by Art Duval, Contributing Editor, University of Texas at El Paso
Several years ago, I was teaching a calculus course which included three students who were especially struggling with the material, in spite of regularly attending class. I have a distinct memory of one day, about two-thirds of the way through the semester, when one of these three students, “Nick” (a pseudonym), was the last to leave the classroom, and I thought, “I could do something.” I stopped Nick on his way out the door so we could talk about how he was doing.
I usually have about 50-100 students in all my classes combined, and it had been easy for me to fall into the passive habit of thinking, “I can’t watch out for all of them, and so they have to contact me if they are having problems.” I had always strongly encouraged students to visit me during my office hours, or to email or even call me at home, and I was always very happy to help students who did ask for help. Until then, though, it was their job to reach out to me, instead of the other way around. But not that day, when I stopped Nick on his way out of class. What led me to that point? And what did I do with that impulse afterwards? In a word: Kindness.
Earlier that year, two different people had forwarded to me the text of Francis Su’s powerful MAA Haimo Teaching Award Lecture, about grace in teaching. It was such an out-of-the-box way of thinking about teaching, that the most important part of teaching mathematics to students was not the mathematics itself, but the students. Students deserve respect just because they are people, and not because of what they accomplish in the classroom.
The following spring, at our campus’ annual teaching conference, I attended a roundtable discussion of interested faculty on the topic of Loving Kindness at the university; one of several focal points for the discussion was Francis Su’s article. Out of that roundtable grew an informal group of faculty and staff from a variety of departments who were all interested in these ideas. We began to meet for lunch monthly, initially mostly just sharing ways we had shown kindness to our students, and brainstorming how we could do more.
In the midst of hectic days, sometimes encountering colleagues who expressed less charitable views of students, it felt like an absolute oasis to join with these like-minded faculty and staff who also wanted to appreciate students for what they can do, and not what they cannot do. I was impressed by what some of my colleagues around campus were already doing in and out of their classes. One of our members told us how when students show up late to class, instead of making them feel bad, he would sincerely say, “I’m so glad you’re here.” Others ran food drives and helped homeless students, which is easier to incorporate into a sociology class than a mathematics class to be sure, but inspiring nonetheless.
By this point, I had already started to slowly experiment on my own with some things I could do to make more of a difference with students, and to embody some of what I had read in Francis Su’s article. For years I had done little bits of reaching out, by writing “Please see me” on exam papers of students who did poorly on the exam (and congratulatory messages for students who did well), but now I was determined to go beyond that. With the support and encouragement of the kindness group, I pushed myself further to make the extra effort to deliberately be kind to my students.
Around the same time, I became aware of the work by Carol Dweck (and later of that by Jo Boaler) on growth mindset, the idea that people are not born with fixed intelligence, but rather can develop skills through sustained effort. In particular, every student who will do the necessary work can learn mathematics. I cannot make students do this necessary work (and, as we will see, some of them have obstacles that have nothing to do with mathematics or their desire to work on it), but with my new focus on kindness I was now determined to reach out to each and every student to try to prevent them from falling through the cracks.
No single change I made was especially innovative or earthshaking, but the effect of each one was amplified by the others, and especially by my attitude. I kept in mind that my students don’t know everything already, especially about mathematics or how the university works (or else why were they there?); see the below wise cartoon. So what did I start to do differently?
Redouble my efforts to value all student input during class: I had already been using active learning in my classes for a long time, and so routinely incorporated student input. This often involves responding to student answers by focusing on the parts that are correct. (There is also value in highlighting mistakes.) But now I also paid attention to the effect this has on student attitude, and made sure students knew that I appreciated their response just because they were making an effort.
For some time, I’d been using index cards with each student’s name (and other information they provided) to be sure to call on students at random (and not fall victim to any conscious or unconscious biases I might have); now I used that technique more frequently, and asked for volunteers less frequently. Of course, this keeps students on their toes, but it also visibly demonstrates my belief in growth mindset and that every student can succeed. Also, I increased my awareness of, and sensitivity to, how students respond to being called on to share their ideas, including presenting homework in the front of the class. I try to keep the conversation positive, and any criticism, whether from me or from fellow students, must stay constructive and focus on the mathematics, not the person.
