For Teachers: In Consideration of Students Who Take You At Your Word

I got a text in all caps today from my daughter, who is in her senior year of college. It read: “MY WEDNESDAY CLASS WAS JUST CANCELLED.” That class is next week and is the day before Thanksgiving. I have been in enough classrooms to know that this professor was instant hero. And he knew it too.

Students love when classes are cancelled. In 25 years of teaching college, I rarely cancelled mine. In fact, when I was pregnant with that same daughter, I had students come to me and also write in my evaluations that they thought for sure I would be cancelling a lot of classes because of my pregnancy, and they were surprised (some disappointed, quite honestly) that I never called in sick.

But there are always emergencies, for both students and their professors. And everyone understands that. I have gotten phone calls in the middle of the day to come pick up a sick child from school and have had to walk into a classroom only to let students know that I needed to cancel. The cheers always burst forth. I never failed to point out that they were cheering that my son was running a fever. Perhaps the worst was when I unexpectedly had to leave town because my father had passed away. Yes. Students cheered. But then a hush fell over the room as I am sure the shocked expression on my face revealed to them the inappropriateness of their response to the cancellation of classes the following week. In their defense, most held their heads low, apologized personally to me, and expressed their condolences before walking out.

So every teacher knows. You want to be a hero? You want to be liked? Cancel class! Cancel the test! Cancel the essay! It’s quite simple, really. I’ve also evaluated enough teachers to know the importance of these techniques in getting good student evals. Students aren’t afraid to admit their reasons.

But my daughter wasn’t cheering. She was pissed. And so am I.

Apparently, on the first day of class, the professor read his attendance policy from his syllabus, which we all do. Students are allowed two unexcused absences, pretty standard stuff. You know, for emergencies. But he emphasized, and did so repeatedly throughout the semester, that he would be holding class on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so anyone who missed class that day would have that counted as an absence. After all, he explained, he was contractually obligated to hold class that day. Fair enough.

However, as anyone who travels knows, plane tickets on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving are often prohibitively expensive. And this year was no exception. We had already decided that my daughter would not come home for Thanksgiving this year, but I just moved, and she wanted to spend some time with me at the new house. So she surprised me by buying her own ticket. Yep. She bought her own ticket. She knew she had to go to class Wednesday and traveling after class was too expensive, so she bought a ticket for Thanksgiving day. Her boyfriend decided to join us, and the two of them bought him a ticket to arrive on Thanksgiving day also. We would have Thanksgiving dinner on Friday.

Then today, he cancelled that Wednesday class. With that cancellation, she now could have traveled on Monday or Tuesday, at a much cheaper rate, without missing any classes. But it’s too late for a college student on work study and juggling student loans to do anything about her nonrefundable plane ticket.

The professor did not cancel that class for any emergency. No. He cancelled it because, he told them, most people won’t show up on Wednesday anyway, so he might as well cancel. And besides, he was sure no one would complain about a cancelled class. Well here’s the thing. Unless this is his first year teaching (and it is not), he knew on the first day of class that few would show up on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It happens every year. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he cancels that class at the last minute every year.

And here’s my question. Does each class meeting matter? Or not? If it does, then tell students you are holding class and hold class. If it doesn’t, don’t puff up your chest at the beginning of the semester about the importance of each class and then cancel a class at the last minute that will impact traveling students and their families. Because students who are serious – let me repeat: students who are serious – will attend class and do whatever is required to attend class. I promise you.


But cancelling class may appeal to those who were going to skip class anyway, just like cancelling a test is a godsend to those who didn’t study anyway. But the result is that serious students are made the fool. Serious students book their flights after classes end. Serious students study for scheduled tests, prioritizing that over other work they could have been doing. They don’t deserve to lose out because a teacher gives in to students who are not serious.

But this inability to count on teachers to take their own words seriously extends to other areas. I always spent the first day of each class going over the syllabus. My syllabus was the “Bible” for my class. Students could count on it to answer most questions. They could also count on the fact that I would follow the policies as explained and would not change the rules mid-semester. I always included a calendar listing all due dates and test dates for the semester. No one could claim they did not know what to expect or what was expected of them. And I learned by trial and error what worked and what didn’t. So my syllabus was always evolving. When I did not include a policy for late papers on my syllabus, I did not punish lateness. However, be assured I never made that mistake again. I created a policy.

