How I Use Empathy to Help Students Succeed.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

y journey to becoming a professor has been filled with drama and hardships, and while I know that I made many choices that led to these problems, I also know that these experiences taught me just as much as my college education.

When I started my education, I never thought I would become a college writing professor. My original goal was simple: get a degree to get a better job, so my family would be more financially secure. What changed my mind and eventually led me to graduate school and an MFA program was my first interaction as a writing tutor.

I was broke. I mean rice and beans broke. I was working as a housekeeping manager in nursing home, and I had two small children. I was trying to earn my Bachelors in English because I figured it was a broad enough degree that maybe I could be an assistant in an office or maybe become an editor.

While this was the goal, it did nothing to improve my measly paycheck, so I explored tutoring online. It turned out, I checked all the recruiter’s boxes: I was a third year college student, I had a decent GPA, and I was available at peak times in the evening. I never thought that tutoring would teach me so much about who I wanted to become.

After my first interaction with a student who was struggling to revise her essay, she said the one thing that altered my future:

This is so much easier now, thank you.

This made me feel like the Grinch on the top of Mount Crumpit saving the toys for the Whos. My heart swelled, and I knew that I never wanted to stop feeling this way. From that moment, I knew that I wanted to help students learn how to write.

Three years later in my first semester as an adjunct professor, we were approaching midterms. I was reviewing some student samples in the tutoring center when one of my students (we’ll call her Sam for privacy purposes) appeared outside of the building.

Sam was on the phone and although I couldn’t hear exactly what she was saying, I could tell it was a pretty heated argument which ended with her storming into the building and right into my office where she plopped down in a chair and started crying.

I set down my work and asked what was wrong. It was a long story, but the short of it was that Sam and her parents were not getting along, so they threw her out two weeks prior. Sam had been crashing on her friend’s couch, but she just informed Sam that this was no longer an option.

Sam was homeless.

The reason Sam had come into the writing center was that she was wondering if she could get an extension on the midterm because she had to figure out what she was going to do and would not have time to properly prepare.

Looking back at this situation, I would like to say this has been the worst situation a student divulged, but this is far more common than we realize. Student homelessness, food insecurity, and lack of family support are some of the leading causes of drop-out rates. In these situations, professors tend to react in a variety of ways.

Some professors will grant the extension and refer the student to a counselor while the heartless ones will say “tough luck” and act like granting an extension would be some sort of special treatment. Trust me, this happens most of the time, and if this happens to you, I have provided some options later on. For now, let’s get back to Sam.

For this situation, I chose a third option: empathy.

In this moment, I thought about my own financial insecurities as a student and the issues I was still facing as an adjunct. I recalled all the times I had to scrape together a week’s worth of food for less than $50.

With this in mind, I referred this student to her counselor, and her counselor sent an email asking instructors for their understanding while she found her way, but this was not good enough for me.

I granted her the extension,but I took it one step further. I went online and looked up local crisis centers. I gave her the phone numbers for shelters and social workers who could help her find housing. It was Friday, so I wasn’t sure who she could reach but at least it was something.

She left my office that day with an extension, but more importantly, she left with a sense of purpose and a feeling of empowerment. Most importantly, she left realizing that she was not alone and that no matter what circumstances led to this decision, there are always people who want to help, and there are always options.

That following Monday, I was back on campus. I was eager to get to class because I had worried about Sam all weekend, hoping that she had found some help, but my biggest fear was that this moment would prove to be the moment that forced her to drop out.

I arrived to the empty classroom started setting up my station with my handouts when much to my delight, Sam walked in with a bright smile, ready to learn. She proceeded to thank me for my help and told me that she had used the contacts I gave her to apply for housing assistance, and her social worker was able to set her up with emergency housing until a more permanent location became available. She had a place to stay the same day.

The big moments like helping Sam and even the smaller daily moments of just helping students to overcome a writing obstacle are the moments that define professors and allow students to realize their own capabilities.

