Empathy and Rigor: Culture of Care in the ClassroomSubmitted by Kathleen Reynolds, English as a Second Language and Tong Cheng, Biology

Meetings and teaching. Grading and prepping. Work and personal life. Balancing multiple responsibilities is familiar to most Harper faculty.

During Orientation Week in January, almost 50 faculty and staff gathered to hear their colleagues talk about another challenging balance: academic rigor and empathy in the classroom. It’s no wonder that at Odessa College, where the 4 Connections originated, this balance is called the Practice Paradox. The Practice Paradox states there are many paradoxical, tricky contradictions to navigate as we try to maintain high standards while we also show compassion, concern, and in some cases, flexibility when presented with students’ needs.

Brad Grossman (Law Enforcement & Justice Administration), Terri Kong (Biology), Kyle Knee (Math), Dominique Svarc (Accounting), Mary Gawienowski (ESL/Linguistics), and Stephanie Horton (English) participated in the panel discussion led by the Student Experience Goal Team’s Culture of Care workgroup. Here are a few of the themes that surfaced during the discussion:

  • Being the “bad guy” – Kyle explained how he uses his syllabus as the enforcer of tougher policies in his course, likening its authority to that of a professor’s (vs. a TA’s) in graduate school. Having some “outs” (like dropping the lowest quiz or homework assignment) also helps; even if Kyle knows students have probably already used their outs, referring them to those exceptions reminds them that the policies he enforces have some flexibility. Another strategy, explained by Mary, is to strictly enforce policies at the start of the semester, but enforce less strictly later. Since Mary knows her students better by then, she’s able to discern more accurately where exceptions to rules might be appropriate.
  • Communicating with students – Terri pointed out that conversations about students’ personal issues should be held during office hours, not in the classroom, or even after class. This separation of functions benefits both students and teachers. The Blackboard Grade Center is a tool that Dominique uses to initiate conversations with students; a note saying, “What’s going on? Let’s talk about this” next to a grade catches students’ attention more effectively than an email.
  • Personal role – Several faculty noted a role for their own behavior in relationship to student behavior. Brad explained how he models high personal standards of conduct through his own actions. He also rewards students each month with a “Gold Star of Excellence” certificate for perfect attendance and maintaining a 70% or higher on all course assignments for the month—a practice that has proven much more popular with students than he originally anticipated! Stephanie emphasized authenticity as a value in relating to students; when she brings her whole self to the classroom, students do the same, and in the context of that community, work up to high expectations.

Feedback from attendees at the session also had a common theme: we need more discussion of these issues, and especially more time for dialogue. We invite you to join us on Tuesday, May 1 at 2 p.m. to continue the conversation and learn about some specific initiatives happening on campus to promote caring in the context of the classroom. RSVP for the May Day Culture of Care Discussion.