Myra missed a day of class every week, and many weeks she missed two out of four days. She didn’t offer any reasons for missing, just breezed in the next day with a smile and settled in to work. She seemed engaged and interested, and then didn’t show up the next day.
I was at a loss. Clearly she liked the readings we were doing in class, liked the discussions, and quickly set to work on writing and other assignments. I didn’t think she was ill. I knew she didn’t have kids. Her abysmal attendance frustrated me no end, and my judgmental self played a tape in my head: “She treats my class like a drop-in fun fair!” “Clearly not motivated to pass the course.” “Why should I work to catch her up on what she missed when she deigns to return?” “She doesn’t respect the work I do to prep this class.”
I can’t fault myself or anyone else when those instant judgments float into our minds. They hang in the air around us, waiting to be applied to any situation. And of course we take student behaviour personally. We are persons, after all. Still, when I am teaching there is nothing I want more than to succeed at my job, so I work on noticing those judgements as they float by, keeping them to myself, and cultivating curiousity about what is going on in the situation and in my head.
Myra’s insouciance did not square with my mental monologue. If she had come back to class sullen, if she hadn’t made any effort when she did come, if she had made excuses, then I might not have noticed how negative my thoughts about the situation were. That is how assumptions sneak by me: they come camoflauged by context.
In this case the picture in my head, of a student unmotivated and disrespectful, did not jibe with the reality in front of me. And that incongruence shook me out of my complacence. It piqued my curiosity.
Putting my judgments aside for a moment, I had a private chat with her. I said that I enjoyed her contributions to the class, and that she was more than capable of doing the work. However, I was worried that her poor attendance would mean that she would not pass the class, and I found it frustrating to try to catch her up every time she came back after an absence.
Then I left a little space of silence…
She told me that she lived with her cousin, her cousin’s husband and their two young school-age children. She did not pay rent, and it was understood that she would babysit and help out in exchange for room and board. Frequently the couple would oversleep, and when they woke up it was a mad scramble for them to get to work. It was a scramble for the kids, too, and often they would miss the school bus. In that case, the parents would go to work, the kids would stay home from school and Myra would have to stay home to look after the kids. She didn’t like it, but there was nothing she could do…
I asked her to come up with some possible solutions to the problem of getting herself to school. After some thought she said that if she had her own alarm clock she could wake up in time to get the kids to the bus, and get herself to class, no matter what the parents were doing. But she didn’t know how to use an alarm clock.
I said I could help with that, so she went out and bought an alarm clock, I showed her how to set it; she got to class more often, and passed the course.
It was my curiosity that made a little space for us to meet and solve the problem of her absences. In all my judgmental monologues I never once said, “She doesn’t even care enough to buy an alarm clock!” because I didn’t know she didn’t have an alarm clock! Curiosity opened up a space so she could bring that piece of information into the picture and we could work together to find a solution. Myra’s sunny disposition jolted me into wondering what was making her miss so much, since she obviously liked to come to class. That curiosity led me to an outcome I could never have imagined.