It’s finals week on campus and students are completing their culminating assignments for their coursework. For some students, this weekend will mark the end of their educational journeys. My institution holds its commencement ceremonies on Friday and Saturday, which will officially serve as a final celebration of their achievements as students and scholars. Some will continue on to further their studies in other programs and possibly other institutions. For others, this will mark the end of their formal classroom learning for their lives. It’s a rite of passage that deserves to be celebrated.
If you’re privileged to attend a commencement ceremony in the coming weeks (or months), I urge you to look beyond the long lists of names that appear in the program. I attended large, public universities for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. In one case, the list of names was almost a thousand graduates long. Seeing those names, it is easy to lose sight of individual students and the journeys they’ve taken to graduation. While we’re celebrating their achievements as a group, we also need to recognize that the individual paths may have been filled with hardships and challenges. And that’s what I want to write about today.
At this weekend’s commencements, three students with whom I’ve worked are graduating in their respective programs. Each of these students are unique in their experiences, but they all faced great challenges that they had to persevere. I’m not going to use their names to offer them anonymity and privacy but trust me that their journeys have been harrowing. In each case, their academic work took a back seat to the real-life challenges they were experiencing. They stepped away from their coursework. They missed assignments and deadlines. They went weeks (or months) without logging into their classes. They didn’t respond to emails I had sent. They essentially checked out.
The easy thing for a teacher to do in those instances is to fail the student. But the easy thing is rarely the right thing to do. With each of these students, patience and support was the better route. Maybe it helps that I myself have experienced loss or that I have family members who have been in therapy for mental health issues. It probably also helped that I’d worked with these students before and recognized their absence from work as being out of the ordinary. I knew these were exceptional individuals who, for some reason, were not able to focus on their academics. Each just needed some time and help. What they didn’t need is someone labeling them as failures.
I want to make sure you, the reader, recognize that I’m not patting myself on the back for the amazing resilience and success that these students displayed. They’re the ones who did the work. They’re the ones who navigated their great personal challenges and then regrouped and reconnected with their schoolwork. They’re the ones whose names will appear in the commencement programs this weekend.
Instead, this post is intended to serve as reminder that teaching fundamentally is relational work. As teachers, we work with human beings who are living lives that we know very little about. Sometimes, the human beings we work with need some humanity, empathy, and benevolence. These students did. And other students will, too.
As we celebrate the achievements of these graduates, let us recognize the importance of kindness, patience, and support in our students’ educational journeys. We must remember that students are not just names on a list, but human beings with unique experiences and challenges that can impact their academic performance. As teachers, we have the opportunity to make a difference in their lives by extending empathy and understanding, and giving them the support and patience they need to succeed.
Congratulations to all the graduates and best wishes for their future endeavors.