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Broadening Our Practices – and Our Understandings – in Interacting with Students

15 Sep DSCN0041

Two of our August 2014 “Let the Term Begin” posts focused more specifically on broadening our understanding of common dynamics in student-teacher interactions: practices for accommodating variables affecting class session attendance and interpersonal communication.  This week we’re calling attention to the two posts because, frankly, once the semester’s begun is when instructors are most pressed to act on these concerns with the student who come to us as very real people.

We’ve collected into the post below the essential messages from these two posts -

  • 1.  Student Parents: Toward a Broader Understanding of “Legitimate Absences”
  • 2.  Teacher-Student BFFs? Using Tech Tools to Improve Academic Relationships

and provided links to them as originally published.

UMinn1.  Student Parents: Toward a Broader Understanding of “Legitimate Absences”
(excerpted from Susan Warfield’s original post at http://wp.me/p1Mdiu-12D)

Okay, so cold season is already here. And the many “big life events” that are part of students’ lives come into our teaching lives about now as students, like us, strive to balance work and life. And from this, class session attendance concerns become a more regular conversational topic – and conundrum.

And, Universities are increasingly recognizing pregnancy- and parenting-related factors as circumstances for teachers to incorporate as “legitimate absences” or extenuating circumstances to accommodate in setting class attendance policies, especially when such absences will require students to make up work, including tests.

Whether unexpected or scheduled, class session absences involving student parents involve more than those students coping with just a few sniffles. The myriad issues faced by students juggling parent and student roles – whether in undergraduate or graduate programs – include absences related to the actual physical effects of pregnancy, domestic violence, wellbeing and mental health, unexpected day care closures, divorce and custody related court appearances, homelessness, and illness of dependent child.  At times, the parenting may well involve tending to an aging family member.

As instructors, we can certainly develop more comprehensive (and compassionate) attendance policy to accommodate a student’s legitimate absence due to extenuating circumstances, in ways that may lessen the learning and logistical impacts for our student parents and care givers. Considering the following three possibilities may also help instructors lessen those absence-related impacts on our own teaching lives:

  1. Establish a protocol by which students will alert you in a timely way about an absence (ideally – with an emergency absence, before a class meeting; and with an already established/targeted timeline, at the start of a semester), andby which you will work with the students to establish make up work/testing arrangements. In setting up your practice be aware that asking for documentation to verify an absences (accident report, official letter from campus organization/sport, funeral card/obituary notice, travel voucher, note from medical professional) is something you may require; but, in doing this, you may also be requiring students to scale economic or social barriers to secure documentation, and you may be requiring students to work against medical practice and advice (ie, to not bring children or vulnerable adults in for medical appointments due to contagion concerns).
  2. Offer alternative ways to “attend” a class session. Could someone in the class – you or another student or a TA – set up Skype or Hangout connection via a personal laptop or tablet so that the parent at home could attend class while their child naps, plays quietly, sits with the neighbor who’s able to come by for an hour but not the entire day? Could the student work through the class session materials in some way on his own, or could she engage in some additional, course-linked activity (read & respond to an article, investigate & summarize an online video, create & share a mini-presentation from class session materials that could be used by peers for reflective study)?
  3. Check with your local Center for Teaching and/or Student Affairs office – and Student Parent Center, if you have one – to determine what testing center/exam proctoring options exist on your local campus. Often teachers can arrange to make use of already existing services as part of setting up test rescheduling.

In re-visiting the attendance and excused absences portion of your syllabus, consider both (1) whether and how the policy you outline is in alignment with what you would expect of university peers and colleagues in your workplace were you facing a family emergency, and (2) whether and how the policy aligns with what you say about collaborating, working together, and wanting to create a welcoming experience for learning in your classroom. 

Like Chalkboard2.  Teacher-Student BFFs? Using Tech Tools to Improve Academic Relationships
(excerpted from Aubrey S. Adams’ original post at http://wp.me/p1Mdiu-12q)

For at least these three reasons, both novice learners and skilled instructors recognize a reciprocal need for somehow becoming better acquainted through classroom, campus and community interests on a more interpersonal level:

  • Students need teachers to offer suitable career advice, craft personal letters of recommendation, and be willing to serve as a reference on a student’s evolving resume.
  • Teachers need their students to work as trustworthy research assistants, write letters of support during tenure review, and provide an evaluation of a professor’s teaching ability that is open and honest.
  • Both students and teachers learn more deeply when they become more aware of personal contexts that influence another’s thinking.

All of these tasks inherently require knowing a person socially to some degree. So – given constraints of time, few campus setting for conversational meeting up, and virtually no public modeling for ways that teachers and students can become allies, even friends within social spheres of academic communities – what’s a teacher to do?

Thankfully, a variety of technologically mediated communication tools we can help us create virtual opportunities for development of these more reciprocal mentoring-based connections. Social media, instant-messenger, and even text-messages can be used to improve interpersonal relationships within academic settings. These three suggestions may provide a starting point:

  1. Consider opening your regular office hours to include online options. Rather than simply using office hours to meet with student’s in-person, give your students multiple options to reach you online during that regular set time and day of the week. For example, log on to Skype or Google Hangout during your office hours and make certain your students know you are reachable via either tool. These tools are fantastic because they give students the option to video chat or share instant-messages which may allow introverted students a mechanism to communicate more comfortably. By expanding your office hours to include online options, you are still in control of when, where, and how your students can communicate with you. Yet, it provides a variety of mechanisms for students to open up to their teachers which may better foster interpersonal opportunities.
  2. Create an online social network for your class. For example, consider opening a specific group page on Facebook that you can invite your students to join. Alternatively, you could also set up a social network through a third-party tool such as Edmodo (a social networking website created specifically for the academic environment). There are numerous advantageous of setting up a social network site for your students: it allows them to connect easily with one another, it provides a social dynamic to the sharing of information, and it seamlessly flows with their daily activities. Rather than scolding students for Facebook usage during class time, invite them to post comments about the class to a designated space. Weave it into the course material and students will have greater ways to connect with their professor.
  3. Finally, set up a system for you and your students to easily send and receive messages on a mobile device. For example, if you have a designated Skype or Google account that you use for class purposes, allow this account to push notifications to your phone and encourage students to set their phones up to do the same. This can be helpful in a variety of circumstances such as when a professor is late for a meeting with a student or when a student has a quick question. Good communication can make all the difference in facilitating social development. The main benefit to utilizing this system is that teachers and students can connect easily through mobile devices without having to reveal a private cell phone number.
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