• August 30, 2015

When Students Cry

Teaching Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

I suspect that most college professors, even those in the early stages of their careers, have caused at least a couple of students to cry. The thing is, we rarely see it when it happens. Our students sob late at night, when they reach the end of their ropes, or at the close of the semester, when they receive their final grades. On occasion, though, we witness the waterworks.

It's never fun.

My first time came as an A.B.D. instructor. I was teaching a large undergraduate course and had just returned term papers. A student came to me, upset that her final grade had dropped from an A- to a B+. Unsure of my own authority, I sought refuge in formality. "This kind of thing happens all the time," I told myself, "you've just got to play it out and get it over with." I dutifully assumed the role of the rigorous professor, holding fast to high academic standards, and relegated my student to the role of the grade-grubber, pampered by privilege and unable to accept her work for what it was. For 10 minutes, I moved us smoothly through the script, everything playing out pro forma.

Then her lower lip started trembling. That wasn't in the script. Neither were the body-racking sobs that came next. Not knowing what to do, I did nothing. I just waited in embarrassed silence, as if she were experiencing momentary stage fright and simply needed time to collect herself before we could continue our performance.

But the script had been blown up. Her raw emotion had exposed the artificiality of the little drama I'd been trying to direct. Those sobs were an eruption of humanity in what was supposed to be an impersonal interaction. They took us out of our assigned roles and compelled me to respond authentically instead of objectively.

In the end, I did not change her grade. But I did change my outlook. Subsequently, I made a concerted effort to care. Rather than hiding behind grading rubrics and course syllabi, I sought to deal with student concerns particularly and compassionately, trying to react in the way that would best promote the student's intellectual development.

Because I find that kind of focus hard to sustain, I'm convinced that the occasional crying conference is a good thing. A reminder, if you will, that my students are people, too. This past semester, however, the tears came from an unexpected source: a 250-pound transfer student, 23 years old and scheduled to graduate at the end of the term.

I'd had countless conferences with this student. In fact, "Jason" had been in to see me at least once a week since the semester began. He rarely stayed for less than 30 minutes, and his long and frequent visits were a source of great frustration. As the hours added up, I became increasingly resentful that one student was asking so much of me in the way of counseling, concessions, and overall hand-holding.

The crying occurred when I delivered the devastating news that Jason could not simply pass my class. To get credit toward his degree, he would have to earn a C or better. It was just too much. He sniffled valiantly for a few seconds before the floodgates broke.

At first, I experienced his outburst as another imposition: "I spend all this time counseling with you, and now I have to cry with you?!" Pretty quickly, though, my indignation evolved into guilt. After all, Jason was crying over my class. And then, amid all the guilt, I noticed something: Jason's chin dimpled when he cried, as did my 6-year-old son's. It was the barest of resemblances, but it was transformative. By focusing on Jason's chin, I could conjure up the idea of my own son. And as I did so, I felt a mounting parental compassion that offset my professional impatience. If this were my son sitting in his professor's office, how would I want his professor to respond?

I'd given some thought to parental responses when my twins were born. Although I loved them from the start, I worried that I was blinded by parental bias. Parents, I was well aware, are notoriously bad at evaluating their own flesh and blood. (It's not for nothing that we describe a person as someone "only a mother could love.") Determined to overcome genealogical prejudice and biological investment, I tried to look at my sons as a stranger would. As I studied them for flaws and failings, though, I came to an important realization.

I'd always assumed that the intensity of parental love was tied to a failure of perception. Mothers and fathers loved their ugly or unintelligent kids because they were unaware that their kids were ugly and unintelligent. I've since abandoned that idea. I'm pretty sure parents can see shortcomings as well as anyone else; it's just that we don't allow those shortcomings to overshadow or obscure the ability and potential that is also evident, if you care to look for it.

So as Jason sat crying before me, I tried to focus on the things a parent would see. I tried to drape him in all of the hopes and desires his parents might hold for him. And while Jason's deficiencies (and our difficulties) did not disappear, they receded just a little—enough, in fact, to allow other things to come into view.

Now I'm not saying we should be mothers and fathers to our students, nor am I suggesting that we soften things up or tone things down. As professors, we have a very particular job to do, and that job requires both discipline and distance. All of us have to draw certain lines and toe others. The shift in perspective I'm describing should have little or no effect on our course requirements or grade distributions. But it could have a meaningful—and eminently desirable—effect on our levels of commitment, patience, and compassion. To see in our students the potential that is visible to their parents is to take a big step toward unlocking it.

As for my own children? Well, I sent them off to school this past year. The transition proved traumatic (for us, not for them). It's really something to entrust your children to someone with as much influence and authority as a schoolteacher. So as I'm striving to see my students from the perspective of a parent, I hope my kids' teacher is doing the same.

Kent Lehnhof is associate professor of English at Chapman University.


1. nickperez - August 04, 2009 at 08:40 am

Dr. Lehnhof, thank you for writing this long overdue article. Too often, students' hopes, dreams and very lives are needlessly destroyed while in our care. You are correct, patience and compassion are our students' due.

2. 11147726 - August 04, 2009 at 09:05 am

You could be clearer on the final point. They cry and you listen compassionately, but you still don't change their grades. Right?

3. susankies - August 04, 2009 at 09:06 am

It helps to always have a box of the 'good' kleenex on hand and within reach.

4. rburns - August 04, 2009 at 09:12 am

This must be a joke. If not, I would never advise a student to enroll in this teacher's classes--probably would advise the student to avoid Chapman U. altogether. So we take the next step in the decline of our culture. The parent long since has deserted his/her role in discipline and goal setting as a part of the love for the child and morphs into "best friend." That leaves the role of "Parent" open and this faculty member has decided that is what he will become--"Parent." I wonder if he is being paid and supported to be a Parent to every student who comes to his door. Makes you wonder who will be "Teacher." Someday this Chapman student might, just might, sob his way to graduation and be turned loose upon society and start looking for a job. Do we expect the employer to move in line with Dr. Lehnholf's development--becoming yet another loving parent? Let's not ever, under any circumstances (and certainly never in the face of tears) set meaningful standards, hold to our professional principles, or require any real degree of success. Yes, there are degrees of success which should not depend on one's sobs. There even is failure waiting out there in the scary, unfair dark. Dr. Lehnhof, I've had parents (aunts, uncles, neighbors, god-parents) come to explain what a loving and lovable being the student is when the student has been dismissed for multible Class A felonies. They (and the student) come always with lots of tears, when the fact is that fewer tear-determined decisions along the way might have have avoided the whole mess. But in any case, you have a share in protecting and informing other students, other faculty and certainly the whole of society into which the "student" will be launched by indicating levels of talent, thinking ability, not to mention flat out literacy among the students you see. And you are not doing your job when you adjust your entire approach to teaching (which includes meaningful evaluation) because of one student who is tearful over the grade of B+. Do you ever give a D and stick to it? Or is every student at Chapman "above average"?

