One of my biggest character flaws is that I don't show enough empathy for others (just ask my mom and sister). This isn't a conscious decision to be harsh or cruel; it's because I believe that we often take advantage of others' empathy and use it as an excuse for our own lack of agency. Too much empathy can be dangerous when it encourages others to feel sorry for themselves instead of taking action. It's not that I don't have compassion; I couldn't devote my life to teaching if I didn't. But I'm wary of showing too much sympathy for others. I'd prefer to spur them into action or give constructive advice instead.
This is constant topic in my school during staff meetings. When do we show leniency and compassion, and when is it actually more compassionate to hold our students to strict accountability? That mythical "real world" we always attempt to prepare students for doesn't care about their hardships, so are we doing them any favors by being too kind? This debate never has a definitive answer. Every situation is unique, and the amount of compassion I'm able to show on a daily basis is dependent on a variety of factors: the student in question, the severity of the situation, how hungry I am, if I'm low on sleep due to grading, et cetera. Today, my compassion was put to the test.
My 8th graders had a "ticket to enter" my room today. I do this when they absolutely have to have something with them in order to participate in the day's lesson. For example, a ticket to enter on a peer response day would be a draft of writing. You don't enter through the door of my room until you have the necessary item. Students who don't have their "ticket" go to the office to work until they are ready to join us with the completed work. I rarely give homework in my class, and the "tickets" are always something we've worked on in class. Using it as a ticket means that most students won't misplace the work because they don't want to do it again.
Today's ticket to enter was a page of "found" words from "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. We'd spent a few days reading the poem, and then collected words and phrases that stood out to us. Students needed their list of words for class so we could start writing found poetry today.
I sent three boys to the office today because they had incomplete lists. All three are usually responsible students in my class. Refusing a ticket to enter means it's a late assignment in my class (my school requires teachers to track late assignments for all students as a data point). Since I don't usually give homework, and I allow extensions on writing assignments, late assignment numbers in my class are typically nonexistent. The three boys were not happy, but fair is fair, and they know what my policy has always been. In their respective classes, each boy was quick to finish his list and rejoin the class after 10-15 minutes. I didn't think much of it, except that I was bummed that I'd have to add their names to the list and possibly ruin their late homework data for the year; I knew for a fact that at least two of them had zero late assignments so far.
At homebase, I checked my email and saw this:
First, let me say to any parents who might be reading, this is how you write an email to a teacher! I don't know how many times I've felt overwhelming dread when I've seen a parent's name in my inbox because I was terrified of the abuse contained inside. I'm not being dramatic: parent emails are the stuff of nightmares, and too often contain personal attacks that people would never say face to face or over the phone. This mother did it right. She deferred to me as the teacher multiple times, did not rant against me for being an unfair tyrant, and gave an explanation for her son without trying to make it an excuse. The approach she took made a difference. I've certainly had parents battle me over late assignments before, but never with this much tact. I didn't respond right away. I thought about it.
I had no problem forgiving him for the late assignment and pretending it never happened. I love cats, after all, and strongly believe that pets are part of our families. Exceptions can definitely be made for grieving, especially when the first experience many of my students have with loss are when they lose their childhood pets. So what held me back?
Fairness. As a teacher, one of my core values is that I want all of my students to trust that I will treat them fairly. What about the other two boys who earned late assignments today? They didn't have a parent to email me regarding the tragic events of their lives, so they just have to deal with it? I couldn't do that to them, but I knew I needed to show compassion for the boy who lost his friend.
At lunch, I sent all three boys an email:
Yes, I showed compassion, but I'm still a hard ass. One boy sent back a smiley face emoji in response. One sent a "THANK YOU!!!!" The boy in question? He didn't respond.
He stopped by my room after school.
He came in to apologize if he'd acted strangely in class today, and to apologize again for the late assignment. He hadn't even read my email and had no idea that I'd shown mercy. He felt like he'd let me down today and wanted me to know why he wasn't acting like his usual self. I could see the tears starting in his eyes as he tried to explain. I stopped him and told him about the email from his mom. I told him that I was sorry for his loss, and that I'm glad he came to talk to me. There were still tears in his eyes when he left, but there was a sigh of relief when I broke the news about the late assignment.
I can't always bend the rules for every kid who has a bad day, but I know I did the right thing for this kid today.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.