So what do you say in a moment like this? When you can’t find the words to tell it like it is…Oh what do you say?
How do we communicate compassion? How do we explain that, in a world of chaos, we care?
Let me rewind a few years. I think that it must be difficult for students from the K-12 system to transition to higher education. There’s a transition from child to adult (at least in ‘modern’ society). Teachers (who have training and certification in teaching) give way to professors (who have highly focused specializations). Perhaps more essentially, after some level of graduate hours in one’s field, one is deemed prepared to educate at a university or college level.
Prepared for a student sobbing during a final exam, because of events that happened not 12 hours before that I would eventually read in far too much detail from a police report? Prepared for a student losing their vision unexpectedly 13 weeks into class and asking me, “What if I never see again?” Prepared for a student sharing with me, “I had to take my child to the hospital last night, and that means I just got fired for not showing up even though I phoned them.”?
I was most emphatically not prepared.
Over the years since I first stepped foot into my first classroom, I’ve turned a bit jaded I suppose. From the heartbreaking events that unexpectedly strike to the final consequences of poor personal choices, I’ve seen far more of life unfold on and to my students. I have a collection now of phrases I use. “I’m sorry for your loss.” “Department policy is….” “Please don’t raise your voice in my office…” “I understand this grade doesn’t feel fair, however…”
Oddly enough, it was watching back-to-back episodes of Alaska State Troopers that allowed me to quantify what has become my evolved style over the years. You see, in Alaska, there may be a single officer isolated by hundreds of miles. When the nearest backup is hours away, it becomes important to handle tough cases compassionately. Listening to all sides of the story, and listening to understand rather than listening to reply become very important. It is vital to communicate that, no matter what, you care.
What particularly struck me was a moment when, after an officer had to ask the suspect in one investigation to “back me up” when a new suspect started walking down the street with a live firearm, the officer was able to give the first suspect the courtesy of saying goodbye to his son, and not handcuffing him until they were at the patrol station. Unfortunate life events do not necessarily determine who someone is. Yes, there may still be consequences beyond our control. That doesn’t mean we can’t treat our students with dignity.
These days, I try to listen to the person’s story. I listen to understand and to feel, not to reply or to justify my decision. I’ve also found I don’t actually have to say much at first–just enough to communicate that I hear my student’s words. I also give myself permission to take time to think through what needs to happen. Yes, sometimes folks still have to go to jail (or, in my case, earn low marks on an assignment). Luckily, professors, unlike police, have the luxury of time. I can always say: “I’ll email you a decision tomorrow.” I always try to communicate that my respect for someone as a person is separate from their performance in our course.
Midterm is upon us, and emotions run high. Stay safe out there, and if you need a friendly, collegial ear to listen to you, don’t be shy about letting me know.