The Lack of Student Attendance: Feed Them Carrots, They Will Come

One student waits for class to start while other students don't show

As a professor who just completed their first academic school year, I was naïve to believe that students regularly attended class. As college students, I thought they would demonstrate a level of commitment and focus regarding their future. To my chagrin, my initial assumptions were in stark contrast to my expectations. Unaware, I was often lectured to by my colleagues about the chronic absenteeism among students. As I intently listened about a behavior that somehow became normalized, I often had nothing to add to the conversation because I was not experiencing the effects of chronic absenteeism. For the most part, my students regularly came to class. Therefore, I viewed student absence from a different lens than my colleagues. As I continued to reflect on my experience, I asked the following questions: “Why were my students committed?” and “Why did they feel obligated?” In retrospect, there were three “carrots” that I gave my students to nibble on.

Carrot of Preparedness

As a teacher, we feel compelled to provide our students with quality instruction. In doing so, we are respecting their time, monetary investments, and dreams. Whenever my students came to class, I intentionally modeled preparedness and organization because I value their existence. Therefore, I plan and study to improve my own skill set. I am constantly thinking about ways to enhance the students’ learning experience. Contrary to what many believe, students are keenly aware of teachers who are prepared. I feel that when students notice you have methodically given consideration to what you teach, they in turn, will respect your efforts. This level of preparedness signals that you are totally invested in the outcome of their future. Be prepared, they will come.

Carrot of High Expectations

As we all know, your reputation precedes you. This is true in my case. In the hallways and in the classrooms, I am often scrutinized and misunderstood. From the voices of students, “Dr. Martin’s classes are tough!” Of course, I beg to differ, but I am able to accept the criticism without rancor. Instead, when the comments are stated, I listen as if I were on the receiving end of my perceived raft. Surprisingly, the students who resentfully succumb to taking my classes, begin to unravel their sentiments. In the midst of their disequilibrium, students often struggle with the comparison between being tough versus having high expectations.

Being committed, I dare not lower the expectations that I have for my students because productive struggle is engaging, intellectual dissonance is healthy, and accountability is necessary. In knowing so, why would my expectations differ to placate the students? It’s my responsibility to ensure that students understand the lack of value in being mediocre. I often tell them, “Your intellectual currency is determined by hard work, accountability, and commitment.” In my class, students are expected to think at a higher level because the cognition does exist. If I know that students have the mental capacity to perform, but I’m only exposing them to low-level and irrelevant curriculum, I have committed educational malpractice. I am gratified when I see my students transition from a defeatist attitude. Unexpectedly, the light bulb comes on and they realize my intentions come from a mindset of excellence. Raise your expectations, they will come.

Carrot of Accountability

I only teach students who have been classified as juniors and seniors. These students are taking their major courses in the fields of Early Childhood Education, Elementary Education, or Child Development. According to their degree paradigm, at this point, students are enrolled in 400 level courses; therefore, I tend to elevate their expectations regarding accountability. In order for students to become employable, they need to understand the consequences for not being accountable in the workplace. From my life experiences, I have learned that accountability raises consciousness, empowers people, and builds character. Student accountability is woven in the fabric of my classroom because students need to know what is expected. To many, accountability is a dirty word, but I view it as a way for people to improve in their performance and to understand their purpose. From day one in class, we discuss what is acceptable and expected of them as students. My personal mantra to all students is, “Every six-year-old deserves a qualified teacher.” As teachers, we have to teach the “whole student,” because I have found that my classroom protocols regarding accountability have made my students more responsible. Also, I share with them that the reward for being accountable is becoming a college graduate. Hold them accountable, they will come.

I can conclude that my classroom absenteeism is very minimum because of the expectations I have for myself. My students come to class because they respond to preparedness, high expectations, and accountability. Students inspire me not to change because at the end of each semester, many students tell me, “Dr. Martin, I did not want to come to your class, but you challenged us to think, and I know that’s what we needed.” As the end results, the carrots ultimately become a metaphor for—she cared.

Dimple J. Martin, PhD, is assistant professor of early childhood education and faculty professional development at Miles College.