, like those nine healed lepers who didn’t thank Jesus…or like those “entitled” students we like to complain about in the breakroom.

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