There’s a high mortality of my students’ extended family members at the time of finals. Uncles get sick, grandparents die; sometimes there’s a burial in a distant country requiring time off, extensions on projects, and incompletes.
Sometimes it’s not necessarily a death but the generic “family emergency” (I always think of my nineteen-year-old student assisting in the delivery of an older sister’s baby.) Not that I’m cynical—well, maybe a little. Even my daughter noted it, when I dismissed an email from a student with, “Yes, if I had to pick out a student whose uncle was going to get sick at the time of the midterm, it would have been her.”
The student wanted two weeks off to deal with the emergency. Of course the course syllabus didn’t allow this.
“But, Mom,” my daughter protested. “What if her uncle really is sick?”
What if indeed. But there seems to be a pattern: the more lower the student’s grade, the more likely an extended family member (it’s almost never a member of the immediate family) will die during the course of the semester. What if, however, it really is true? How to balance fair treatment of the student of the afflicted family, uphold the standards of the course, and be fair to the rest of the students who turn their projects in on time?
There are some general principles to be supportive of students while not being an enabler.
How to Fairly Address Family Emergencies
In the Beginning
It all begins with the syllabus. Your syllabus is your contract with students, your promise on how the class will be conducted. Explain clearly on the first day the policy and consequences of absences, tardies, and incomplete or late work. You will have the syllabus to go to if students violate or claim ignorance of the policy, reminding them the policies were gone over the first day of class. Some instructors go so far as to have students sign a statement that they have read and understood the syllabus. I don’t usually do this, but I know teachers, usually with exceptionally hard to manage classes, who have.
Policy for the Exceptions
What are the rules for those situations that are supposedly outside the rules? It doesn’t take long after a rule is laid down that people begin trying to figure out a way around it. I’ve had students come up to me on the first day of class to ask for two weeks off during the term, framing the situation as if it is somehow “exceptional.” It’s been my policy to point out to students that the situation really isn’t an “exception” as certainly most students have families and would also like two weeks off to visit them; however, they have chosen to take a class for these five months, and the class has an attendance policy. To sum up, it is my policy to treat most “exceptions” as if they are not and draw them back into the framework of the class policies even as the student works to frame the situation as exceptional. Usually, it isn’t.
When a Student is “Exceptional”
Usually, as in the case above, students need only one conversation to understand that the situation isn’t an exception but really one requiring a choice (their own): the class or an extended break. However, there are those rare students whose lives seem to be a series of mishaps: they fall ill to mysterious viruses, relatives die, cars break down. When a student has presented multiple crises like this, I’ll often invite her to my office for a private conversation, listen to the student’s situation, and try to resolve it, getting the student back on track in class—which is the ultimate goal, of course.
Let the Student Tell Her Story
Students are used to not being heard, I believe. So when given the chance to speak, some interesting things can come out. With just a simple, “So what’s been going on?” when invited to my office, sometimes they’ll abandon the entire “sick grandmother” facade and say simply that they’ve experienced a painful breakup and haven’t been able to concentrate on their class work, but they were either embarrassed or thought the problem wasn’t serious enough to warrant special concern. I’ll listen sympathetically and then discuss with the student a plan for the class. Extending deadlines in a situation like this, with a student who is clearly troubled but motivated to get back to the business of being a student, is appropriate.
When the student’s situation, however, is more a matter of not planning, let the student bear the consequences; don’t bear them yourself. Oftentimes, probably seeing the teacher as the adult and person in authority, the student will try to thrust consequences on her shoulders. However, if the student so lacked in planning skills that she scheduled her vacation during class hours or her class during work hours (I’ve had this happen), don’t let the student thrust responsibility onto you by expecting you to flex the class schedule for her to accommodate her other plans. Put the responsibility back on her: calmly explain that it isn’t possible for her be at work and class at the same time or to take vacation during the course, and she will have to choose or rearrange her schedule, possibly by taking another class. Sometimes the student is so dumbfounded at this—being forced into making her own choices—that she just stands there silently. It’s fine to gently repeat your position: the student has to decide herself what is more important, vacation or class. It is an important decision, so of course she has to make it herself. It may be the first time she’s made such a decision on her own, but she will be making them her whole life.
Most people, probably, are convinced of their exceptionalness. In our students, that belief is fine in that certainly we want to encourage them to have a strong self-image and belief in their own abilities.
However, we want also want temper that with a sense of limits, of an understanding of rules, and a respect for the laws of physics: even truly exceptional people cannot be in two places at one time.
What are some of the requests for special treatment you get from students? How do you address these requests?