If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll recognize that I’ve adopted some guiding principles over the last few years. Most of these principles have come from my interactions with colleagues and students and from reading and listening to people who are way smarter than I am. While scholars like Brené Brown, Parker Palmer, and Stephen Brookfield have informed these principles, I also credit some really thoughtful colleagues who have led me through courageous conversations about what it means to be a supportive teacher to struggling students. I’ve distilled some of these into blog posts stretching back before the pandemic, but I leaned really heavily into these principles during the pandemic. Emotions like empathy, grace, and hospitality pepper these posts and were distilled into practices like “assume positive intent” and “lead with empathy” and “offer grace.” But I’ve cycled back to these recently and I’m starting to wonder whether they may need a little revising. I’ll get to that, but first… a story.
During the Spring 2020 semester, I was working with a graduate student named Rebecca (not her real name). At the time, Rebecca was a teacher in a neighboring school, but she was also enrolled in the capstone course of her graduate program. Since the program offers advanced credentials for practicing teachers, the capstone course involves a pretty intensive action research project that graduate students must incorporate into their classrooms. The beginning part of the semester involves a lot of planning and literature reviewing which eventually culminates in a research-based examination into their own teaching.
You can probably see where this is going. Just as the action research portion of the semester was about to begin, the pandemic hit, and schools shut down. At the time, we didn’t have a clear idea of how things were going to play out, so I reorganized the project to allow for alternate means of examination and reflection. The graduate students in the class were still able to complete an action research project of sorts and were able to graduate on time. Well, almost all of them.
When the pandemic hit, Rebecca disappeared. Despite multiple attempts, she didn’t respond to my emails or return my calls. It didn’t feel right failing a student in the middle of a pandemic, so I gave Rebecca an incomplete. From my perspective, I was leading with empathy, assuming positive intent, and trying to offer grace to someone who may need it.
Weeks after the semester ended, Rebecca resurfaced by sending me a long, emotional email. In the email, she detailed some mental health issues she had been experiencing. She thanked me for the incomplete. She also promised that she just needed a few weeks to get things back together. She’d be ready to jump back into her course work once she got into a better place emotionally.
I bumped into Rebecca later that summer on a walking trail near my neighborhood. She said she was doing better and ready to reengage with the project. She asked that I send her an email detailing what she would need to do to complete the project and ultimately graduate. Later that afternoon, I sent Rebecca that email.
I just checked my inbox to verify the date. It was July 2020. And I still haven’t heard from Rebecca.
If you’ve gotten to this point of the post, you may be expecting me to toss out this grace and empathy business. After all, I’m revising my guiding principles. Looking back at the email I sent Rebecca in July 2020, it still feels like I did the right thing. I led with empathy. I offered grace. I communicated my support when she was in a troubled place. And all of that still feels right.
If there’s a revision that needs to occur, however, it’s that I need to adopt an additional guiding principle: set clear boundaries and expectations. As I reread that email, I realize I didn’t set any clear deadlines. While I communicated my expectations for the work that needed to be done, I didn’t include any time frame for its completion. I didn’t even require that she responded. Sure, I asked that she “stay in touch and reach out if she needed assistance,” but I wasn’t clear with any other details. So, while I’m sitting here, upset that Rebecca still hasn’t engaged, there wasn’t any clear deadline for Rebecca to engage. And that’s on me.
While I’m not quite ready to drop the grace, empathy and positive intent stuff, it’s probably time that I start communicating more clearly in terms of my boundaries and expectations.