• Barbara L. Ciccarelli, PhD

It Takes a Village

A call for compassion in education

It Takes a Village

Have you ever seen a commercial on tv about a natural disaster where they were trying to appeal to your pity so that you would send a donation? Did you respond to that appeal? If not, what emotion did you feel? Did you feel shame or guilt?

I want to address a different kind of appeal to pity related to adult learner assessment. Adult learners are partly defined by the special circumstances which cause them to return to getting or finishing their education. Often times this return is provoked by a crisis in their lives. The effects of these crises often leak into the classroom (in this case a digital classroom). As a result, it is not uncommon that students appeal to the pity/compassion of the teacher in their wish to be excused for late assignments.

The question is, can teachers of adult learners get “compassion fatigue”? Does the teacher ever question the credibility of the message via email due to dissonance between the “I” (the student in writing) and the referent (the student in body)? Ultimately, teacher’s need a support structure to fend off compassion fatigue and uphold the university policies, but what about the teacher’s wiggle room for making special exceptions?

In 1996 philosopher Martha Nussbaum advised, “Public education at every level should cultivate the ability to imagine the experiences of others and to participate in their sufferings” (50). As a teacher for online universities since 2010, I have had the opportunity to experience and reflect upon some repeated assessment situations with adult learners in which, due to their urgent situation, they desired to be excused from penalty.

I am sometimes vexed by these situations, especially if the notifications come weeks into the course, after several missed deadlines, and much after the emergency apparently occurred. I ask myself, what is the intention of the student and what emotions is he or she trying to elicit from me. Is the emotion in question “pity” or is the emotion “compassion” and how does that work? Does the teacher have or eventually get “compassion fatigue”? Finally, on what basis do I excuse them and go against the school policies, and is it fair to the other students who have overcome hurdles to manage and finish the course?

First of all, pity is recognizing another’s suffering but seeing them as less than, feeling sorry for them rather than having empathy. I certainly don’t think my students want me to feel sorry for them in a way that I would think they were less than me, or less than anyone else for that matter.

Compassion, on the other hand, is empathizing with another’s suffering without judgement. Perhaps the student wants us to pause and not only understand his or her suffering but to some extent imagine experiencing it him or herself.

I went through this process of compassion recently with an adult learner in my online university class. It is the time of the pandemic, and during week 4 out of 8 weeks, he emailed me and told me he had Covid-19. He asked me if he should get an incomplete even though he didn’t qualify for an incomplete.

Of course, I was concerned, but I also felt that I wasn’t getting the whole story. On the other hand, with my experience as a teacher of adult learners and awareness of the research on their profile, not to mention the rising numbers of infections, I knew I better take this “excuse” for leniency of the policies at face value.

He didn’t give details about his sickness, whether or not he actually had symptoms, and it really wasn’t any of my business. However, to answer his question, I needed more information. I opted to call on my university’s support staff and told him to get the advice of his student advisor. I thought, perhaps he would share more with the advisor and get a wider perspective on his situation and how the university, and I myself, could accommodate him.

In Teaching Psychology, Lucas and Bernstein point out, “The way you handle excuses conveys a message to your students about your teaching philosophy, and most particularly about whether you view students as partners or adversaries, the degree to which you trust them, and how you care about them.” (p. 137)

I learned later from the same student that he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to catch up because he was facing the unknown; however, he faced his fears, moved forward with the assignments and managed to finish on time with the rest of the students. This was one of the better turnouts.

Teachers can be under a lot of pressure in these situations. If teachers do not give into the student’s request for leniency on policies there is an unspoken and sometimes spoken threat of complaint, not just to the advisor but to the program chair and even higher up to the Director of Operations and Academic Affairs.

You could say that the complaint culture evolved with the consumer culture. In the field of education, this has been maximized by phenomena such as the “rate your professor” website where students can search for their professor in a database and provide a rating along with comments. I recall being on that website years ago and even checked it once for my rating. Websites like these give students a voice, but oftentimes the only voice you get is from the disgruntled students who earned a low grade and want to blame the teacher.

The nice thing about many online universities is that the online platform insists on support beyond the teacher or facilitator. This means that teachers get support from staff to help with deciding on who gets excused from school policies and who doesn’t. With this kind of support, it is less likely that a teacher feels shame in responding or not responding to calls for compassion from students. In fact, the responsibility is shared among many, so all benefit from the spirit of collaboration.

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