5. johncolatch - August 04, 2009 at 09:14 am

I watched a student dissolve into tears when he asked, and I refused, to change his final grade from an A- to an A. He was shy and did not participate much in class, which hurt him, since a fifth of the grade was based on participation. He had come in at midterm and talked to me about it and said that he would try to do better. He did a little better, but did not improve enough to make the difference he sought in his grade. I felt like a terrible person, even I talked him through it and spent extra time explaining my rationale. Two years later, he barely acknowledges me when he sees me on campus. I still think I did the right thing, but I cannot forget his tears.

6. garyz - August 04, 2009 at 09:32 am

rburns: You miss the point of this article entirely. Is is wrong for a teacher to have compassion? Showing some does not make a teacher less human (or less "professional"). Perhaps at your institution, students don't really matter much. All too many instructors treat students as 'a bother', rather than the reason why they went into teaching in the first place. As I recall, the author did NOT change the grade of the first student he mentioned. I, too have standards to maintain, but that does not prevent me from listening!

7. judithryan43 - August 04, 2009 at 09:44 am

It seems to me that Kent Lehnhof has fallen for the oldest ploy in the book. Jason came to see him in office hours every week, but Kent found thse meetings frustrating. Then, finally, Jason cried about his grade. I would take these things with a grain of salt. Certainly, there's no reason to change Jason's grade because he burst into tears.

8. ppoole3 - August 04, 2009 at 09:50 am

I was actually impressed and moved by this very candid writing. As an administrator, teacher and parent of two recent college graduates whose friends often came to us for advice, I've experienced the same roller coaster of emotions as Kent Lehnhof. As I've matured through the years, so has my approach to helping students in need. I've gone from hard-nosed, by-the-book decisions to, hopefully, a more compassionate view. does that always mean giving in to student (or, worse, parent) demands? No, but by showing some compassion, you actually can help nurture the student. If the student chooses not to accept that nurture, you've still done your job.

9. speterfreund - August 04, 2009 at 10:00 am

Professor Lehnhof has recounted instances of students crying over grades, but he has not recounted instances of the student meltdowns that I often encounter. These have to do with students who find themselves being treated for depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health issues exacerbated by yhe stresses of college; students facing health challenges--either their own or those of a loved one; and students facing family trauma--primarily death or divorce. In such cases, a student needs relief from the pressures of his/her academic work, and if the situation presented is documented or at least plausible, that student deserves relief. At the very least, that student needs to be given an "incomplete" and taken off the clock for the time being. At one's discretion, one or more grades posted by the student while s/he is involved in the situation may be set aside and the option of revision may be extended. Above all, I wish to defuse the notion that students cry in the instructor's office for one reason and one reason only. And while very few of us not teaching clinical psychology or similar are licensed therapists, it is incumbent to make sure that we understand the full context of a student's situation before rendering an academic decision.

10. erikagwen - August 04, 2009 at 10:58 am

A few years ago I had a student that just could not get the material down, no matter how hard she tried (she was a sweet girl, just really not very smart at all). I sat with her above & beyond what was called for and was willing to try everything to help her pass the class. Toward the end of the semester, she finally broke down and disolved in tears inthe middle of the library. All she wanted to do was be a kindergarten teacher and her failing American History was going to make it that much harder for her to acheive that. In the end I had to fail her, she just couldn't pass the final. Did I deprive the world of a perfectly good kindergarden teacher (she failed another class as well, pre-calc, and lost her scholarship for education majors)? Maybe, but it doesn't keep me up at night. What it did do was help me realize that there are students out there who will try and try and they will pull at your heart strings, but frankly when it comes down to it they just can't cut it.

11. samanthak - August 04, 2009 at 11:08 am

Speterfreund, I agree that we cannot assume that a student cries for only one reason. I knew a girl in college who ritually cried to get out of things: bad grades, speeding tickets, arguments with roommates, etc. Anytime she had a confrontation she thought she would lose, she turned on the waterworks, and it rarely failed. I also had a colleague who had a student cry in her office when the student, who had worked very hard all semester, still failed to get above a D for the class. I had a student cry in my office when she confessed she was being stalked by someone who was following her around campus, and that was why she had missed all of her classes lately. These situations will arise, and we need to use our best judgment to determine what to do next.

12. rightwingprofessor - August 04, 2009 at 11:32 am

Another part of this story that caught my attention was the fact that Jason took up a ton of the professor's time and then failed anyway, all that time was put to waste. Once I conclude there is no hope for a student to pass my class, I limit their visits to my office to designated office hours only. Too many times in the past have I spent hours upon hours giving a student extra help only to have them flunk or drop the class.

13. ex_ag - August 04, 2009 at 12:25 pm

rburns sums up the problem with this encounter very nicely. The professor becomes the parent. But Professor Lehnhof tries to obscure this problem by appealing to our empathy, asking us how we would like our own children to be treated in such an encounter. Well, my answer is that I would do my best to make sure it never happens. However, I wouldn't direct my efforts at the professor but at my own child. As a loving and caring parent, I emphasize merit and I allow consequences to stick, even when the waterworks fall. My expectation is that, by the time my son arrives in the college classroom, he will understand that such displays are unprofessional and unseemly. And unsuccessful. (I may be robbing him of a tool he could use to get ahead, but I'm instilling dignity in its place). As for the role of the professor, I'm not suggesting that professors behave with zero empathy, but it is important to remember also that we are transitional figures between the worlds of high school and professional employment. We should act, on occasion, like employers who expect the job to get done and get done correctly. And there are times when we should hide our sympathies. I've had my own Jasons. And I've learned, over the years, to cut the cord. If I see they are becoming too dependent upon office hours, I cut them off and direct them toward tutoring services or--here's an example of hard reality--inform them that they need to figure these things out for themselves. This is, after all, part of the challenge of college.

