“Chad, can I talk to you for a second?”

It was 2:15 pm.

I use this time to get ready for my class the next day. I do my photocopying, get tests ready, come up with problems for the students, and basically decompress from the events of the day. As I was head down in a problem, I heard a knock at the door.

This was unusual.  When I let my class go, there is generally a stampede for the door. We have just spent 6 hours together, I can’t blame them for wanting out. So I was a little shocked to see Tony (not his real name) standing in my doorway.

“Sure come on in,” I responded.

Tony came in, sat down and proceeded to start crying.

I won’t go into great detail, but this poor guy found himself in a situation that someone his age should never even have to think about.  Tony came to my office asking if there was any way he could make up an assignment that he had failed. He also was worried that the situation that he found himself in was going to drastically affect his mark and that he was going to flunk out of the course.

Unless there is a death certificate, there are no exceptions!

Anyone who has been part of the teaching community knows that we hear a lot of excuses. The old standing joke of “Oh your uncle died again” gets passed around. Some statistics state that relatives are more likely to die before a final exam than any other time of the year. Jesse Stommel, an advocate for students, Professor, and co-founder of Hybrid Pedagogy, addressed this issue in his post “Dear Student.” I encourage you to take the time and read it for yourself, but I wanted to share with you a point that Jesse makes that resonated with me,

On grandmothers. The statistics are compelling: “grandmothers are 20 times more likely to die before a final exam.” Here’s a better statistic: it is 100 times kinder to err on the side of giving students the benefit of the doubt when it comes to dead grandmothers. And we need to consider whether there is something about the educational system that has put students in the awkward and uncomfortable position of feeling like they have to lie to their teachers.

And there it is.

Why can’t we give our students the benefit of the doubt?

Why not take the time to listen to them, to create safe places where they can be honest about what is going on? Wouldn’t we be fulfilling our mandate as teachers to help make the world a better place by helping our students become better people?

There are some in our profession who think that it is only their job to pass down information. In their view, students are vessels and we are to pour our knowledge into them.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with the metaphor.

I do have a proposition though.

Instead of knowledge, why don’t we pour empathy into them? Why not try to understand and share the feelings of our students?  Try to see things through their perspective.

I was listening to a podcast the other day (I wish I could remember which one), the teacher interviewed made the point that a bad test score reflects more about what is going on in a students life rather than their understanding of the topic. School is not their everything.

Let me repeat that:

School is not their everything.

They have lives outside of school. Experiences that we have no comprehension of. They are going through situations we may never fully understand, and we need to always have that in the back of our heads.

As I am growing in my practice of teaching I’m learning one thing; A little empathy goes a long way.

Back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

Tony spent, at most, 15 minutes talking with me.  I assured him that we could work something out and that he didn’t have to worry about it. He wiped his eyes and put his fist out for a  fist pound.

“Thanks, man,” he said with an awkward grin, and then he left.

As I watched him walk out the door, my heart broke a little.  It is hard watching people in pain.  What wasn’t hard was giving him space and safety to share.   All it cost me was a little time.