Trust and Respect in the Classroom

I bring this up because @fortunafiasco noted this week on Twitter that requiring doctor’s notes for illnesses is inherently classist: it presumes access to medical care. We can’t presume that. The most desperate students often have the least access — whether financially or logistically — to the professionals whose notes would “excuse” them.

I don’t require doctor’s notes for absences and refuse them when students proffer them. I don’t do it not because it would be classist or whatever but because I operate from the position of trust and respect. If a student wasn’t in class, even if it’s for three weeks, I proceed from the assumption that there was an important and serious reason I don’t need to know about.

I don’t care about the power struggles of “prove to me that I’m so important that you wouldn’t miss my class without a good reason.” All I care is the learning. My first questions after an absence of any duration are, “what are we going to do to get you caught up? How can I help? What resources do we have to make it happen?”

Similarly, if the students need to leave class early or come in late – even if it’s every class during the semester, I assume there is a good reason and don’t bicker about it. The same goes for texting in class. If they do it, it must be something very important.

And I haven’t had anybody abuse my trust ever. We all are human, we all have shit happening. If I don’t proceed from the assumption that everybody is an evildoer out to demonstrate how insignificant I am.

My absence policy is that I always have very high participation percentages, and if you are away for a while, then participate like crazy when you come back and it will make up for the lost time. I take attendance every class but it’s not punitive. It helps me to remember faces and names faster and keep them fresh.

In short, teachers, get your sense of self-worth from other places than the classroom. It’s not the students’ job to make you feel valued. It’s great if you do but they can’t be the main source.

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14 thoughts on “Trust and Respect in the Classroom”

  1. I see this from a different perspective: Mothers who called my office and expected me to lie by writing a note saying that their child was sick without examining it, and then got indignant when I wouldn’t be that unprofessional.

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  2. I also never ask for sick notes (or look at them when offered). But the reason is slightly different – communism. During the communist period a doctor’s note exempting a person from all responsibility for anything in the universe was called an L4 and were super easy to get. This either helped start (or cemented) the Polish habit of using illness to solve a variety of life problems… It’s changing but slowly.

    But yeah, I get the point, you were gone, you must have had a good reason but you need to get caught up…
    Students do sometimes offer excuses which can be interesting… my favorite was the one who said “I’m sorry I missed class last week but I was chosen to be Miss Poland. I’m also going to have to miss class from time to time for personal appearances” (she was responsible and not a slacker so the department worked with her – and we used her for publicity too).

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  3. I’ve never taught a class, but my suspicion is that my inner petty tyrant would not react well to the process you outlined – that I’d basically react to lapses of attendance as a tiny personal slights. I doubt I’d actually let the frustration over them loose, but I’m quite certain that it’d be there.

    How do you get to place where you’re not bothered?

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  4. Added to all the other reasons for not trying to police attendance, my university explicitly tells us not to require notes— they work hard to have students stay home with flu and NOT go to the dr unless they need to. The dining hall will even arrange takeout meals to bring to sick students.

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      1. I also say to students, “sometimes people just don’t feel like being in class, and that’s ok. I had such moments when I was a student. Just make sure you get in touch with a classmate for the notes on what you missed.” They are always stunned to hear it.

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  5. I could not agree with you more. I always start my classes in week 1 by telling my students that they are adults and I fully trust them to decide how to spend their time as they see fit; if they wish to step out of class to take a phone call, use the loo, stretch their legs, get some fresh air, etc., they are more than welcome to do so at any time without asking my permission. We recently did an attendance audit in my department and I had by far the highest attendance of any of my colleagues.

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