It’s common for us to attribute doing well to ourselves and doing poorly to others and or the circumstances around us. However, something it seems to me that students often fail to fully realize is that professors are people too. Which means we have feelings, moods, and just as many life disruptions as our students.
In college prep courses and tips online it seems to be common knowledge that students should let their professors know what is going on in their lives–when they are having a hard time, and so forth. This way the professor makes less assumptions and often times may have ideas that can help or contribute to easing a students negative emotional state. In my view, if you are at a state where you are crying in a professor’s office, then there are bigger things going on…and those things really should be the central focus for the student over my class. This is one reason I offer a drop assignment, and for the big life events, we have Withdrawals, Drops, and Incompletes. I know to students these seem like the enemy and as bad things, but they really shouldn’t be viewed that way unless they are being abused. No one is perfect and everyone is affected by life at some point.
It is rarely talked about among academic circles and I would go as far as to suggest that it may even be faux pas for a professor to let students know about their issues. While, I do let me students know when I will be traveling or have big deadlines, I generally try to distance any negativity going on in my personal world from my professional life and definitely from my students. I am sure my RAs can predict my moods and know when the best times are to approach me about various things…and when to not. Just off of the top of my head I know I can be “short” or what I consider to be task focused if Im on my way to the restroom/coffee, headed upstairs (which is equated with class or Deans and other faculty), or need to leave for an off campus appointment.
I know a professor (not at my school) who currently hates a particular day of the week because of a mandatory meeting s/her has to attend in the afternoons. It would be easy to imagine that this professor’s morning classes on this day are a different experience than on a different day of the week. Likewise, this is why I strongly encourage making appointments for meetings even during office hours. If you want to have a 100% focus from your professor, it is good to let them know you are coming and what you are going to want to talk about. This way they can be prepared to fully help you out and schedule the appropriate time to interact with you. I often have students show up in the last few minutes of my office hours, more so than at the beginning. I use to schedule my hours prior to my classes, but I found that I felt as if I had to rush the students. Now, I put in a break, but this too is then often eaten into. I also worry about if it is a disservice to stay into “my time” for the student who now expects me to be accessible 24-7. I know it is a disservice to my writing and family life.
This brings me to a conversation I overheard at our student union this past week. A group of caring students were extremely upset about a test they had just taken. They had prepared for the test studying notes, the book, etc. and from their perspective, very little of this was on the test. These students, (students who worked and expected to make A’s) felt they had failed. Additionally, they were very upset at the professor. How could s/he do that to them? So they were brainstorming their angry emails–which would surely have an accusatory tone.
For me it was clear there were a number of assumptions being made. The first and most obvious was that they had failed. I encouraged them to at least wait 48 hours and see if they felt the same after 2 days. We can get a great deal of new information that really affect our feelings and understanding of situations if we can be patient for just 48 hours. Sometimes, issues can even be entirely resolved.
Or, to even give the professor a chance to return the exams and see what the situation really was–did they in fact fail? In my mind as a professor, there are a ton of things that could be going on or have gone wrong not at all related to the student. It brought to mind this one time when I accidently gave the wrong exam to a class–I had updated and changed a number of questions around specifically for their class and class discussions but then managed to print of the exam from the previous semester that had not been changed. I of course caught my mistake quite quickly and figured out an appropriate way to fix the scenario. I am so thankful this test was on a Friday, it must have been on a Friday, because I was able to get out ahead of the issue before any students had emailed with concerns. Now, this was a rare case. However, I did make it right.
Often times space, time, and patience can answer questions and ease our concerns. For me the most tragic assumption is that professors are out to get the student. I find this to be the most tragic, because I know this as a complete myth. Never have I witnessed or heard of this being the case. I would believe in unicorns first. I can reconcile that more easily over the above increasingly more common assumption. I have at least scene a goat at a circus that had one horn growing out of the center of his head or they may just be really good at hiding. But above all, believing in unicorns doesn’t put me on the defense, create more obstacles in my life, or waste my emotional energy.