May 5th, 2014

Tips for Handling Student Excuses

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As new teachers very quickly learn, students will come up with all kinds of excuses for missing assignments and other work. Students will never say, “I missed the exam because I was out late last night—it was one dollar taps at the Silver Horse, you know how it goes.” As a result, teachers must have a policy for handling these situations, which invariably involves a decision on trust.

The problem is that grandparents do die—it happens—but they don’t die as often as we are told and their deaths don’t always coincide with major deadlines in the syllabus. So how do we know when a grandparent really dies, or a roommate actually does get deathly ill in the middle of the night, and when we are being handed a line?

The answer, of course, is that we can’t. While not often discussed, the teaching relationship involves trust. A teacher once told me that we can only trust our students, and if they lie to us, then it says something about them, not us.

Here are some of my thoughts on how to handle these situations. I invite readers to share their own approach to trusting students.

  • Don’t take it personally. Too many teachers take it personally when they catch students cheating. Students don’t cheat as a personal affront to their teachers— they do it because they can’t succeed the regular way. Students lie for themselves, not against us. One student who was in the military kept missing classes and assignments, coming up with excuses each time. Near the end of the class he sent me a note stating that he was withdrawing because he was an alcoholic and that the army was sending him to rehab.
  • Lightening rarely strikes twice. I tend to give students the benefit of the doubt the first time, but get really suspicious the second and third time. Repeat occurrences require proof.
  • Model trust. In the movie “House of Games,” Joe Mantegna plays a con man who teaches a woman the tricks of the trade. He tells her in the midst of a con that “This is a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you my confidence and you reciprocate.” So start by giving students your trust.
  • Take it out of your hands. A famous negotiating theorist once asked what a company that builds munitions should do if protesters sit on the railroad tracks that lead out of the plant. The conductor could inch the locomotive forward toward the protesters in hope that they will move off. But the smarter move is to start the train moving, and then jump off. This takes the decision out of his hands, which is a powerful negotiating device. Similarly, establish a situation that takes the subjectivity out of equation. I might say something like “One of my jobs as a teacher is to distinguish phony excuses from real excuses, since giving extensions for phony excuses is unfair to students who planned ahead to get their assignments done on time. What I have seen here indicates to me that this is a late assignment. If you can provide evidence that this not the case, then I will happily change my decision. But until then, this is what I see.”
  • Preempt problems. A teacher once told me that he prefaces assignments with the comment that “I’ve consulted with IT, and all of the printers in the school have never failed at the same moment, so don’t use that excuse.” Establish a policy on excuses ahead of time. This not only reduces the number of excuses you will get, but also takes you out of the position of having to decide on a case-by-case basis after class when you are cornered by a student on your way to your next appointment.
  • I tend to trust adults more than traditional age students. I don’t know if this is biased, and it’s certainly based on anecdotal evidence, but I believe that adults have more responsibilities than traditional age students, and so are more likely to run into life problems. There is a story in my family about me being hospitalized as a very young child with some sort of seizure issues. The doctors told my father that they would have to tie me down to the bed to prevent me from pulling out my tubes at night. My father told them that nobody was going to tie his son down, and so he stayed up all night by my bedside holding me when I went into seizure. He had an exam for a class the next morning, which he missed, and ended up having to leave school. He always regretted not getting his degree.

As always, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage.

Dr. John Orlando helped develop and lead online learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University, and he has taught faculty how to teach online as well as how to use technology in their face-to-face teaching.

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