Welp, it was bound to happen. I was bound to fail at my own efforts to make empathy top priority in my classroom. Fortunately, I predicted that and came up with a plan for when I did.
The plan is to apologize.
Yesterday, a quiet but observant freshman student told me with eyes firmly planted on the floor that he didn’t have his assignment complete. His reason? He had injured himself at sports practice the night before and spent the whole evening treating his wound and going to sleep early. I sat down close beside him and said quietly so only he could hear me:
“Life happens sometimes, and it prevents us from doing stuff we should do. I understand that. But it doesn’t mean you aren’t still responsible for those things. Next time life throws something bad your way, I want you to remember that you can contact me through email, Edmodo, or Remind. When you do, just explain what’s going on and ask for an extension. I will be happy to give it to you, but I need to hear from you sooner than when the assignment is due. Do you think you can make this strategy work next time?”
He nodded and I moved on to the rest of the students.
Then today it struck me: I never even asked how he was doing. Or how he hurt himself. Or how it was affecting the rest of his school day. After boldly declaring to my class that I cared more about their physical, mental, and emotional health than I did about their grades or work, I simply didn’t live out that priority in that moment.
I failed at my own empathy standard.
So today, in a comment on a digital assignment, I wrote an apology which I plan on following up in person when I see him next.
Dear _____, I have to apologize to you. When you told me about your injury, I should have first had a conversation about how you were doing and how you were feeling. I want you to know that I care about YOU as a person first, and your assignments and school work second. However, in the moment I think I failed to act on that. I focused on how to help you communicate better next time life gave you a bad moment. While this is important, and a conversation I have with many students to help them, it also shouldn’t have been my first response to you sharing about your injury. Will you forgive me?
I hope we both learned something from this. I’m really looking forward to having you in my class this year!
Some of you may think I’m being too “soft.” Others will get why I viewed my first response as a failure. Wherever you land on this, I hope you see that I’m trying to be transparent, and I’m inviting you on this journey with me. I hope you will both hold me accountable and help to encourage me when I fail, as I am likely to do again.
There are a lot of moments ahead, and I’m far from perfect. Failure will be inevitable, but I also believe it will be the fertilizer for growth.
**original post had a confusing phrase “hurt yourself” instead of “your injury.” Based on feedback from a comment (below), I revised for better clarity while still projecting details of this student’s identity.