One challenge I face during finals week is dealing with students who come to me with tales of woe regarding their poor grades in my classes. Fortunately, most of my students do what they need to do and cause no problems. However, as the Peters’ principle states “90% of your problems are caused by 10% of your students.”
When I am confronted by such tales of woe, I naturally feel compassion for the students. After all, failing a class (or doing so poorly as to threaten a scholarship or athletic eligibility) can be a rather serious matter. At the very least, the student will suffer a hit to the GPA as well as a delay in graduation. As such, when a student comes to be with a tale of woe, I always listen and consider carefully whether the student’s situation warrants legitimate compassion or it is merely a ploy for coddling.
The distinction is easy to describe. A situation warrants legitimate compassion when the student’s woe is due to circumstances beyond his/her reasonable control. For example, students who are in the National Guard and get deployed during the semester are worthy of compassion for their situation. As another example, a student who had to spend a month in chemotherapy is also quite worthy of compassion. I am willing to work with such students and have found that good students who face serious challenges have what it takes to get things done.
A student is seeking coddling when the woe is a woe of his/her own making. For example, a student who just didn’t show up for class and now needs a good grade to keep from failing out is looking for coddling. As another example, a student who claims that he had a “tough time” in the semester, but can provide no details or supporting evidence is looking for coddling. Of course, some people do come in with very detailed tales of woe backed up with what appears to be evidence (such as photocopies of doctor‘s notes). Unlike good students with real tales of woe, folks with fake tales generally do not have what it takes to get things done-even when given more chances. After all, they need the fake tales because they can’t get things done.
To distinguish legitimate situations from attempts at deception, I ask for documentation and I critically evaluate the tale of woe. Naturally, I used to feel a bit bad about asking people for documentation and being critical of their tales of woe. But, I have learned to be fairly strict. I have found that serious situations generate legitimate documentation (and not badly photocopied and smudged documents)and other relevant evidence. I have also found that people will lie about the most awful things (such as death and cancer) to make a play on my compassion).
One thing that helped solidify my commitment to documentation is that when I tore my quadriceps tendon I was required to provide the university with documentation proving that I had been injured severely enough to miss work. Simply being in a full leg brace and having a large surgical scar was not enough, despite the fact that I had never had a sick day before and I have been employed there since 1993. At first, I was a bit insulted. After all, wasn’t my word, my reputation, and my scar enough proof? But, then I thought about my own experience with trickery and I realized that the folks who wanted my documentation were doing so to prevent deceit After all, if I really had been crippled by an injury (and I had) there should be suitable proof. I provided it and that was that-as it should be.
My injury also had another effect on my perspective. The Tuesday after my injury was the date for the third exam in my classes. I went in to give the exams with a torn tendon, my leg held in place with an immobilizer. I struggled about on crutches, but was able to get through nine hours on campus. After I had the surgery to repair the injury, I was out for two weeks (doctor’s orders). But, I recorded my lectures, got them online, set up online quizzes and kept up with my students via email. As soon as the doctor allowed me to return, I was back to teaching on crutches and in a brace. While I am probably more stoic than most, if I can fulfill my duties despite such a severe injury, it does not seem unreasonable for me to expect students to complete the work expected of them except in dire circumstances.
Of course, my injury also improved my compassion in some ways. Although I have been hurt before, that was my most serious injury and it gave me a better understanding of what it is like to be broken. As such, I think I feel even more compassion for people than I did in the past. Pain is often an excellent teacher.