Learning and using all my students’ names: I had always learned the names of some of my students, especially the ones who participated more. But now I made it my mission to learn, and use, every student’s name. This was not easy for me, as I’ve never been good at remembering names or faces, which is why I’d never made the effort before. But I told myself that I have done difficult things before and, with some work, I could do this. Every semester I am not shy with how hard this is for me, as an opportunity to explicitly illustrate to students the idea of the growth mindset: Just as I believe all students can learn mathematics through dedicated work, even if it does not come easily to them, I can learn their names through dedicated work, even though it does not come easily to me.
And so I began to spend time studying our university’s student photo page for each class. I handed back all graded work individually, making sure to look each student in the face while saying their name. During the first exam of each course, I spent the entire time quizzing myself on names and faces, after asking student to make name placards, which I used to make a seating chart to help me with my self-quizzing. (I had heard this idea several years before, but had never before thought it was worth the effort it would take.) I began to use each student’s name every time I called on him or her, even if, at the beginning of the semester, I frequently had to start with “Remind me your name, please.”
Sending email to students when they missed class: I started to send email to students when they were absent from class, even though I generally do not require attendance for most of my classes. (Some learning management systems can automate this, but I find it easier, and more meaningful, to do it by hand.) In keeping with my mission of kindness, I try to phrase the message with a tone that is more helpful than derogatory: “Please let me know if you are having any problems, and if there is anything I can do to help.” About half of the students ignore (or at least do not respond to) these messages. But the others do, indeed, let me know their problems.
And while I had expected that they might have problems with mathematics and/or the class, I discovered that many of my students have difficult lives. They have problems outside of mathematics or school: family issues; medical issues; medical issues with family, including having to transport relatives to doctors or the hospital; mental health issues; transportation issues; and more. Intellectually, I knew this, but now I understood better. I became more impressed at how my students overcome their obstacles, and genuinely sad for the ones who did not. I could not help with most of these problems, but I could listen. And some students opened up a little more in response.
Be (a little) more flexible about late assignments: Knowing more about my students’ lives, and consciously working to respect their difficulties, made me more willing to bend deadlines for students with good excuses. Curiously, I have become more confident in deciding what is or isn’t a good excuse. Perhaps this is because I hear about problems with further advance notice; conversely, when I don’t, I know students had ample opportunity to let me know.
This is a good time to mention “kind” is not the same as “nice”. Being kind does not mean just giving everyone A’s, or assigning less work, or never criticizing; it does mean listening to students, respecting their lives, and responding accordingly.
When I started this journey, I made many of these changes mechanically, and had to work hard to keep kindness in the forefront of my brain. I sent absence email messages when I could, but not all the time, and had to remind myself to be sure to write things like “I’m sorry to hear your mother was sick,” because this sort of attention did not come naturally to me. But then two effects kicked in. First, the gratitude I got from some students for showing them extra attention and respect was a positive reinforcement for me to keep doing so. Then, responding with kindness became more instinctive and more comfortable. I found myself actually feeling sorry if a student’s mother had been sick. It became hard for me not to send absence email messages. My tone with students, in and out of class, grew more patient and understanding.
Kindness is certainly no panacea. Nick, the student whom I reached out to at the end of that calculus class some years ago, did not pass the course, and neither did the other two students I tried to pay more attention to that semester. But they did notice. Some students now respond to the absence emails with some variation on “Thank you for noticing. None of my other professors have ever shown this interest in their students.” As I’ve increased and intensified my kindness efforts, some students have written comments on my end-of-course evaluations that they appreciate what I do. This suggests that our attitude towards students matters to some of them as much as academic issues do.
But this doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, and kindness may even help, indirectly, with the academics. Since I have started working on kindness, it appeared to me that a few students made more of an effort in the course because of the attention I was paying to them and their issues and interests. I will continue to be kind to my students, though not because it will help them with mathematics, but because it is the right thing to do. What can you do today to show your students a little more kindness?