We all need grace, and that includes our students.
Education has always been a difficult field in the US. It’s underpaid, under-resourced, and underappreciated. This differs between primary, secondary, and higher ed, but less than we often think. We hear stories about elementary school teachers having to buy their own classroom supplies because of funding shortages (or lack of regard for their value). In higher ed, we don’t have to deal with that, but we are not tenure track, we often make significantly less money than our colleagues in k-12 (fun fact!). The pandemic has worsened all of this; as a result, many of us are seeking an exit from a field where the work itself is deeply fulfilling, but the surrounding support systems range from woefully inadequate to exploitative and abusive.
Financial stress is a special kind of hell, as is trying to parent while teaching during a time of upheaval and stress. My K-12 colleagues in red states are under increasing pressure to dumb down their curriculum and avoid discussing important social issues like systemic racism or recognizing and supporting the gender and sexual identities of their students. It’s a bit more subtle in higher ed, but we also face censure if we piss off the wrong people by talking about objective reality in our country. It sucks, it’s stressful, and many of us are burnt out and disillusioned.
But this is what we’re not going to do: We are not going to take this garbage out on our students. I’ve written about the empathy gap in higher ed, and I will be reiterating some stuff from that piece and others I’ve written.
I have become increasingly alarmed by the lack of empathy and flexibility teachers are giving their students. In my state, this often takes the form of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that’s just for starters. I know it’s been a rough few years. I know many of us are past our breaking points. But our students do not deserve to bear the brunt of our anxiety and frustrations. It is the systems that have failed us, not our students. They are often suffering worse than we are, if only we would stop and ask how they are.
It would take me half a book to catalog the stories of trauma I have heard from my students. And another quarter of that book to cover all the ways their teachers have ignored, debased, invalidated, or worsened their situations. At least in higher ed, where I talk to teachers regularly, there seems to be increasing rigidity and heartlessness when it comes to student trauma. So once again, I’m going to ask you some hard questions:
- What do you gain by assuming the worst of your students? Really think about it.
- What do you lose by offering students grace and flexibility? Does it change the nature of your class? (Hint: it shouldn’t if your class is accessible.)
- What do you risk by violating the ADA? (Hint – your job, your institution’s funding (especially in K-12), federal investigations, and lawsuits)
- How would you want to be treated by others if you were traumatized by the loss of a parent, or sexual assault, or chronic illness, or a cancer diagnosis? Are you affording your students the same level of care you would want from others? If not, why?
I’ve heard teachers claim that they can’t offer students with documented chronic illness the opportunity to retake an exam they missed because they were incapacitated. I’ve heard teachers say that they don’t offer flexible deadlines to students with documented disabilities because “it isn’t fair to everyone else.” This is the ableist version of “I don’t see color.” Yes, you do, Mary. We are all biased and prejudiced; that’s the point of the few laws that try to prevent rampant discrimination. Our brains are wired to generalize when we don’t have enough information to process something new. With our gigantic teacher brains, we can, in fact, ask questions and learn about what our students need and how to help them succeed. It just seems as if we don’t actually care.
We are all exhausted, and many of us are traumatized, many times over. Unfortunately, our field has its own brand of generational trauma that normalizes taking out our discomfort on our students and graduate students without any real thought about the ethics of such use of our power. News flash: It’s not ethical. It’s just normalized.
So here are some things to consider as you wrap up the academic year.
- Flexibility is not anathema to rigor. I can not tell you how many times I’ve heard it framed as if it is. My students only get credit for the work they complete; I just give them flexibility on timelines if warranted and possible. It’s not rocket science.
- Accommodations are not unfair. Equity means giving all students access to the same resources, which means helping students who can’t access those things to get to them. A ramp for a person in a wheelchair does not make it unfair to people who take the stairs. Use your brain.
- Boundaries and empathy are not mutually exclusive. Many teachers have balked when I’ve explained the fundamentals of Trauma-Informed Pedagogy to them. “I don’t want students to tell me their problems.” You don’t have to invite students to share trauma (in fact, I don’t advise it because you are not a therapist), but you should know how to help them when they do. This leads me to:
- Know your lane (and the law) and don’t take on stuff you shouldn’t. Sometimes students trauma dump because they are in distress. Have a list of good resources to refer them to for professional help, and seek it yourself if you experience secondary trauma. Compassion and empathy, however, are not therapy and are something you should be prepared to offer when possible. Your school’s Title IX office, ADA office, and Dean of Student’s office should have resources to help you navigate murky situations.
- If you had to choose between one student taking unfair advantage of accommodations, or one student committing suicide, which would you choose? That is the decision we may be making every time we ignore student trauma.
I recognize that this advice leaves out the lack of emotional, cultural, and financial support in our institutions and culture. We should not be expected to do so much with so little, but neither should our students. For me, while I am in this field, it is an ethical imperative that I recognize my responsibility toward my students as fellow humans. This does not absolve our institutions of their failures, but it also may help us break the cycles of abuse that have existed in our field for so long.