And students could count on my enforcement of that policy. There was no long discussion of whether or not this particular incidence of a late paper warranted a drop in grade or not. There was no lobbying. I should also note that students were allowed one free late paper a semester, because sometimes there really are extenuating circumstances. But then THEY, not me, became the judge of those extenuating circumstances through their own determination through their decision of whether they would turn in a paper late or not.

But what I found repeatedly, and in the first years of my teaching to my astonishment, was that most didn’t pay any attention to the syllabus. I would call to collect an essay at the beginning of class, and students would look around, confused. Half the class would turn in the paper and the other half would protest that I did not say anything about the due date during the previous class. The same was true of tests. A test that had been listed on the syllabus for three months would be a shock to a large percentage of students. Turned out, at the college where I was teaching, so few teachers actually followed the syllabus that students had been trained to ignore it. The same was true of textbooks. Every syllabus for every class listed a textbook, but most teachers never had students crack one open, so many just stopped buying them. It was then that I crafted a speech assuring my classes that I would be using the textbooks, and I would actually be following the syllabus.

The way I looked at it was that my syllabus was my contract with the students, my word. Less importantly to me was the fact that it was also considered my contract with the institution and the state. I was more concerned with the people sitting in front of me. I wanted them to have realistic expectations. I wanted students to be in control of their outcome. And in order for that to happen, I needed to provide clear, predictable policies and procedures. I needed to be dependable. They needed to feel that my word meant something. I wanted to give everyone the same opportunity to succeed and to fail, and to make those demarkations easy to navigate.

Final exams were always a frustrating experience for me as well. Contractually, I was required to hold final exams, much like we were required to hold class the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. And every semester, the administration sent emails to the faculty to remind us of this. Yet, it appeared that I was always one of few who held finals. Teachers wanted off a week early for Christmas too. I knew professors who left early for trips overseas so did not hold finals. I guess this was because teachers have so little time off it’s difficult to squeeze in a trip (yes, that’s sarcasm).

Many would hold their finals on the last day of class, the week before finals. Some who felt the need to show up for finals would throw parties on their scheduled final day and time. So while my students were given two hours to compose essays that demonstrated their command of the language, of sentence structure and organization, and of thinking on their feet, next door we could hear music and laughter. We could smell the empanadas and the meatballs. Students also knew they could skip the parties, and the campus was a often ghost town during finals

Now it was I who was being made the fool.

One of my biggest regrets was the year that I taught two sections of the same course. One had a final at 10 AM and the other was at 5 PM. A young woman from the class whose final was at 5 PM raised her hand in class the week before finals and asked if she could take her final with my other class at 10 AM. I hemmed and hawed, trying to decide whether that might be a problem. Did I care? I decided that I didn’t care. Why not?

As soon as I told her that would be fine, she let out a whoop. Thank goodness, she said. She had tickets to some big concert at the Staples Center that night and had to leave with her friends before the 5 PM final.

Another student then chimed in. She was upset. Her friends were also going to that concert, but she did not buy a ticket because she had a final exam that evening at 5 PM. MY final exam.

I now knew why I cared.

Throughout my years of teaching, I periodically got criticized by fellow teachers for my adherence to rules such as holding final exams at their announced times, collecting essays on due dates, or giving tests when they were scheduled. But I owed my word to the serious students.

I have encouraged my daughter to let her professor know the impact of his last minute decision to cancel class on her, and also her family, for that matter. I hope she will. Her argument for not saying anything is that it is too late. It won’t change anything. But I am hoping a polite conversation will serve him the way the admission of my student who did not buy concert tickets impacted me. I didn’t let that happen again.

When he tells students that no one will come to his class anyway and that he knows no one will complain about a cancellation, he is simply devaluing his class, and more importantly, his word. If that class isn’t important today, then it wasn’t important in August either. Let’s just be honest.

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