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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


A Failure of Empathy

I once learned a lesson in empathy that changed my teaching.

August 2, 2016



I’ve been thinking about empathy, its role in life, and especially its role in teaching.

A particular failure of empathy has stuck with me for many years.

At the time, I could be quick to assume the worst about a student, often based on surface-level indicators. I was wrapped up in my own notions of authority, that an underperforming student was a kind of personal affront, their failure to recognize my pearls of instruction constituting a moral failing.

This was a technical writing class, mostly juniors and seniors, a requirement that very few took willingly or eagerly. At the time I had a compulsory attendance policy, miss more than five periods of our Tu/Th class and the semester grade was lowered by a letter. This particular student, a young gentleman, got to the limit around the halfway point of the semester. We were in the midst of a long group project and his teammates reported that he was missing meetings outside of class.

When in class, he fell asleep just about every period. He looked exhausted, heavy in the eyes, like someone who hadn’t slept the night before. This was at Clemson and he wore the fraternity prep fashions of the time, khaki pants, pastel collared shirt, boat shoes, sunglasses attached with a croakie strap slung behind his neck.

I assumed he was partying, privileged, irresponsible about his future and indifferent to the needs of his project teammates.

I started to get genuinely angry thinking about this slack-ass taking up space in my class and the rest of his group picking up that slack.

When he went over the limit on the attendance policy, I sent an email, informing him that his semester grade had been dropped by a full letter, and that based on what I could tell about his contributions to the group project, he was risking failure. I talked about the necessity of committing himself to school.

He did not attend the next class, and I wrote him off. I expected him to withdraw. It was late enough that it would show up on his transcript as a W, a black mark I figured was well-deserved.

I was in my office, late afternoon, the same day he’d skipped that class. He was red-eyed, bleary, wearing that frat boy uniform. I couldn’t believe he was still hungover after 3pm. I shared an office with two others at the time, and he asked if we could speak privately. Rather than ask my colleagues to step out, I went into the hall, not quite private, but close enough I figured. I was about to hear some song and dance about wanting another chance, blah blah blah. I was prepared to be unyielding, a lecture about responsibility ready at hand.

This is when he told me that his mother was dying of cancer.

She was in hospice care at home, but his parents were divorced and insurance didn’t cover someone to stay overnight to help her. His high school-aged sister and he took turns sleeping in her room at night, but most nights it was impossible to sleep, his mother’s needs were so great.

He did not want to tell me these things. They only came out because when he told me what was going on, I asked questions. He was numb, grief-stricken, and by nature a private person.

I could relate. The year before my father had died, lung cancer that metastasized to his spine. There was a period before a surgery to relieve an impinging tumor pressing on his spinal column, that the pain he experienced was unimaginable, untouched by even the heaviest narcotics. He screamed. I will never forget this.

My wife and I had just moved, and I was starting my first year at Clemson. Over the summer, I travelled to Chicago as much as possible, but once school started, I couldn’t be absent from class.

Each day, I went to class, did my work, returned to my new house, our first, waited for the word when it was time to go home. My father entered hospice and we were told that these things are impossible to predict, but it wouldn’t be long. I canceled a week of classes, flew home. My father passed, surrounded by his family. My mother had not left his side for more than 30 minutes since he’d been diagnosed months earlier. He had not spent even a single moment alone because my family had the resources and people necessary to make this happen.

My student did not have this luxury. Days there was a home health aide so they could go to school. Nights it was a 17- and a 20-year-old watching their mother die in shifts.

I was in class the week after my father’s passing, having said nothing to anyone at my new job. My students only knew that I had to leave for “family business.” I simply didn’t want to talk about it.

I was grieving.

I recognized this instantly in my student once I knew the truth. He did not want to tell anyone because he wanted it to be private, because to tell someone else makes it too real, makes you more vulnerable at a time where you already feel far too raw.

I had a person in distress sitting in front of me for eight, nine weeks and failed to notice. I’d made many wrong assumptions, allowed confirmation bias to kick in.

My chastising email was an act of cruelty.

Ultimately, the student did drop the class, but without the W, as we were able to get the administration to forgive being past the deadline because of his mother’s illness.

I’ve never told anyone this story, not even my wife, let alone written about it because I am ashamed of my behavior. I exacerbated someone else’s deep pain and grief. I did it because I was careless, self-centered, unwise.

But I learned something from it. I learned to pause before I assume what’s going on with my students, to approach them always from a stance of empathy, unless they definitively prove that they don’t deserve it.

I have yet to find a case of a student who did not deserve it.[1]

[1] This is true of even the students who seem to be the biggest screw-ups. There’s always something underneath – a deep desire to not be in school, life problems, alcohol or chemical dependencies – that deserves at least some empathy, and maybe even intervention to help.


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