Professors, we can—and should—prioritize compassion with our students

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A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 379, Issue 6638.Download PDF

“Do we have permission to give your father a blood transfusion? A tracheotomy?” I was a 19-year-old college student. My father had fallen into a coma a few weeks earlier and I was his next of kin, responsible for his medical decisions. Suddenly I was spending my weekends driving to the hospital 3 hours away in friends’ borrowed cars after spending the week juggling coursework, a part-time job, and phone calls from the hospital, sometimes during class or in the middle of the night. I told my professors the general outline of what was going on so I could leave class when my father’s doctors called, but for the most part I kept my struggles private. I wanted to be seen as strong and capable, and I worried my professors would think I was making excuses.

The call about the blood transfusion and tracheotomy came the night before an exam. The blood transfusion was an easy decision; it is a relatively safe procedure. The tracheotomy was another story. I had to decide how my father would feel if he came out of his coma and had a hole in his throat for the rest of his life. Ultimately, I declined.

After a few hours of restless sleep, I was hardly in a state to take the exam. I told my professor what had happened the previous night and requested an alternative exam date, which was denied. My score on that exam reflected the turmoil I was going through, not my knowledge of the material. This experience made me even more reluctant to be vulnerable and honest about my struggles. When I soon had to make the devastating decision to take my father off life support, I only told a few trusted mentors.

Despite that trauma, I was able to make it through my studies and, 8 years later, I became a professor myself. As a new faculty member, I felt I needed to adopt a tough classroom persona to earn my colleagues’ respect and keep students from taking advantage of me. My demeanor wasn’t unlike that of the professor who denied me the exam extension years earlier, and it did not reflect my actual character.

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I have learned to value my students’ growth and learning over others’ perceptions.
  • Jessica Larsen
  • Clemson University

Then, the pandemic hit. I was too tired to keep up the act, and my students needed compassion and support. So, I shared the story about my father’s illness and death to acknowledge that life goes on outside of my classroom and grades are not the most important thing in the world. I told my students I knew they might be suffering and wanted them to know that if they came to me needing help, I would understand.

The response was immediate and powerful. Students became unafraid to share their stories with me and ask for support. My connections with them deepened and I could mentor them on a new level. I changed nothing about the way I delivered course material, but student exam scores improved, as did my teaching evaluations. Students could see that although the class was rigorous and I pushed them to learn the material, I cared about their well-being and wanted them to succeed.

Some of my colleagues perceive me as being “too close” to the students and think my class is not rigorous enough. In the past, I worried such impressions would affect my chance for promotion and advancement. But I have learned to value my students’ growth and learning over others’ perceptions.

A fellow professor recently asked me, “If this works so well, why didn’t you do it sooner?” All I can say is that vulnerability is really hard. It involves sharing of yourself as fully as you are able, including admitting wrongdoing and acknowledging that you can’t always be your best self. Far from being a sign of weakness, it requires a ton of strength.

Exposing your imperfections, connecting with students on a deeper level, and creating space for them—and you— to grow will always be challenging, but it is worth it. I cannot know everything that is going on in every student’s life, but I can always choose compassion.

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