Leading with Compassion

Dear Dr. Lincoln, I was admitted to the hospital last night with premature labor pains (I am 34 weeks along), and I am scheduled for a C-section at noon today. I have not completed the final pieces of my paper, and was wondering if I could have a few extra days to submit it. I know it will be late and am willing to take a points deduction. Thank you.

Most of the college instructors I know have received many similar emails over the past few months. Our students are facing the greatest challenges of their lifetimes, whether it is an adult taking care of a sick loved one, a parent who now has kids at home and is responsible for their online education, a son traveling to another country to say goodbye to a family member, a community member whose city is grappling with issues of racial justice, an employee who has recently been laid off and is wondering how she will pay the bills, or—for many of our students—several of these combined. It is natural that these challenges will eventually leak into their coursework. When they do, let us lead with compassion.  

For too long, views of compassion have been at odds with academia: Compassion lowers standards. Compassion doesn’t teach discipline. Compassion doesn’t build resilience. Compassion promotes laziness. These beliefs help neither educators nor students, and they serve to reinforce the power inequalities that make professors the arbiters of that which is right or wrong. At their worst, these beliefs deny students their humanity. If we want our colleges and universities to be places of discourse and growth, we must acknowledge that our students are human beings who are facing incredible challenges. And to that, I say we need to lead with compassion.

What does compassion for students look like? Perhaps it means an extra few days to complete an assignment so the student can care for an ill family member. Maybe it means sending an email to a student, acknowledging his fears about not being able to provide for his family now that he is unemployed. Perhaps it is a phone call to check in on a student who is going through overwhelming circumstances. Or, maybe it’s just a class announcement that offers support and resources to students, showing that you care about their well-being.

Leading with compassion not only acknowledges that students are human and worthy of care and support, but also recognizes our own vulnerabilities and humanity. Within the context of my own health challenges, I have requested that meetings be rescheduled or that I be given extra time to finish assignments. When this has happened, I have been met with grace and mercy by colleagues and supervisors who understand that I am doing the best I can under the circumstances I face. How then could I not extend this same mercy and grace to my students who are struggling similarly? Am I more worthy of mercy and grace because I have a doctorate and more years of field experience under my belt?

So, let us acknowledge the unprecedented, weird, and awful times in which we live. Let us respond as humans and not as machines programmed to seek and destroy weakness. Let us support students as whole people struggling to continue on their academic and professional paths. Let us lead with compassion.

Tami Lincoln is an assistant professor of liberal studies at Brandman University. She works in the online campus and works closely with students seeking to prepare for careers in the elementary and secondary classroom.

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