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.

things that made me happy this week

I couldn’t settle on a single topic for this post, so I’m just going to make a list of things that brought me a bit of delight over the past week, in hopes that it may be interesting and useful to others as well.  I guess you could call this my T(t)hanksgiving post, since next week you better believe I’ll be blogging about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

  1. Finding the soundtrack to Fantastic Beasts on Spotify today–there’s nothing like listening to the score to get you excited about a movie (not that I needed it in this case)
  2. The full trailer for Beauty and the Beast, released yesterday.  Besides the fact that this is a remake of one of my very favorite Disney movies, I also love that the anticipation is giving me a way to bond with other fans, including my children’s lit students and some of the women in my family.
  3. Speaking of my students (in all of my classes), they’ve been making me happy all semester.  These groups of students are fun and smart, they seem to like me (teachers, let’s not act like that doesn’t make a huge difference in our personal morale), and they seem to actually be interested in what we’re reading.  And those things aren’t necessarily true every semester.
  4. Finding three Christmas tree ornaments over the weekend: a wooden “Peace on Earth” ornament from The Funky Junk Shop in Forest, VA (where I also found a cozy and flattering shirt that I’m now in love with) and a felt baby chick and a vintage Shiny Brite brand bulb with the solar system on it, from The White Brick House, also in Forest (where I also found a vintage Virginia state bird and state flower glass to replace one from my set that I had broken).
  5. Cooking and baking, for myself and for others.  For myself, I’ve been making some chard-based recipes featured in the December Better Homes and Gardens, and they’ve been delicious so far.  Last night I baked an apple pie for a Thanksgiving dinner being hosted by a friend’s local ministry (and the crust actually looked presentable, which is definitely something to be thankful for), and tonight I’ll be making some treacle fudge for the International Candy Tasting at work tomorrow.  And I’m already looking forward to making sweet potato souffle this weekend for my friends and next week for my family.  (I also made some last week just for me–I’d like to keep up this “one sweet potato souffle a week” trend as long as I can stand it.)
  6. The cardio funk class I attended last night at the YMCA.  When people think of my good qualities, rhythm is not normally near the top of the list (or on it at all), but I think that’s part of the reason why I enjoyed this class so much–I knew I wasn’t going to get the moves exactly right, so I just focused more on the cardio than on the funk and had fun laughing at myself.  Tonight…Zumba.
  7. Volunteering with Safe Families for Children, an organization I’m excited to be involved with as it gets off the ground in Central Virginia.  Saturday morning I got to help with registration for a conference for foster and adoptive families where SFFC had a big presence, and it was so much fun to see all these hospitable, compassionate people showing up eager to learn and be encouraged.  Yesterday and today, I’ve provided transportation for some young single moms, and I’ve enjoyed talking with them and playing with their cute kids.  I know they say that helping other people is a big mood-booster, but more than that, I love getting to know all the many different people that I encounter through these opportunities (and this is coming from an introvert).
  8. The beauty right outside my house as winter approaches.  This week, highlights have included a flock of blue jays in the backyard; a huge and colorful woodpecker that landed on my feeder a few days ago, looked bewildered, and then flew away; the incredibly bright supermoon on Sunday and Monday nights, and the hard frost Saturday night/Sunday morning (the coolest part was in the morning when the sun started melting the frost where there weren’t any shadows–my lawn was half white and half green).

I could keep going, but it’s time to go make a chard stir-fry.  You should seriously consider taking half an hour to write down things that have made you happy this week.  It isn’t hard at all.

the thankfulness book

This is the next in my series of posts on crafting a rule of life.  Those of you who have been following this series will be interested (and maybe a little sad) to know that I am probably going to wrap it up after next week’s post.  However, I’ll continue to add to my rule of life and will probably blog about it from time to time in the future.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the three hours I spent in solitude, meditating on my struggle with anger and how, with God’s help, I can implement practices into my life that will help me to become less angry and more gentle.  One of the action steps that came from that session was to begin writing daily in the thankfulness journal that I started last summer during a Bible study on Ann Vosskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, a book I heartily recommend.  Like thousands of other Christian women who have read the book, I chose a beautiful journal (mine is a handcrafted one from Nepal, with a colorful woven cover and soft, fibrous pages) and started making a list of things I’m thankful for, with the eventual goal of reaching one thousand.  Like thousands of other Christian women, I faithfully wrote 2-3 items daily for a few weeks and then petered out, starting and stopping again sporadically throughout the year whenever I happened to notice the journal under a pile of other books.

As I mentioned in my solitude post, the authors of Taking Your Soul to Work connect anger (the sin) and gentleness (the fruit of the spirit) with surrendered contentment (the outcome).  After I recognized this unexpected connection, I decided that picking my thankfulness journal back up and making it a habit this time could be an effective strategy for becoming more content with the gifts I have and thereby feeling less compelled toward anger about what I don’t have and/or can’t control.  Too, writing about those seemingly out-of-nowhere gifts that come to me more often than I usually notice (e.g., a good conversation with a friend whom I “happened” to walk by when leaving a blood drive early after an unsuccessful attempt to donate) may help me see how good it is that I’m not in control of every minute of my day.

Keeping a thankfulness list isn’t just for angry people, or for women, or for people who have been inspired by Ann Vosskamp.  It’s for anyone who wants to rewire their brain circuitry to look for good things.  (There’s real science that says you can actually do this; maybe I’ll write a post about it sometime.)  And it only takes a minute or less to jot down a few items every day.  This practice can also be done with other people.  My family has a now-threadbare journal that we’ve pulled out every Thanksgiving since 1991 to record what we’ve been most thankful for during the previous year.  Reading our entries aloud together has led to much laughter, many happy tears, and deep fellowship with each other and with God.

If you think it sounds cheesy, have you actually tried it?  It won’t change you into a different person overnight, but it will gradually train your brain–and your heart, and all the rest of you–to see gifts where you didn’t before.

If you have experience with keeping a thankfulness list, or if you have ideas about how you might incorporate this simple discipline into your life, let me know in the comments!