14. yuuyaraq - August 04, 2009 at 12:37 pm

"rigor" has always been arbitrary. "compassion" is requisit to being human. Paul Maguire Center for Creating Peaceful Schools Palmer, Alaska www.holdthisthought.org (Maguire, Dec. 8, 2008 - on "leadership" and The Art of the Impossible by Havel/Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer)

15. mmarion - August 04, 2009 at 02:02 pm

Compassion is good. Listening is great. Empathy? Of course. Thinking about my students as children? I don't think so. Thinking about my students as future teachers? Yes. Being clear about requirements and giving a lot of help? Yes. Clarifying requirements even after they've signed the syllabus? Yes. Having standards? Yes. I know what the author was doing with the article and it is good that he wants us to have compassion for our students. He might want to think about the students, however, who share strategies for 'dealing' with different professors. For example, before class one night, some of the young women in my early childhood class were discussing a young male history professor. One of the women has successfully 'negotiated' a change in her grade by crying and she was bragging about how her deception had worked. The others then told about how they had manipulated other professors. I thanked the group for the information. Wow! Compassion? Yes. Getting taken to the waterworks cleaners by manipulative young adults? No.

16. mknoester - August 04, 2009 at 03:46 pm

It sounds from the article that the students are not crying just about their grades, but about what you are saying to them, and the messages they are receiving from you. Is it possible that you are saying only the negative things about their work, and not the positive? This is not just a question about their potential, it is about you recognizing the elements of good sense in your students. When I read this article I thought perhaps you were berating the students and they began to see themselves as bigger failures than before you spoke to them.

17. ledzep - August 04, 2009 at 05:27 pm

"I'd always assumed that the intensity of parental love was tied to a failure of perception. Mothers and fathers loved their ugly or unintelligent kids because they were unaware that their kids were ugly and unintelligent. I've since abandoned that idea. I'm pretty sure parents can see shortcomings as well as anyone else; it's just that we don't allow those shortcomings to overshadow or obscure the ability and potential that is also evident, if you care to look for it." Great point - it was something of a revelation to me when I first encountered this idea, reflected on it, and recognized its truth. We tend to accept that love is blind, and often it is, but we often take cold detachment as the de facto standard of objectivity. Somebody who tells his wife that she's beautiful is not lying or delusional just because she wouldn't win a beauty contest. It's his judgment that gets at the truth better than that of the contest judges. To some of the commenters above: I think it's quite a distortion to say that the message here is that professors should be like parents to their students. What's being said is that the way a parent sees his or her child can work as an aid to our compassion as teachers. That's not the redefinition of a role so much as a better understanding of the people we encounter within that role.

18. ex_ag - August 04, 2009 at 06:33 pm

ledzep, As an English professor, I have to say that you could not be more wrong. I tell my student all the time (and I'm chagrined that so many "colleagues" also need this reminder): "You will be judged solely upon your efforts. You will not have a chance to prove how nice you are in person when you apply for a job. You will be evaluated based on a resume and a cover letter. If you cannot offer credible and crafted documents, a potential employer will judge you as sloppy and unreliable. It doesn't matter if you keep your home obsessively clean or if you are a master or organization. It also doesn't matter if you hunt stray cats for sport. Your work represents you. Your work is all that anyone will know of you." Such is the way of the real world. Likewise, in our own professional fields, it is usually the same. We blind-vet our work so that our judgments are not colored by "the way a parent sees his or her child." In short, we construct a work environment (both within and without the academy) that ignores the child within the (wo)man and judges the individual based upon what s/he is at present. For the most part, our students have never experienced this adult world before, and it's part of my job to introduce them to it. And I do it compassionately. I point out their strengths and I show them their weaknesses. I'm honest. And blunt. In the real world, they would only receive a standard issue rejection letter after their application materials were unceremoniously dumped into the nearest garbage can, leaving them none the wiser for their failings and unable to adjust. This is the way we behave compassionately--not be giving in to our emotions but by readying them for what lies ahead.

19. post_functional - August 04, 2009 at 07:37 pm

I'd like to complicate matters by reminding everyone that evaluation is not always objective in all fields, particularly in the arts and humanities, when practitioners are expected not only to fulfill the more objective technical requirements of their crafts, but also to put pieces of their very souls nakedly on display. Sometimes when students in the arts and humanities are evaluated subjectively, it is difficult to know when being given a dismissive response if it is indeed the technical aspects being dismissed, or the piece of the soul. I share everyone's lack of sympathy for the crier who fails to fulfill objective criteria. However, when one's "piece of the soul" work is dismissed or rejected, for not terribly objective reasons at all, that can very much be... upsetting. Crying is not a professional response to anything, to be sure, and it is not to be encouraged, but in some situations it is understandable. Feelings are ephemeral. I'd rather live in a world of occasional spontaneous criers than on planet Vulcan. I would also remind that our reactions to crying are shaded by the expectations of gender stereotypes, to say the least.

20. suemford - August 04, 2009 at 08:13 pm

Although I agree that grades should be based on performance and we should lead them to good work habits, I don't see that I'd teach them anything by kicking them in the teeth while they're down and telling them "that's life, suck it up." How does it diminish us or coddle them to take a few minutes to listen to their stories, sympathize, and give a bit of advice, particularly if they are going to fail the course? Ask them a few questions nicely "Why do you think you are having trouble with the material?" and their answers might lead you to the advice they need (eg. "the counseling center has help for test anxiety" "You might consider switching to another major such as ____"). This is higher education not boot camp.

21. cilanoc - August 04, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Surely we can conceive of our relationships with our students outside of familial analogies. Where, for instance, does Prof. Lehnhof's formulation leave those in the professoriate, including myself, who cannot draw on that vast wellspring of 'parental' compassion because we are not--choose not--to be parents ourselves. How tiresome the incursion into our academic and university communities of family first and family friendly mindsets has become. I do not need to be so familial or familiar with my students in order to be an effective and human instructor.

22. tbdiscovery - August 05, 2009 at 12:24 pm

I think we know that Millennials are used to a bit of hand-holding; they have also been held to high standards. The crying could be caused by the fear of telling their helicopter parents that they did not receive an optimal grade, rather than their own feelings. However, I do think that we need to take a better look at our assessment strategies. Basing grades on participation and attendance does little to display mastery of material. I think we need to be more flexible in assessing student learning.

