Teacher’s dilemma

Dear Michelle

I have just started teaching college students and I thought it was important to make my expectations very clear at the outset. I explained that it was my policy to set a deadline for assignments and that I would not give extensions. Late or missed assignments would receive a zero grade. When asked if there could ever be exceptions I said that it was possible but to not rely on it. If bad things happened letting me know as early as possible was the best way to find a resolution. No one assignment was  worth more that 5% of the overall grade. I told them that the best way to deal with a hard deadline was to get the work done as early as possible.

Several weeks into the course one of my best (and one of my favourite) students came to my office to tell me she had missed the deadline because – and she proceeded to tell me a story that I had no reason to disbelieve and that would understandably result in her missing the deadline. She asked for an extension. Having to make a decision on the fly I told her that there was no harm in asking. I thanked her for explaining what had happened but that my policy was clear and she would receive zero.

But now I wonder if I did the right thing?

Sleepless

Dear Sleepless

These tough moments do tend to hit us unexpectedly. The fact that she is a good student and one you like is not relevant but let’s face it, it would have been less painful if that weren’t true.

This is a classic justice versus mercy situation. Justice demands that you follow the clear rule you created. Mercy begs you to consider the other factors. It has short and long-term implications as well. Making a decision in the short-term is relatively easy – give the extension or give a zero – but you wisely know that you would be setting a precedent. From here on you would have to vet excuses. Or accept them without question. Perhaps this situation has a smattering of individual versus community in that you have to consider both the individual student and the entire class.

So I see the conflict statement as being something like this:

It is right to apply the rule impartially and it is right to consider the individual circumstances.

Applying the resolution principles might bring some insight. From a care based perspective – if you were the student, how would you have wanted your teacher to respond?

If the teacher granted the extension would you see her as “nice” and compassionate? Or maybe you would think she was gullible and an easy touch. If the teacher gave a zero for the assignment would you think she was “hard” and mean? Or maybe you would think she was fair and impartial. A care based perspective provides insight by testing how you would feel in the situation.

Using an ends based perspective means doing the greatest good and the least harm. Doing the least harm to the student does not necessarily mean that you should give her an extension. Giving her a zero may help her to build character or to learn to accept personal responsibility. You may be helping prepare her for a world that will care less about her as an individual. And of course, the greatest good for the class as a whole may be that they see that you mean what you say. This is a good time to remind you that the zero on this assignment is not onerous.

A rules based approach requires that you act in a way that is agrees your own deeply held beliefs. You took the time to craft a policy and explain it to your students so that your expectations were clear. I would bet that you believe that individuals should be willing to accept the consequences of their behaviour.

On balance and reflection it appears that you have likely been true to your convictions. Only you know – it is not for me to judge. But you have done minimal harm to both the individual and the group and may in fact have achieved the greater good as an educator by teaching a life lesson.

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One Reply to “Teacher’s dilemma”

  1. As one who has been there, done that; I’ve to realize what Jesus himself stated in the scriptures, “I’ve come to desire mercy not justice”. There are times when common sense should rule and this teacher may have missed the greatest opportunity of proving her humanity to a young student who will sooner not forget this adage… “There’ll always be fools in high places”.

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