Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

A Teacher’s Right to Know, A Student’s Right to Silence 

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I just submtted my grades today. A relief once that’s done, isn’t it? Well, not always, but usually. 

One of the things I always tell my students early on is this: if you have any special circumstances that make it difficult for you to attend class or to submit work on time, try to tell me as early as possible. Before or immediately after if possible. Some students do this; others really don’t. 

Over the years, I’ve had some students who let me know everything so I could help them as much as I could – with incompletes, accepting late assignments, stuff like that. I’ve had this semester the type of students who emailed or sent Slack messages when they would be stuck in traffic, those who let me know they’d miss class for a doctor’s appointment or an athletics event, those who let me know about illness or passing of relatives. When I find a student missing lots of classes or assignments (I have a loose attendance policy in the sense that I don’t take attendance but I know my students so I notice their absence and when they miss lots of in-class work there isn’t really a way to make up for it – how do you replicate some class discussions and activities that happened in that particular class?) – anyway when I notice a student missing a couple things, I email them and ask them to see me. I do that several times if they don’t respond and continue to disappear; but after a while, if they don’t explain themselves and don’t submit stuff, I stop with the emails, but tell them when they do show up. I think I almost don’t give up on them up until classes end. 

But there are some I just can’t help. And it always feels bad. It always feels as if I should have tried harder. But this semester , I know I tried. I know most of my class understood the value of talking to me.

When a student comes at the end of the semester and tells me they’ve been having a rough semester and special circumstances (but they tell me this near very end of semester) but they don’t really tell me details or how I can help.

I’m thinking at this point that there’s a conflict between a student’s right to their privacy and my right as a teacher to know what’s going on. I mean, can/should the teacher be expected to help if they don’t know? Even if a teacher knows, is their judgment necessarily objective? I’ve heard, for example, of teachers who won’t make accommodations for students who have learning difficulties like ADHD or dyslexia. I also know the passing of relatives is different for each person. One person’s grandparent or uncle might affect them as deeply as a parent, even though rationally we don’t expect it to. 

I don’t think it’s fair to treat students as if they’re the same. They aren’t. 

I tried some new kinds of freedoms this semester. For example, I gave students a particular assignment with a “choose your own deadline” and several of them gave themselves earlier deadlines and met them. I asked groups of students to present certain topics of their choice using two readings I assigned and adding one of their own choice (the idea of group presentations was one suggested by the students themselves). 

I did, for the first time, holistic grading. I discussed with students what it might mean to qualitatively assign an A or B or such. I focused on giving feedback on what they did well and what they could have done better – rather than giving a number (I did occasionally give numbers but it did not work great for me because I don’t like giving numbers and they end up being misunderstood – e.g. a 7/10 looks like a C, when I was thinking more like “good but missing a few elements”.) 

Anyway. I’m curious what others think about right to know and right to privacy and all that… 

2 Comments

  1. My teaching experience is not as extensive as yours, but I see the full spectrum too. I repeatedly tell my students that I’m available and understanding to all circumstances, that every person’s situation is negotiable.

    Still I am looking at some who give me a rather dramatic story at the end of the semester. I had another students withdraw midway through, but I did not know of this first hand, the student just stopped (I have past experience and know the student deals with serious issues). On the other hand, many others let me know ahead of time when they are struggling with making a class or assignment. Or they are ill or their car broke down.

    I know there are some high profile profs who write about not believing their students stories of family deaths, etc. I cannot do that. I cannot assume my students are lying with an excuse. Even if they are gaming me, I’d rather operate of a position of trust, that they are honest with me. I’d rather have trust in their word than operate from a belief they are not telling me the truth.

    So I’d quibble a bit with the title. Students have a right of privacy not to tell me what is going on. That is foundational. But I’d say there is not a teacher’s “right” to know. That assumes a power I do not have. I have a desire to know, but never a right. I have to earn that.

    And the relationship building does not come baked in because of our respective titles. It comes with time, often longer than a course length. They earn my trust, I earn theirs. Through experience, work, some crises, hopefully recovery.

    I rely on their public work. Their blogs show if they are present, and more than that active. Tweets too. Hypothesis activity. Slack too. Not in an AI or automated message, but we can look at these together. When your work is public, there’s little you can fabricate about what was done or not. It’s visible (or not).

    “I don’t think it’s fair to treat students as if they’re the same. They aren’t. ” – This is the place we need to be, all the time. Thanks for phrasing it likely this (as I am still facing doing my final grades).

    But no, I do not have a right to know.

    I have to earn that. I have to work at it all the time. I have to have a focus on the person not as some general blob category and sometimes I am faulty and vulnerable. I have to be human. I can’t see doing it any other way.

    • I’m with you about preferring to believe than to doubt students. I’ll believe every single death story a student gives me, even as my colleagues tell me that the overall number of death stories I get in a semester is too much.

      Thanks for making me rethink the title. Right, versus something we earn.

      I think I was going towards explaining how I cannot be understanding of someone’s circumstances if they don’t tell me what they are. I don’t understand how some students tell me they’ve been having a difficult semester (outside school) but won’t tell me what it is or how to help them. That’s where I sort of need to know. Can you empathize and be considerate beyond comforting them if you don’t know what the problem was?

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