23. brucejanz - August 05, 2009 at 03:23 pm

Sigh. Didn't we go through this back and forth about empathy in the Sotomayor hearings? Didn't people also mistakenly think there that showing empathy automatically meant throwing standards out the window? I work in a discipline, philosophy, which, by its nature, requires students to reflect on themselves as humans at least some of the time. "Know thyself" isn't just a T-shirt motto for us. My course requirements are clear, my syllabus looks like a contract, and I hold students to that. But I also recognize the disconnect for a student who thinks they have come to know themselves, and yet only get a C in a course. I hope, though, the empathy starts long before that C gets assigned. Empathy means hearing the student, and that needs to start on day 1. They might cry - it's happened to me too. I'm very clear that extrinsic considerations are beside the point in the course - missing a scholarship because the grade is too low is unfortunate, but that's not how you judge a course. That argument doesn't work. So, I'm not sure why it's not possible to both have empathy and have standards. Like I say, that's what Sotomayor was trying to say, and that's what lots of people seemed to willfully want to ignore.

24. brittflok - August 05, 2009 at 03:38 pm

As a chemistry professor I get *a lot* of crying students in my office. Mostly from biology, because chemistry is required to finish that major. Many crying students want to be doctors or veterinarians and are crying because they need to get a C in chemistry to continue. I spend an enormous amount of time helping my students. I work very hard to get the information across in a rigorous, but understandable way. I have come to the solid conclusion that if you are getting a D or F and are crying in my office, it is not my fault! Perhaps this is the first class that you have struggled with, but this is not the hardest class in your journey to become a doctor! When I start to feel bad, I do a piece of what the author suggested, I place this person in my own life. But not as a child or friend, I place this crying student in my life as the medical doctor of my child or my aging parent. I look at this student and say "is this the person I want cutting into my son during surgery" or even "do I ever want this person giving a shot to my cat?" I've seen their work ethic, I've seen their test scores, I've heard their excuses. And in the end, I do not feel bad that I have (and I quote one of my F students) "crushed the hopes and dreams" of another aspiring doctor. I doesn't feel good to be told that, but it doesn't feel good to pass someone who is not capable of handling the material in a level one chemistry course. So I'm the bad guy. So what? It has become as much a part of my job as cheering on the top few students who should be going to graduate school or medical school or doing something great with their unlimited futures.

25. drummer - August 05, 2009 at 04:45 pm

I agree with ex-ag for the most part, except for the warning "You will be judged solely upon your efforts." Too many of the crying or complaining students complain they deserve a boost because they worked really hard, or they came to most of the classes, or they spent more time on this course than any other. But it's the product, the outcome that counts. How about "Your grade depends entirely on the quality of your output."

26. mtannen - August 06, 2009 at 08:39 am

during my 25 years of teaching biology majors and advising pore-meds and others who desire to enter a health care career, I have encountered several students who have failed first-year chemistry and/or biology courses (and, on occasion) organic chem) who have turned their academic performance around and been admitted to medical school. Thus, assigning a D or F in one of these courses does not necessarily "crush the hopes and dreams" of an aspiring physician or veterinarian. Moreover, the wrok ethic displayed by 17-18 year-old freshman is often different - whatever the major - than the work ethis at later points in their lives.

27. rlpeterson - August 06, 2009 at 10:24 am

I'm seeing a disappointing display of arrogance and a failure of professional ethics in most of the comments I've read here. I've long felt that one of the biggest problems in higher education is that faculty rarely have any real training in being educators. When an educator is faced with an emotionally overwrought student, there's a professional and ethical responsiblity to try to find out why and to try to address the problem. Maybe the student needs counseling. Maybe the student needs remediation. Maybe the student needs to drop the class and try again at a later date. Refusing to meet with a student because they've become a drain on your time or giving them a "life's tough" sermon is professional malpractice. Far too many college professors get personal and professional validation from how "tough" they perceive themselves to be. Nobody with that attitude ought to be allowed anywhere near a classroom.

28. davi2665 - August 06, 2009 at 10:52 am

Students need boundaries and a good dose of reality testing, especially related to their own performance. I feel sorry for the generation(s) of students raised with the pap and drivel of the "feel good" and "self esteem" movements throughout their education. Our US students are first in their assumption of accomplishment even though they are near the bottom in their actual accomplishment in math and science. It is both possible and appropriate to be compassionate with a student finally having to face cold, hard reality. But it is cruel to give a student false hope that even though they are failing an introductory biology or chemistry course, they really would make a "wonderful" doctor. Wrong! My first loyalty is to the patients on whom these future practitioners will be turned loose. While the student's social and emotional competence certainly counts, so does objective knowledge and a synthetic ability to integrate the entire body of knowledge from their education. There is nothing wrong with a student expressing grief and concern, or even crying- sometimes it is painful to realize the death of a fantasy and come to grips with the realistic limitations we all eventually must face in our lives. Better to have it happen in a relatively safe, inocuous, sheltered environment such as a university, than in professional failure later on that has a greater and longer lasting impact.

29. misha101 - August 06, 2009 at 02:12 pm

Compassion and professionalism are not mutually exclusive. That does not imply a tolerance for mediocrity nor an abrogation of academic standards. We can convey the reality of student performance with sensitivity and concern. But, that concern must be tempered by our sense of duty to the professions. Often we forget that students are not our only constituents. The clients, employers, patients, or public are stakeholders as vital to our mission as the student body. Yes, a school should be a safe place to make mistakes but this does not preclude consequences nor does it diminish the instructive value of failure.

30. aoneill - August 06, 2009 at 06:38 pm

To John Colatch. As the parent of a very intelligent and accomplished but reserved adult, I identified with tales of the student who did not participate. My daughter, now doing very well in her career, has always had performance anxiety and is shy in a Group. I read Philip Zimbardo's book on shyness when she was a child just to give me some parenting advice. But my daughter did impress professors in other ways such as turning her assignments early. She did find some ways to participate in class although I'm sure that was never her strength. None of us have the full spectrum of talents. As professors helping our young adults come of age gaining the self understanding to realize our strengths and weaknesses is very important new psychological advice on success in the workplace indicates that people should focus on what they are good at but you can't ignore your weaknesses. A lot of our lives are coming to grips with what we don't do well whether it's being on time, keeping our paperwork in order, or not getting mad at people too quickly. Of course the theme of this entire piece is making our peace with breaking the bad news to vulnerable young adults.

