After working with students in the library, I returned to my office and read the following e-mail:
Dear Dr. Berg:
I left class early today. Life got in the way.
[student name redacted]
I realize that outside the context of the culture established in my classroom, the student’s e-mail might appear to be rude. Yet, I frequently have students inform me that they missed class or plan to miss class because life has gotten in the way. Some provide me with an explanation but I have no requirement that they do so. In order to assist them in making up the work they missed, all I require is that they inform me that life has gotten in the way.
I realize that some critics of my approach might argue that I am not preparing students for the real world because “life gets in the way” is not an acceptable reason for missing work. I would counter that the contract under which I am employed at the college allows me to take days off—with pay—when life gets in the way.
Sometimes, such as when I take a sick or bereavement day, I do need to provide the college with an explanation for my absence. But I am not required to provide any explanation when I take a personal business day. If I can still be paid on days when I miss work when life gets in my way, why shouldn’t I give assistance to students who miss class when life gets in the way for them?
I am aware that the life gets in the way explanation could be abused, but it is a risk I am willing to take. Not surprisingly, it is my experience that irresponsible students rarely contact me so that I can assist them to make up missed coursework.
Before doing the final editing on this essay, I had already informed students that I might not be on campus tomorrow. If my symptoms do not improve and I have to take a sick day, no one from the college is going to investigate to see if I am really ill. They will believe me, process the paperwork, and make sure that I get paid while being home sick.
However, neither students nor I get unlimited opportunities to be absent without explanation. Although I have enough sick days to cite illness as the reason for missing class every day next week, were I to try to do so, the college would rightly ask for more explanation concerning my illness than they will if I take an individual sick day tomorrow. In a similar way, I tell students that I do not make inquiries if life only gets in their way once or twice. But, if there is a pattern of life getting in the way, I will ask them for details. My purpose, I explain, is to allow me to make referrals so they can get the assistance they need to take care of the life issues.
A final concern I can see critics making is that students could use life gets in the way to miss class for frivolous reasons such as going on a vacation. While I do not approve of students missing class for vacations or for many other reasons they choose to be absent, I realize that the college might not approve of how I use a personal business day. If, for example, I am not ill but still wanted to miss class tomorrow so that I could spend time relaxing with my little dogs, I am sure that the college would not approve of my decision. Yet, they would have no choice but to approve my request to take a personal business day.
Because a student will take their vacation whether I approve or not, I would prefer that they tell me they will be missing class so that I can help insure that their bad decision has as few negative consequences for them as possible. Especially because of the classroom culture I have created, I can engage a student in a blunt conversation about their poor decisions for missing class. Such conversations are easier to have if I am simultaneously helping them make up the missed work.
Life gets in the way for all of us. Therefore, I want to make sure that my classroom culture supports students who—like me—must sometimes be absent. While I would prefer to be in the classroom tomorrow, I am grateful that I—like my students—am protected when life gets in the way.
- –Steven L. Berg, PhD