Be Kinder than You Think Your Students Need

“Be kind to your sibling.”

“I AM being kind–they’re the one being a jerk!”

“Be kinder. Be kinder. Be kinder than you think you need to be. Be kinder than you think they deserve.”

It’s a regular interaction in my household. Someone–possible more than one someone–has been a jerk, a meanie, an obnoxious brat. Probably true. They probably were. And maybe the one raising the complaint is even innocent.

But still, my advice is the same: be kinder. Kinder yet. Kinder still. Kinder longer. Kinder once more.

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This last week has been hard for many of us.  The rush of productivity that perhaps arose in response to the call to pivot has waned (As it must! It took tremendous energy for you to put your classes online without much training or support, and you can’t sustain that, especially without a real spring break, especially without childcare for your own children, especially while you yourself are ill, especially while you are worrying about your parents, especially while we remain in a pandemic.). You have set up your expectations, and everyone has had a few weeks to get used to them. The patterns should be clear. You got the hang of this, exhausting as it is.

And, at first, so did your students. Oh, they struggled with some of the tech and figuring out where to find information, but they were getting it.

So you thought this would get easier. And now it is not.

It’s tempting, once you get into a groove, to think that now everyone should be in a groove. That we have dealt with what is hard because what was hard for you was switching to remote teaching. But even if that switch was the hardest thing you faced this semester (if you are lucky), it is unlikely to be the hardest thing your students have faced, are facing, or will face. For you, perhaps (if you are lucky), the hardest part of this pandemic is behind you. For them, the hardest parts may be happening now–or students are preparing for them.

Maybe attendance is dropping off. Or students are asking for extensions on work they should have started earlier. Or they are clearly taking online quizzes without reading the material or watching the lectures. Maybe you peeked at the analytics for your course and see that some students aren’t logging in regularly or are only opening a few of the files or are only spending a few minutes in the LMS when you know that they need to spend hours there to do well. You see that someone spent just 10 minutes on an open-book, open-notes quiz and earned a poor grade, and you wonder why they aren’t trying harder. Maybe you wonder what you could do to solve this. Maybe you blame the students.

Note that part of the problem here is that you can now see, teaching remotely, student study habits that you couldn’t see before. Now, you can see if a student doesn’t open the reading or doesn’t turn in their paper until 1 minute before the deadline. Students who may have appeared silent but attentive during class discussions now make vacuous comments on discussion boards, and you wonder if they really weren’t doing the work all along. In other words, the bad habits of students were more hidden to you (Sure, you still had the ones who showed up late and packed up early.) then, and now you might be irritated at them, especially given how much work you had to do.

Be kinder.

I know, some of them are probably abusing this system.

Be kinder.

I know, some of them weren’t committed when they were in F2F classes, so why be merciful now?

Be kinder.

I know, some of them do have the time and skills and resources to do this well, and they use up patience that should go to students who need it.

Be kinder still.

I know, they should have planned better, even for this, even with changing duties at their job, even with kids unexpectedly at home, even with aging relatives they must care for.

Be kinder than you think they need you to be.

I know, they actually probably do not deserve it. They might actually be skipping out on their work to go out to dinner with friends. They might be protesting at statehouses. If anything, I bet there is a direct relationship between which ones are doing the most for public health and which ones are staying on top of their work.

Be kinder than they deserve.

You do this without an expectation that the lazy ones, the ones abusing the system, the liars, the poor planners, the inept ones, and the ones who were already not showing up will change. They might take you up on your kindnesses and walk away laughing that you’re a pushover, like they really got away with something. If they do accept your kindness and it changes them, that’s even better, but don’t expect it.

What you can expect is that when you are universally kind, that kindness will reach the students who need it. And it will always help them, and it may change them, too.

Right now, you don’t need to be evaluating whether someone deserves your kindness. They very well might not. But if you choose to dole out your kindness, you will miss students who really do need it. Often, they are the last ones to ask.

The obvious end to this is to say that you will feel better too, but that is only partly true. You will eventually waste your kindness on a student who mistreats it. You will grade late papers that are also plagiarized. You will extend deadlines and end up grading later than you planned on. There are costs to this. One way to alleviate the burden of kindness is to build simpler classes in the first place. Recognize that being one-on-one helpful is also part of your job and honor it by making it part of your plan for the day, even if you don’t know exactly how you will use your time doing it.

When you are kind without hesitation, you will not have the regret of having been able to offer kindness to a student in need and failing to do so. Students who need kindness and receive it rarely forget it, and it shapes them into the kind of graduates we want in the world.

Emil Claus’ The Lecture (1890) shows a boy in a blue shirt and an apron reading a book aloud to an old man who is propped up in a chair, covered in blankets, wearing a cap. A tea cup and saucer rest on the small table behind the boy. If you can easily be kind to a student, don’t evaluate if they deserve it–just do it.

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