By Sarah Ghoshal
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – The Dalai Lama
I think that, in the past, I have prided myself on being a difficult professor. I don’t know why. In the beginning, I looked young. I was right out of graduate school, was mistaken for a student much of the time, needed to garner respect, to differentiate myself from them. In the first few years, I caught a number of students in their lies – conflicting accounts, even a forged doctor’s note, lots of plagiarism. So, somewhere along the way, I decided that they must all be lying, they must all be trying to get one over on me, I must be the idiot.
Every semester, I was stressed out. I spent so much time worrying about saying no. “No, you can’t have an extension.” “No, you can’t make up that missed work.” “No, I can’t excuse that absence.” And then I dealt with the fallout from saying no. Kids were getting terrible grades, not because they couldn’t write well, but because I always said no to the extension, to the make up work, to the overlooked absence.
Then, two things happened that changed my life – and changed the way I see my students – forever.
First, in May of 2019, I had my third child. It was a difficult pregnancy. In my student evaluations at the end of the semester, one student even noted that I “sat down too much.” Then,I went in to Fall ‘19 with a tiny baby, a toddler, and a new kindergartner. There were germs. There were ear infections. (Have you ever seen a three year old “cover his mouth?” Trust me. Lysol is useless.) Second, in December of 2019, my mother-in-law passed away after a month in the hospital – a month during which my partner, who was the primary caregiver to our children on the days that I was teaching – was practically living at the hospital.
All of a sudden, “sh*t happens” was super real. All of the “excuses” my students offered for missing class and assignments seemed plausible, credible. After all, I had to leave early one day, hold class online one day, bring the six-month old baby with me another day. I had “excuses” too. And so, I gave them ALL of the extensions. I offered an ear to listen, office hours for explanation, time to catch up, even an incomplete for a student with medical issues. I paid attention to their plights, their lives, the little things that come up every day and threaten to derail our carefully planned semesters.
And do you know what happened? They were grateful. They had less stress. I had less stress. They still learned how to write; and I would argue that most of them learned how to write well. They thanked me. My end-of-semester student surveys were stellar. Their grades were better. And it wasn’t because I “let them get away with” anything, but rather because I taught them how to write in spite of life. Don’t get me wrong – a couple of students failed. But these students didn’t work, didn’t show up, and didn’t learn how to write. Those who did show up, work, write, even if they did it with a couple of extensions or a few missed classes, passed the class. They didn’t all get A’s. They didn’t even all get B’s. But they learned, they moved on, and honestly, I learned the most important lesson of my teaching career: Sh*t happens to everyone. Compassion is the key.