The fourth prompt I posed for the Reflective Writing Club is titled “Beautiful Mistakes.” I asked each member of our “club” to reflect on one mistake and discuss what they took away from it. It can be hard for academics to contextualize a mistake as something positive, but mistakes are how we learn and grow. I asked for feedback from club members this week and one person shared that it was difficult to write about a mistake, as the goal of blogging is to position ourselves in a positive light. I sighed a bit when I read that, as my hope was that we could reflect and share our mistakes together to understand that we are all in this together. Nobody is perfect. And if all we do is write about our shining moments, then we really aren’t engaging in reflective writing.
So, with that, I will share a mistake that has caused me a lot of shame over the years. No, it doesn’t feel good to share this, but I know it will matter. I know there will be professors who read this an relate to this story.
More than a decade ago, when I was teaching art history full-time at a community college, I was preparing for class to begin one day. It was a difficult day for me. I don’t recall exactly what was happening that day, but I know I was flustered. As I look back I think about these as the hardest days of life. I had small children, I was still new to teaching, I was teaching 5 classes that included multiple new preps and, I know now, I am an introvert. Teaching and being a mom to two small children took everything out of me, every single day.
On this particular day, a student stood up from her seat and walked up to me as I was shuffling papers and attempting to connect the classroom computer with the projector to show our slides for the day (a connection that usually worked about half the time and I’m sure I was feeling anxious about). In a friendly voice with a smile she asked, “Did you get my email?” I said honestly, “Uh, I’m not sure, what was it about?” She said cheerfully, “Oh, well I couldn’t come to class last time and missed the test so I was writing to tell you.” I can recall feeling conflict about her lighthearted tone and the question she was asking me. I don’t remember exactly what I said at this point but it was something like, “Our syllabus includes a clear policy about exams. You may make them up if I am notified in advance of your absence. And I also have an instructor community policy about email.” And then I went on to explain that policy to her. I remember her turning around and going back to her seat.
The next thing I remember about that day is driving home feeling like crap about what I had said to her. I felt sick about it. The next morning when I got to my office, I logged into my LMS to send her an email, but it was too late. She had dropped my class.
I will never, ever forget that student. I think of her all the time, especially now that I support the development of other faculty. I apply what I learned from that mistake to everything I do with faculty development. That lesson is part of what shaped my focus on humanizing online learning too. I think so often about our online students and how we, as faculty, respond to students’ delayed log-ins, late email replies, missed exams and assignments. We may turn to our policies and enforce them matter of factly, without considering the fact that our students are humans, just like us. I feel very differently today about course policies. Yes, policies are important, as they can help us clearly articulate our expectations to students. But if we are truly invested in supporting our students’ success, we must consider the human context of each interaction we have with our students.
I recognize that my own actions are informed by the challenges I am experiencing in my own life — this post, for example, is late because I was coordinating a statewide online conference this week. It doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about it all week. It doesn’t mean this post means anything less to me because it is late. And it doesn’t mean this post is going to resonate any differently with my readers because it is late either. And I recognize that students, especially community college students, juggle far more challenges and have fewer privileges than I.
I also am reminded about a conversation I had last year with Heather Castillo, who teaches History of Dance online at CSU Channel Islands. Heather told me about one of her online students who had a paper due on a day that the student was also gathering with family to prepare for her grandmother to die. Heather shared with me that she knew the most valuable thing she could do as an educator in that moment was to reach out to her student and tell her, “Spend this time with your family and get your paper to me later — when you are ready to focus on it.” Think about the lesson Heather’s student learned in that moment and compare it to the lesson my student learned from me. Heather’s teaching fostered connection with her student. Mine did the exact opposite.
I will continue to pay forward what I learned from my experience. And if I could connect with my student one more time, I would say I am sorry and let her know how much I believe in her.
Thanks for reminding me of the students I will never forget! The student who asked for a deadline extension, as she and her children had moved to a battered woman’s shelter the night before. The student who watched me eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich lovingly and said” when my financial aid check comes in I can buy a jar of peanut butter (she was living in her car to two years). The trans student who I kept referring to accidentally by the wrong pronoun. We profs make lots of mistakes, but we do learn from them!
Lori, It’s nice to hear from you. Thank you for sharing these stories. Very powerful.
Thank-you for sharing. It’s hard when you look back and think ‘I could have done more for that student’. And when teaching online, there can often be the temptation to rattle off an answer you have given 10 times before, without stopping to consider the tone of what you have written. But it’s good for us to make mistakes occasionally – it helps us bring back the human.
Thank you for your comment, Lisa. I completely agree. I think online it can be harder for an instructor detect that we’ve made a mistake and, therefore, we must make extra effort to be aware of who our students are and what’s happening on the other side of the screen.
Online teachers must have to work harder to humanize their courses, yet all teachers must remember to do so. Policies dictate actions, but we as humans must implement policy with compassion and dignity. The comments here and your post show the many ways that life interrupts our plans, and we must keep our connections to our humanity within education so that the rest of the world will also continue to do so. We remember to ask ourselves, “How would I want to be treated?” Great post and comments.
Thank you, Sheri.