Between Rigidity and Flexibility

How to approach troubled students.

September 22, 2013

It's not uncommon for an instructor to come across in their classes with a troubled student with personal/family issues. While some students can make up such excuses to get/ask for privileges, a good academic can learn how to distinguish the right stories from the fake ones as well as learn to give the student the benefit of the doubt in cases when no such distinction can be made.

For students, academics, everyone, life is a trip full of ups and downs. I oftentimes find myself sympathizing with my students who seem to be on the down side of their roller coaster thanks to an inventory of empathy based on my own experiences as well as the experiences of family and friends. However, it is hard to find a good stance in a large gray area which exists between playing the role of the ever-understanding academic elder sister or the professor whose primary task is solely focused on teaching the students.

As we academics also are humans who occasionally have personal/family issues, we can understand the necessity of giving the troubled student some flexibility. This flexing of the rules should of course be within acceptable academic limits. As such limits may change from institution to institution and from country to country, I always find it essential to exchange stories (still being careful about preserving the anonymity of the students in question) with colleagues and superiors to understand the limits of action in the institution I work at, maybe not every time I have such a case but I do it in general to have a better sense of the institutional culture and the way regulations are applied or interpreted.

It is important to keep in mind that we are not the professionals equipped with knowledge and expertise to deal with the personal problems of our students. We can only relax certain rules for them based on their story, as long as the same flexibility is available to all other students should they find themselves in similar situations.

My students would always know that I would lend them an ear in their times of distress, however they would also know my boundaries when I do that to preserve my own professionality. It's important for me not to be too rigid on students who may be in distress to prove to the whole wide world that I am the tough professor, but it is also important for me that the students know that I would not extend my flexibility at the expense of the rights of other students and the rules of the institution where I work. The regulations of most universities allow for an area of action for such flexibility as seen necessary by the professors teaching the courses. Ands that is exactly the reason I try to learn how wide this area is by consulting the colleagues and learning from their experiences.

Finding the balance between rigidity and flexibility is not always easy, but I believe that friendliness and professionalism are not contradictory. My students need me to be their professor and NOT their best buddy; I also know that being a good professor does not only mean to be teaching for a certain number of hours every week and grading their papers during exam periods.

Istanbul, Turkey

Itir is a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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