When dealing with students over the course of a semester it is inevitable as an instructor that you will come across complicated personal situations relating to students. Students are just like everyone else,  they have family obligations, children, jobs, health issues, and many other commitments and concerns. Life happens and sometimes takes precedent over classes and studying, instructors have to be willing to have some flexibility when certain situations arise. 

Health Issues and Funerals 

Every instructor has to determine when to be flexible with students’ complicated personal situations, and every situation can be unique. Generally, when students have health issues like sicknesses or injuries, it’s a good practice to make accommodations when it comes to missed assignments or tests. If a student misses too much class time or work, due to health concerns, to effectively pass an incomplete for the semester might be the appropriate action. This allows students to finish the course after they recover. When students need to attend a funeral, I always excuse this type of absence and make accommodations as well. Some students make use of illness and “deaths” in the family as an excuse, but it’s often better than not to take a student at their word…initially. Use your best judgment and verify where possible but consider that someone getting away with an illegitimate excused absence is likely better than accidentally penalizing someone struggling with a hard time or health problem. 

Jobs and Children 

Jobs and children can be the main concern for many students. After all balancing work and childcare coverage can be complicated and sudden conflicts can arise. Dealing with these types of issues are a bit trickier. A best practice is to first consider the circumstances and frequency. If it is just a one-time issue where my students need to miss class due to work or to take care of their children, I will generally be flexible.  However, if these issues cause students to miss a multitude of classes and assignments, I won’t excuse their absences. Usually, for the latter, I will have a one-on-one discussion about their situation and how they need to make this class a priority. If that simply isn’t logistically possible, I will often discuss how they maybe should consider taking the class during a later time or different semester. Working one-on-one, though, does provide an opportunity for an instructor to assess if there is an obviously recommendation or workable solution for their situation.  

Mental Health

Mental health issues are serious and complicated situations that instructors need to not only be aware of but also feel capable of handling or knowing where to direct their students if problems arise. Anxiety is one of the biggest issues I deal with in this category. Instructors can help to keep anxious students calm by being well organized and encouraging. It’s amazing what a few uplifting words will do for some of these students. Other mental health concerns or symptoms such as depression, anger, substance abuse, isolation, etc. should be handled carefully. Speak to the student in question directly, if you feel comfortable, and see what is going on in their life. Make sure to speak to your department chair, the student’s advisor(s), and your school healthcare center about the resources available to direct the student to for additional help. 

Final Thoughts 

Dealing with complicated issues in the classroom is part of the territory when teaching in higher education. Being aware and prepared of these potential situations and the resources available – both to instructors and students – can be a big help when facing these challenges. While it’s difficult, try to be flexible with students when situations arise, while at the same time working with them one-on-one to keep them accountable for their own learning.  A little understanding and flexibility can go a long way in making a big difference for someone during a difficult time.