When Life Gets in the Way

London Stereoscopic Company Comic Series - 72

“Spirit Photograph” by London Stereoscopic Company Comic Series, c. 1865.

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


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One Response

  1. Mario Morelli says:

    As a student I appreciate that you understand students reasons for not being able to attend class because no person is perfect. No one student should abuse your generosity for making up work but life does get in the way.