31. helenjean - August 07, 2009 at 08:38 am

We are professors, not clinical psychologists, not social workers. But, we are also humans. When we hide behind our roles as faculty and "distance" ourselves from our students, I fear this is about us and our discomfort, not about the student. Please understand, though, that I am not advocating we dissolve the boundary between professor and clinician or professor and parent parent. I keep a box of tissues in my desk drawer. I listen, I do feel empathy, but as Professor Lehnhof wrote, I do not change a grade based on student tears. Nor, by the way, do I offer extra credit that isn't available to the entire class. (Something students often ask about at the very end of the semester). I let them know I am their professor and academic advisor- not their counselor. If their grade suffered because of relationship difficulties (a common problem) I let them know I'm not the person to pour this out to--I refer them to the counseling center. We can't be all things to the students (no matter how much my university administration would like to pretend we are!). When I was an assistant professor, a faculty mentor said to me that it was actually a compliment if a student cried in my office - it meant the student was comfortable in my office. I try to remember this when student tears occur. It was and is good advice.

32. reader1961 - August 07, 2009 at 12:33 pm

I have students whom I have failed, who continue to visit me in office hours semesters later, just because I try very seriously to treat them with dignity. The grade is the grade, because I am confident of my ability to judge their written work. But I am always willing to talk with them, support them, guide them. We all need mentors at one time or another and I am proud to have a career that allows me to positively influence people at impressionable stages of development. This did become clearer to me when my own son went off to college and while there experienced a serious medical issue. He showed me the emails he received back from professors whom he had contacted about his crisis. I will never forget the huge gap between the best and the worst response. I will always do my best to picture my own son in that seat across the desk from me, and to treat my student as I wish my son would be treated.

33. hscwu - August 07, 2009 at 02:53 pm

I agree with rlpeterson. As a Student Affairs administrator I see crying and emotionally distraught students on a regular basis and often times, there is more going on than meets the eye. I also teach, so I do get both perspetives. With that being said, I've also met faculty who regard their meetings with students as a waste of time that gets in the way of the research and other more academically important things such as giving interviews, writing books etc. If not for the students they teach they would not have a job, and yet they forget which side their bread is buttered on. While I applaud the author's step to publicly show is vulnerability and developing compassion for other, I do ask one question - why did it matter how much Jason weighed? Would Jason not have had the same issues if he was 150 pounds? If you were attempting to give us a full picture of who Jason really was, there are plenty of other ways to describe him or get the same point across. Someone's weight, just as orientation, race, ability/disability, is just one small part of who a person is. Unfortunately, people tend to judge and evaluate long before a person gets the chance to show who they are. You may have had Jason "sized up" as he walked in your door for the first time, which may have prevented you from truly serving him as a teacher should. Lastly, I've noticed that the "frequent fliers" who visit often and can drain ones time often are seeking attention. Not in the 5 year old obnoxious sort of way, but in many cases I have seen, the student may not have support at home or get positive interactions with others in their circle. When digging deeper, I discovered that many of these students were so internally grateful that someone actually stopped for a moment to talk to them (even about school work positively or negatively)that they unintentially go overboard with visits and discussions because they unknowingly crave someone to care even if it's just for a few minutes. As educators, we may not want to be that person to students, but by the very nature of our profession, we need to be.

34. humprof72 - August 07, 2009 at 05:35 pm

When my child first went to school I remember suddenly seeing all my students as "somebody's child" and being very gentle with them. Except that some of these 30 year old public university students sensed it and used it. We'll never get this right, because the fakes are so good at it, you steel yourself-- then from time to time you get tough with a poor soul and feel even worse than when the fakes rip you off. But I do remember my vulnerability when I saw my child in every student-- as if there weren't many kinds of people in the world, including those that needed monitoring. Good luck.

35. bacick - August 07, 2009 at 08:53 pm

I'd like to add my own experience. When I was a 1st year undegraduate in a hard science field in a foreign country, I had to repeat the same course twice. The second time I discovered during the oral exam I was failing, I broke down and cried. Looking back almost 6 years later, well into my last years of my PhD, I remember fondly of my professor's reaction -- which was to put me in front of my own responsibilities and my bad work ethic. Noone was out to get me and make me fail; I was responsible for my own success. Turning my academic performance around and getting into a prestigious PhD program has been the most exhilerating experience of my life -- being in charge of my own success and failures. When I deal with my own students as a TA or advisor, I always remember that compassion and empathy must be tempered with accountability and candor. Just my two cents!

36. ksledge - August 08, 2009 at 10:52 am

"Another part of this story that caught my attention was the fact that Jason took up a ton of the professor's time and then failed anyway, all that time was put to waste. Once I conclude there is no hope for a student to pass my class, I limit their visits to my office to designated office hours only. Too many times in the past have I spent hours upon hours giving a student extra help only to have them flunk or drop the class." I understand the sentiment here, but at what point do you "conclude that there is no hope" for the student? I've had multiple students fail the first two (of three) exams and turn things around at the end to get a C or D in the class. I know I've been lucky to teach at a good school with strong students, but I tend to find that the students who get Fs are troubled, not incapable. Typically you can help them do something about it if you spend some time with them. You don't have to be their tutor, but you can urge/help them to get a tutor or psychological help. I'm surprised by how many people think that crying students are manipulative students. I suppose a couple of them could be, but the vast majority of crying students are actually upset and overwhelmed. I think we also forget that students have lives outside our courses. Sometimes they get a major medical problem (e.g. cancer) or someone close to them dies (parent, friend...I'm not just talking elderly grandparents.) We shouldn't relax our standards, but we shouldn't be unnecessarily callous, either.

37. rtalbert - August 09, 2009 at 01:36 pm

Knowing your students is the key to maintaining a balance between professionalism and high standards on the one hand and compassion on the other. If you learn your students' names, their hometowns, where they went to high school, what their academic experience has been like so far, what their parents do for a living, and so on, you have both an opportunity and a context for giving honest, frequent, and above all believable feedback to the students. And I've found that students who listen to that kind of feedback, even if they fail the class, are not going to be the ones crying in my office unless it's just out of exhaustion. If I pay attention to students the way I want them to pay attention to me, I'll see their problems with the class coming a mile away and can give information to them about it. So even if a student comes in and just isn't ready to pass the class right now -- maybe they haven't had the prerequisite course, or they had it three years ago, or maybe they are just too involved with other things and are unwilling to give things up, or whatever -- they'll know early and elect to opt out of the class, rather than plug away. I'd much rather that everybody who enrolls in my courses would successfully complete them, but that's probably never going to be the reality. The very least I can do is treat my students as human beings (NOT as children!) and become a trusted source of information about their progress relative to the course goals and standards.

