Saturday, 19 November 2011

Caring For Students

One of the more hurtful comments I see from time to time about women who do not have children is that we are incapable of empathy. It is a ridiculous assumption, but it's bandied about more times than I care to recall. This week has been a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting reminder of why such assumptions are bollocks.

By the time I start teaching most of my students, they are already 18, so there are rarely any safeguarding issues. Students can therefore come to any member of staff and talk about things in absolute confidence. For many reasons - I'm one of the younger lecturers, I teach biology (making me a target for all health-related questions), and I have a reputation for being available for students out of teaching hours - students confide in me more than any other member of staff, often including their tutors.

So at the moment I'm supporting three students through some major personal difficulties. I've held up the next class at the door letting a student say what they need to say or seek advice. I've extended deadlines or forfeited homeworks altogether. I spent over two hours helping one student get to grips with AS Chemistry, though it's over 13 years since I did it myself.

On the flip side of this, I've had to discipline two A2 students for plagiarism. They say they were so worried about not having any homework to hand in to me that they resorted to copying a friend's. I had to explain to them why I was so much harder on cases of plagiarism than other teachers - that I had been a direct victim of a minor case of it, and that I had seen it cause major problems for friends. I spent an hour with these two, them licking their wounds and accusing me of hating them. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Sometimes truly caring for students means having to tell them off when they do something unacceptable, to impose sanctions on them, and to punish them if needed. Sometimes caring is giving up your free time to help them, or even just sitting there quietly with them while they sit there quietly. Sometimes it's buying Hill & Holman's "Chemistry In Context" and Muncaster's "A Level Physics" so you can fill in the gaps left by your colleagues. Not bad for someone with a barren, nulliparous womb...

The hardest thing is not losing myself. Everything I'm doing at the moment is nurturing, mothering, caring. I look after the students. I look after my garden. I look after Jabba (always able to cheer me up when I'm shattered). Paul thinks that photography might be the thing that allows me to be just me and do something for myself. The macro lens I've asked for as a Christmas present will help.

Some have said I'll worry less the more experienced I become. But I don't really like the thought of worrying less, of caring less. Though I am absolutely exhausted, and find myself lying in bed unable to sleep, thinking about these students, I think I would be a worse teacher if I didn't take such personal responsibility for their well-being.


  1. Yes, exactly this. I'm supposed to make 2 hours available per week to personal tutees (I have about 24 of them, uni students so 18+). This week I've spent about 7 or 8 hours helping students with difficulties, of which none were personal tutees. I was grateful at one point when one personal tutee came past for a a chat but that everything was fine. My colleagues simply do not do this to the same extent.
    I don't want to stop caring, but the assumption that I am the only person capable of caring because I'm female is just as wrong as statements about my child baring status and empathy.

    You can only help the students by helping yourself first. Photography sounds like a great idea. I like reading science fiction so you can imagine how that one worked out this week ;)

  2. Ha - yes, try to find some less sexist science fiction reading to avoid high blood pressure incidents! ;)

    The "being female" thing is definitely a big part of it. I think the fact we're both closer in age to our students than our colleagues are is key too. We have designated personal tutors, but one is occasionally rather ascerbic and unsympathetic, and the other is still inexperienced and very easily shocked! So I can see why the students would come to me rather than their tutor.


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