The point of this story is not to simply point out that students struggle but for students to realize that professors know you struggle. We have all been in tough situations, and while some of us are lucky enough to only have minor bumps, we understand how harmful a bad relationship or poor living conditions are for your ability to meet deadlines and retain the information we strive to impart.

The bigger message of this story is that far too often students are afraid to ask for help. Sometimes it’s out of embarrassment because society has taught us that asking for help means we are weak and admitting defeat.

But, the bigger problem is that too often, professors tell students that it’s their fault they are struggling. These are the professors who sit at their podiums and tell their students that everyone has challenges and giving an extension “would not be fair to the rest of the class.” When in reality, many of the obstacles students face are out of their control. Despite what some professors might think, students are not in college for a “free ride.” In fact, most students manage full-time work schedules outside of a full-time class schedule.

So, how can we overcome this gap in understand? It’s on all of use: students and educators.

Students need to ask for help.

  1. Do not take ‘no’ for an answer. If your instructor turns you down, you need to be confident that you are worth it. Do not let your professor make you feel like there is something wrong with you. This is where you counseling center will step in and work with the professors to make sure you get the help you need.
  2. You have rights as a student just as you would as an employee. If you have a family event, work event, illness or injury, your instructors must work with you. The best thing you can do is remain in constant communication with your instructors. Show them that you genuinely care about your success by telling them the truth, and when you say you will do something, make sure you follow through.
  3. Get your counselor involved. If you have tried to talk to your instructors, and you feel that they have not made reasonable accommodations for your circumstances, then your counselor wants to know about it. There are specific policies in place at your school to help you through events outside of your control. You may even have an diagnosed learning difference and simple accommodations could change everything. Regardless of the situation, your counselor can help.

Professors also need to step up.

  1. We need to be advocates for our students. While we have all struggled to get to this point, we need to remember why we became educators in the first place. We chose this profession to help students succeed and part of reaching this goal involves showing students how to communicate effectively.
  2. Just because you overcame obstacles does not mean your students should. We all had that one major hurdle while trying to attain our degree. There is nothing wrong with this, but why would you let your students struggle needlessly? I’m sure we all had at least one instructor like this, and remember how awful this was? We need to break this cycle. Trust me, academic affairs will not be on your side.
  3. Ask the questions they are afraid to voice. This pulls in the idea of emotional intelligence. We can tell when a student is struggling. If they miss a deadline, stop coming to class or submit work that is well below their previous efforts, these are warning signs. Say something. Just because a student has not approached you about their obstacles does not mean those obstacles do not exist. The student in question might not know how to talk to you. Teach them by asking the question for them.
  4. Give in-completes and extensions. Let’s get real here. If you are teaching five sections of the same course and one student submits an assignment late, would it really be such a bad thing to accept it late? You know as well as I do that you are not finished grading their section, so don’t lie and act like it’s that big of an imposition. If it makes you feel better, you can take off points. Obviously, two weeks late is not okay, but follow-up and find out why that happened. One extension could make all the difference.

Success is measured by the goals we achieve not how we achieve them. Not every student has the ability to solely focus on college. Most students have jobs, families, and so many obligations that distract them and keep them from doing as well as they could, but it is not for a lack of effort.

Professors need to be advocates because higher education is about preparing students for life outside of the classroom which includes financial stability and learning how to navigate the local community. To do this, we need to reach out to student who show the warning signs and find out how we can help.

There is a serious power dynamic in the classroom and no matter how warm and sunny you think you are, you are still in control of the classroom. Do your students a favor and show them you are human.

Start the course off right by telling your students why you chose this profession, how you can help them to succeed, and who you are as a person. Don’t be afraid to tell them about your flaws. I start my semester by telling my students how I became their professor, including my college drop out experience. Better classroom experiences are in our control because we set the tone.

(MA/MFA) is an author, blogger, professor, and writing coach who is always looking for new opportunities to build content and share stories.

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