Drawing the Line

Four ways to balance flexibility and accountability.

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

I teach college students and, as I look out upon the young adults I teach, I see the gamut of preparedness. Some students have clearly had teachers who taught them to write a lean, mean paper that included proper paragraphing and the correct choice of effect or affect, or their, there, or they’re (among other sometimes confusing choices). These students may or may not be the same ones who understand that studying for an exam begins the moment they walk into class and engage with the material, that class attendance — graded or not — can make the difference between success and failure and that deadlines exist for a reason.

These are lessons they’ve learned (or not) from all the teachers who came before me, and I owe a debt of gratitude to every one of those educators for the hours they put in making sure their students had the tools to succeed not only in their classes, but in years to come as well.

Thank you. Seriously. Thank you from the bottom of my bleary-eyed, paper-sodden, closing-in-on-the-end-of-the-semester being.

So, how about those other students? Did their teachers fall down on the job? Did their parents not parent? Not necessarily. We send out our messages — some instructional, some organizational, some life lessons — but we’re a lot like the sower scattering seeds in Matthew 13. Some of our messages land on fertile ground (or ears) and others …


As someone who spent nearly thirty years working with elementary school students, I sometimes struggle to find the line between nurture and enabling when it comes to my young-adult students. In some ways, they’re just my elementary-school kids in bigger bodies, but in other ways, they are almost adults. I want to be compassionate, but I don’t want to be taken advantage of. I want to understand when there are extenuating circumstances, but I also know that for every student who tells me about her extenuating circumstances, there’s at least one other student who’s silently struggling to meet expectations. I want to be flexible, but I want — no, need — to hold them accountable.

For me, many of the answers lie in the document I spend days drafting before the semester begins: the syllabus. But, no matter how thorough I think it is and no matter how carefully I craft it, something (or someone) always tests it.

In the end, achieving the balance I seek comes down to four things.

Be approachable. From the very first day of class, I encourage and welcome questions. In fact, I put that in writing. Near the top of the first page of the syllabus, where I list my e-mail address, I include the statement, “Please feel free to contact me via e-mail at any time with questions or for clarification. You’ll never know if you don’t ask.” If students approach me for assistance, I will do everything in my power to help them succeed.

Be firm. Creating a syllabus is a lot of work because it sets forth expectations from assignments to attendance to everything in between. We owe it to ourselves and our students to stick to the guidelines we lay out on day one so we can be consistent and they know what to expect. But a syllabus should be a dynamic document, too. If adjustments become necessary, we owe it to all parties concerned to be honest and make adjustments in a timely fashion.

Be human. While I don’t relish publicly acknowledging my mistakes, I don’t seek to bury them either. Not only does this contribute to my goal of being approachable, but it also sends the message that mistakes are an acceptable part of learning. This semester, my first mistake announced itself on the very first day of class. Not the way I wanted to start the semester, but a little humility is definitely a good thing. Helping our students up after they fall can be both a powerful life lesson and a powerful learning tool.

Be flexible. Within reason. A dinosaur in the electronic age, I prefer hard copies of papers because they’re easier for me to grade, but this sometimes poses a hardship for students on a limited printing budget. One of my syllabus caveats is, “Life happens and I do grant limited exceptions.” Though it’s in the section of the syllabus about formatting papers, it’s a larger philosophy as well.

It’s tough to be a young adult, and perhaps even harder to be a teenager. (Sometimes adulting is no picnic either). There are so many demands, including the ones they put on themselves, and learning the lessons that live between the lines of the syllabus — things like respect, responsibility, and critical thinking — can be a challenge precisely because these very important life lessons are unwritten. As hard as these lessons can be to learn, they can be equally challenging to teach. But with the right mix of rules, reason, and compassion, I think we’re up to the task.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.

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