38. rtalbert - August 09, 2009 at 01:51 pm

Clarification on my comment: Any student who has completed the prerequisite material for my classes (which are in mathematics) and who does the assignments can pass. But some students require a much higher-than-normal investment in time and energy to pass or do well in those classes, maybe because of deficiencies in their prerequisite knowledge, personal issues, or what-have-you. And of those students, some will find the will to pass anyway; but many will not. That's what I mean by students who "[aren't] ready to pass the class". Knowing your students might help get some students from the latter group into the former group. That's my daily hope at least.

39. rachelreynolds - August 10, 2009 at 06:45 am

Many of the responses to this short article "read in" a lot of expectations and anxieties. Such strong responses are probably very good -- it shows that people are devoting themselves on some level to grasping how best to help students. And ironically, even those who are critical (or derisive) of Lehnhof's parent metaphor tend to either rhetoricaly sound like they are giving parenting advice, or critical of poor parenting.

40. alialea - August 10, 2009 at 09:44 am

What I really wanted from this article --and did not get-- were specific suggestions on what to do with crying students. "Treat them as if they were your children" is too vague, and problematic in the ways other responders have pointed out, although it's useful in offering a starting point for sympathy. I have had a few students cry in my office. What did I do? It depended on the case. Usually if they are doing poorly in my class, they are doing poorly in other classes. I make my grading as transparent as possible, so the student's concern rarely lies in why a particular grade was assigned. I ask the student if he/she would like some tea or a drink of water and get him/her some tissues. Once the student has calmed down, we talk briefly about study and organizational strategies. I point out campus resources that can work with the student to develop those skills, as well as where to go to get some psychological help if the student is feeling overwhelmed (here I hand out a list of contacts the school has prepared for such cases), particularly if the source of the anxiety seems to come from something outside of school. Usually we end up brainstorming together about strategies for a little while. The whole meeting does not take more than 15 minutes, and it has to, because outside my door there's often a crowd of waiting students who have signed up for 15 minute office hour slots. I think they often leave my office knowing that their improvement lies in their own hands, and that they now have a clearer sense of how to improve.

41. renprof - August 10, 2009 at 03:39 pm

I've had students cry in my office or after class, and yes, it's never fun, but like the students themselves, every case is different. I do make it absolutely clear that everyone is given all the same opportunities and is judged by the same criteria. If a student is caught plagiarizing and bursts into tears, of course I feel sorry for them: what kind of monster would I be if I couldn't? But I also follow the procedures for reporting plagiarism and state briskly that I must report it to be fair. Students have all kinds of reasons for experiencing stress. I'd have to agree with the people who say that compassion and rigor aren't mutually exclusive.

42. leblank - August 11, 2009 at 10:36 am

This comment struck me: "Another part of this story that caught my attention was the fact that Jason took up a ton of the professor's time and then failed anyway, all that time was put to waste." How is it a waste of time to sit down and try to teach a student something? This seems to imply that the goal of working with a student is for them to pass the class, not to learn something. Personally, I've had students who failed my class because of a poor work ethic, usually at the beginning of the semester, but who still learned about the topic from working with me, attempting to pull their grade out of the gutter. Even after the math of their grades says that they can no longer pass, I still encourage them to keep working so that when they repeat the class, they'll be better prepared. Of course, they're always disappointed at this conversation and some stick around just hoping that if they try really hard, I'll change my mind (though I never do). The fact of the matter is that if a student is willing to learn and work, I'm more than happy to spend time working with them, regardless of their current grade. I'd hope that most teachers feel the same way about learning versus grades.

43. tookt - August 13, 2009 at 02:05 pm

leblank--you're absolutely right. The idea that it is a "waste" of my time if a student eventually fails my class is wrong-headed. Many lessons come from failure. I don't sanctimoniously point that fact out when a student cries in my office, but I think it, even as I show compassion for the student. We must allow (at least, in our own minds) that failing is not necessarily a bad thing although it may be (temporarily?) painful for the individual. I certainly have had failures (sometimes seemingly colossal ones) and hope those dealing with me during these failing times didn't see their patience as "wasted." I think I may have genuinely learned MORE through failure and recovery.

44. matthewhamilton - August 29, 2009 at 11:17 am

Very well considered piece - fruit for thought with regards to focusing on the untapped intellectual resources those in teaching are presented with daily.

45. drgarysgoodman - December 11, 2009 at 10:48 am

Students are not their grades.

Later, they'll learn, if they're lucky, they aren't their cars, mortgages, careers, relationships, and statuses.

46. rw142332 - December 11, 2009 at 02:08 pm

I have seen a broad spectrum of opinions to this article and some are quite shocking. My background in education is as varied as many of the opinions that are quoted in response to this article. I began a career with an MBA and presently I am working on a doctoral degree in Student Affairs. So, you can imagine that I have a different outlook on the whole affair. It is our responsibilty as faculty members, administrators and student affairs leaders to guide our students through a learning process
that encompasses the whole student. We must not treat all students with the same applications, because each of them are unique in their own way. It is important for them to learn what it means to fail so that they can also learn how to suceed. However, there is a difference between a student crying about the difference between an A and a B versus the student who may loose their entire scholarship over one non-passing grade. We must consider the differences so that we can find the resources to help those who sincerely need them. We should not act as their parents, but we should live up to our resposibilty as their mentors. Remember that we are employed to serve the students to the best of our abilities not the other way around. Perhaps in some of these cases we might best serve our students by offering many of the student services that are available at most universities to ensure that they all have an equal opportunity to suceed. Many students today are more non-traditional than the average students of the past and therefore require more assistance in several areas.

