This semester, while I consider it a success in almost every way, was very challenging in terms of dealing with students. I have been teaching at this level for 12 years, and there is very little I haven't encountered to this point. I have seen everything from students getting put in jail to deaths in the family to a student in my class passing away in the middle of the semester. Each of these circumstances, and everything in between, is very sad and a burden to deal with. I dealt with the same thing when teaching elementary school, so I know that this was part of the deal when I signed on.

It is not uncommon for me to get a message from a student during the semester that this or that issue is going on and they will either need to a) drop the course past the deadline, and need my permission, b) won't be able to turn in an assignment on time or c) will need to miss one or two classes.  I actually had a student this semester go to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy, and her mother e-mailed me TWICE from the hospital waiting room to tell me her daughter would miss two weeks of class. Remarkably, she only missed one week and was back on track in a matter of days! So, I get it that life happens.

Well, there was a whole lot of life happening this semester. A whole lot. Some of the circumstances were real, and I was able to work with those students. But many of the circumstances were very vague and handled inappropriately, and in many instances, could have been avoided. I won't go into detail about some of the more entertaining excuses I got, but needless to say, dinnertime chatter between my wife and I was very colorful this semester.

What really gets to me about these many, many life issues is that I had no idea they were occurring until several weeks after the student had stopped coming to class. From my vantage point, here is what typically happened:

  • Student misses class
  • Class involves activities that are either for a grade or necessary for completing an assignment
  • More weeks pass
  • I e-mail student to see if he or she intends to complete the class
  • Student e-mails me and says they have not been in class because of "family issues" and wants me to "help them get caught up"

Please forgive me if you think I am being unreasonable for being suspicious when this particular scenario plays out about 4-5 times with different students in two different sections.  One time? Sure, I will probably take the bait. But when it happens repeatedly, I start to detect an odor. Here is what I think is happening from the student's vantage point:

  • Student misses class
  • Student finds out from a classmate that the missed class session involved activities that were either graded or necessary to complete an assignment
  • Student intends to contact me and let me know why he or she missed class
  • Student proceeds to miss more class
  • Student takes a reflective look back at the last few weeks and analyzes which, if any, events in his or her life could legitimately be called a "family issue" that needed intense and unwavering focus, to the extent that all forms of electronic communication were simply not possible until this very moment
  • Student contacts the professor and vaguely states that he or she has been dealing with "family issues," and wonders if there is any way to make up the activity, either through a special appointment (which he or she is totally willing to do based on my schedule, as long as it is on Tuesday between 1-3 or Friday after noon but before 5) or extra credit (which I will have to create, chase down and grade based on criteria I will need to, you guessed it, design)

This all comes down to Fundamental Attribution Error. Everyone, not just college students, has a tendency to justify and explain their own circumstances in a way that is favorable toward themselves. That is human nature, but what about professional behavior? I mean, assume these excuses were coming from teachers with students showing up in their classrooms everyday. Would this same approach to handling life's circumstances stand up? Even in the worst cases, a professional would have to let someone know what was going on so the school could arrange to provide supervision (a substitute teacher) for the students. I mean, I had a teaching partner give birth over lunch break and she called from the L&D room to let us know she wouldn't be back to teach that afternoon! So, is it unreasonable to expect college students to handle their affairs, especially when it comes to their professional training as educators, as professionals?

As a form of catharsis, I wrote came up with the following list of professional behaviors that I think preservice teachers should be expected to demonstrate:

Professionals …

(Meetings) Are not late for meetings Come prepared for meetings Are actively engaged during meetings Don’t make appointments that conflict with meetings Let people know beforehand if they have to miss a meeting, and why

(Projects) Meet their deadlines Are proactive Don’t make excuses when deadlines are missed

(Group Work) Do their own work Do their part

This list is not exhaustive, but I am trying to get some traction on the set of behaviors I should expect from my preservice teachers. These are behaviors that will be expected of them during field experiences, student teaching and in the workplace, so why is this not the case for their classes? Perhaps I am being unreasonable and this blog post will cause an uproar. I actually would welcome that. If I am in some way off base, I would like to know so I can determine the correct way to respond and interact with students when it comes to their personal affairs.

So, let me hear from you. How do you deal with these kinds of circumstances with students? What are your expectation for professional behavior in your classes?