47. upallnight - December 12, 2009 at 09:07 am

I have a box of tissues in my office at all times, because crying will happen and does happen every semester. I tell all new faculty members or instructors. Keep the kleenex handy. I am a compassionate instructor, but I feel that the time for tears is well before the final grades are due. Too often, students try to get the grade they want through very careful calculation of what the course requires weighed with what time they want to spend. When they realize that they have miscalculated and what they thought was going to be an easy A (or B or C, you'd be surprised how many just want that easy C!), then they turn on the waterworks. I can't tell you the number of times that I have been with a student showing them the excel spreadsheet and how the grade was calculated. I say, "it is not magic; it's math." I believe a caring parent would do the same. The lesson is when you cut corners and take chances, sometimes the outcome is not in your favor. That's why it's best not to cut corners and take chances with things that are important to you (or should be important to you).

48. amnirov - December 13, 2009 at 06:31 am

But a student is his or her grades. Grades determine entrance or persistence in programs. Grades determine funding and graduation. And so what? No everyone gets the best grades. Some people work harder than others, or are more intelligent, or both, and these people get the best grades. Others do not. Faculty need to stop being whiners and rather than give out grades, merely note the grade that the student earned. If someone cries, refer them to the dean of students or a counselor and ask them to immediately leave the office. 99% of the time, tears are an attempt at extortion.

49. witten426 - December 13, 2009 at 11:10 am

going to the dean is extorsion.
unless you are at a theater school, i doubt tears are faked all that often.

50. amnirov - December 13, 2009 at 02:00 pm

I don't think that the tears are faked. Like any true attempt at extortion, there is no trickery involved. Those tears are real. I think that today's student has been carefully trained to think that when they get all upset and sad that people will do just about anything to cheer them up and make everything all better.

When I see tears, my already hard heart hardens just that little bit more.

51. collegeaccessforall - December 14, 2009 at 10:57 am

When I first started teaching, oh so long ago, as a 20 year old graduate student, a student came up to me begging for a grade change.Please, if he flunks out he will be drafted and the Vietnam War was raging then. I was astonished when he broke down in tears, sobbing. No, I didn't want him to be drafted, either. Yes, I changed his grade. I was young, inexperienced and had never had someone break down crying like that. Next semester I had 6 of his fraternity brothers in my class....

52. post_functional - December 29, 2009 at 07:30 pm

Well, you know, amnirov, when your male students cry, you need to make them man up. Take them hunting and teach them how to gut a fish.

53. roxxsmom - December 29, 2009 at 07:34 pm

I agree it is never fun when students break down in our offices or during class because of the emotional stress they are under. Certainly, we should treat them with respect and let them know they are heard when this happens. But does the occasional "crier" mean we are approaching teaching in the wrong way?

Students are under intense financial pressures these days and many of them are woefully unprepared for the rigors of college by our collective culture, their families of origin and our underfunded "one size fits all" k-12 system. Many are juggling numerous responsibilities outside of school, either bacause of choices they have made in the past or through no fault of their own. Our expectations of them are often the first "wakeup call" they have ever gotten that they need to change their approach to life and learning. Of course we have to respect differences in the way students express their frustrations with these situations and be aware that the "criers" are probably the tip of the iceberg. But as a college instructor, part of my job is to be objective in my dealings with students and to be sympathetic but strict and to have appropriately high standards. I am not doing students any real favor if I bend over backwards to accomodate their "issues" or lower my standards because of their individual situations. If they do get into professional school or get a good job, they will be expected to perform.....no excuses. Even hard work and ability are no guarantees of success in the world we are preparing them for, and life has never been "tear free" for any of us.

54. jajuka - December 29, 2009 at 08:23 pm

This excerpt caught my attention:

"I'd had countless conferences with this student. In fact, 'Jason' had been in to see me at least once a week since the semester began. He rarely stayed for less than 30 minutes, and his long and frequent visits were a source of great frustration. As the hours added up, I became increasingly resentful that one student was asking so much of me in the way of counseling, concessions, and overall hand-holding."

As an undergraduate, I've wondered if there is such a thing as going to office hours too much. On the one hand, I always thought that seeking out one's professors outside of class was part of the right kind of academic engagement. I really value the discussions I've had with my professors, and sometimes think that those who only show up for lectures might as well be enrolled in a correspondence course. At the same time, I sometimes worry that my showing up at a professor's door every week just annoys them, and that perhaps they consider my visits burdensome. Do some overeager students need to reign it in a little? Do we risk making our professors "resentful"?

55. rickinchina09 - December 30, 2009 at 06:11 am

I used to be known as something of a pushover but I always thought I was making exceptions where they were not only warranted but needed. Although I've change my demeanor to some extent, I'm still a marshmallow deep inside and hope never to lose that side of my humanity. I shudder when I think of the professors who are so convinced of their correctness of cause that they mark down students' work with nary a care. I can recall one such individual who taught Central American history and automatically assigned a lower mark to any student who used American instead of North American to describe the former. It wasn't just a pet peeve with him, either. Instead, he'd become so consumed with the righteousness of his cause that he began to think that it was more than semantic gymnastics but a rite of passage. While I didn't fault him for his passionate views, I loathed his pettiness. Within the span of a single brief comment he declared it the best written analysis of the Kissinger Doctrine in the class and the most parochial because of its use of American to describe U.S. foreign policy. On his scale, these concerns balanced out. But he lost the respect of the student, (one who was in awe of this professor's stature) in the end for not even be willing to revisit the resulting grade, an AB. I recall this vividly even to this day, for I was that student. Now I am a professor myself and whenever I want to get on my high horse, I try to recall how I felt at that moment: not cheated or, worse yet, betrayed, but simply ignored.

56. dee615 - December 30, 2009 at 09:22 am

As someone who teaches Math, I know that assigning and justifying a grade is easier for me than for a faculty member in a more subjective discipline. With that caveat, let me lay out some practical suggestion re. grading that I've started implementing.

* All assignments have the same point value. Then it is easy for me to calculate the overall HW grade by dropping the lowest 1/2 or 1/3 of the assignments. This allows for students who have a few bad days in the semester to get by without too much penalty.

* Starting the second week of class, regularly warn individual students doing poorly in class of their performance in the course. Suggest sources of help. Keep track of their progress and offer appropriate support and encouragement. If a diligent student approaches me with a story of personal misfortune, allow them an "incomplete"; do not be liberal with this concession.

* The week before the Final, inform each student where they stand in the class: "You need X% in the final to pass with a grade Y". In the case of particularly demanding/ fussy students (who, I have noted, are also much more likely to lodge complaints against their instructors), inform them via e-mail. This way, I have a written, dated record that the student was aware of his/ her standing in class prior to the Finals. ( "But I don't read my school e-mails" is not an acceptable excuse.)

This is not a foolproof method against end of the semester meltdowns. But I think (feel?) that having a systematic method of grading that allows for some vagaries in life, while maintaining academic standards, keeps me from being swayed by subjective considerations at an unguarded moment.

57. pseudotriton - December 30, 2009 at 10:25 am

What about all the search committees and department chairs who cause the job candidates to cry? Or the journal editors and reviewers who cold-heartedly reject manuscripts and make the authors cry? Who's got the compassion for us post-graduates who's not yet at the comfortable point of a secure job?

58. mfvtdc - December 30, 2009 at 11:59 am

All of these comments, as well as the original story, focus on students crying during office hours. What about the student who breaks down during class? In one such incident I witnessed, the professor stepped in and facilitated the remaining 45 minutes of the seminar. But (s)he took a few minutes at the end directly addressing the incident to the entire class - acknowledging in an empathetic and non-judgmental manner that it had happened and suggesting that the discomfort it caused everyone could be treated as an opportunity for self-reflection rather than something to be dismissed, denied, or joked away. Some of the students in the seminar said later that those comments helped prevent the incident from becoming the proverbial elephant in the room for the rest of the term, that simply acknowledging that it had happened helped to normalize it/provide closure. But while the prof successfully and tactfully negotiated the emotional dynamics for the group at that time, at no point then or later did (s)he address the inappropriateness of such behavior in terms of professionalism for the whole group (although possibly with the individual student). I saw (and continue to see the need) for both the empathetic management of high emotions and a discussion about boundaries/conduct after the fact, but what is the best way to do the latter?

59. mssmiley - December 30, 2009 at 01:30 pm

I have read with great interest some very insightful comments here; other comments I find very insensitive. As a parent and instructor, I can identify with the ethical discomfort faced by the author of this article. Instructors stand in a position of enormous power and as such, must look at the totality of the student's situation before assigning a grade. He mentioned that he had numerous meetings with the student during the course of the semester, so that makes me wonder if he was satisfied that he gave the student ample opportunity to succeed in his class. Maybe e should have advised the student to drop the coursse and take it in the following semester; that way he would have saved himself and the student the tears in the end. Someitmes instructional delivery can contribute to student's failure, so it is not always the student's fault. That said, we should also set reasonable exppectaions for students and prepare them to be responsible adults. If the student is finally crying after being negligent throughout the semester, then I would not hesitate to give him or her the failing grade he deserves, but this does not appear to be the case here. We have moral obligation to broden our views on student performance and not just look at grades, but take into account the overall character and effort of the student.

60. mssmiley - December 30, 2009 at 02:02 pm

Well said #32.
"I am proud to have a career that allows me to positively influence people at impressionable stages of development."

Instructors play a multi-faceted role in a student's social and academic development, and should relish the opportunity for constuctive engagement. What we say to students today, stays with them forever. When I meet with students, I always pray that the instructor sitting across the table from them is giving them the same opportuiity I am giving them; a life lesson, a sound advice, and the opportunity to enrich their academic experience.

61. deanette - December 30, 2009 at 05:21 pm

No woman could would have been forgiven, let alone congratulated, for writing this article. She would have been burnt at the stake for her womanly compassion.

62. vcascadden - December 31, 2009 at 02:04 pm

As an adjunct, I'm finding myself walking this uncomfortable tightrope between being "fair" to students who did not measure up, even to very clearly conveyed course requirements, and upholding standards of academic rigor. Even though a student's tears (or heart-rending emails) do push my emotional buttons, I try to take a long view. Will the same student be able to, years down the line, sway a boss with emotional outbursts when he/she did not do his/her job properly? At the beginning of each course, I impress upon my class that they (or their parents)have paid significant $$$ to attend school, and to expect to perform at a level that will prepare them for an often unforgiving world. To react with our own discomfort at our students' emotional manipulation does not do them any favor in the long run.

63. isugeezer - January 04, 2010 at 08:20 am

To jajuka (#59): I will not speak for other professors, but, yes, a student who visits me every week (or every day) does run the risk of making me resentful of his/her demands on my time. Let me be clear, however: I absolutely love it when students come to see me during office hours. Often, it's the highlight of my day.

Here are a few questions you should ask yourself:

1) Do you begin your visit by politely asking me if I have a few minutes to talk? Sometimes, an office hour that has been reserved for meeting with students is co-opted by my department chair, who wants me to work on something that is due immediately, so I don't have the whole hour to visit with you. I will tell you how much time I have to talk today; please respect that limitation.

2) Do you have something to talk about that is related to the course or to the student-teacher relationship that we share? If not, you may be using my office hour as a place to hang out between classes. If I say things to you such as, "So, is there anything specific you wanted to discuss?" I'm trying to bring your focus to our professional relationship. I may really like you, but we're not pals, and my office hour is part of my working day, not my free time.

3) While in my office, do you notice that other students are waiting outside the door? If I call your attention to others who are waiting, do you take my cue and use only your share of the time?

4) Can you read body language? Do I lean forward and make eye contact with you, responding to your remarks with follow-up questions and comments, or do I remain oriented toward my computer, frequently break eye contact, glance at the clock or the doorway, and offer only short responses that seem designed to end the conversation?

If your answers to these questions are "yes," you are probably welcome during office hours, no matter how frequently you visit.

64. fanon2 - January 05, 2010 at 06:35 am

there are teachers whose purpose is to inflict pain and engender tears. i've had a few of them. it usually happens after tenure or when they are feeling like they are not being worshiped enough. when you speak of the care and compassion that can only be felt by a parent -- how can a 25 to 30 or 40 year old single self-absorbed person know about the depth of love and compassion felt by an adult parent of a human being not a pet?

65. fanon2 - January 05, 2010 at 06:38 am

about a failing student taking up too much of your time. oh, my...i'm glad you are not a medical doctor.

66. mtkny - January 06, 2010 at 05:40 am

@fanon2: I hope I get pregnant soon so I can know such deep love and compassion. Such as the love and compassion shown to an astonishingly high number of my former high school students by their parents who sexually abused, beat, abandoned, and neglected their children. Being single, self-absorbed, 38, and childless (though replete with dogs), I couldn't possibly understand that kind of love and compassion. No wonder as an instructor I'm a stickler for standards and quality products. I thought it was because I care about my field (education) and about my students' future students.

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