This week, I have been helping a student catch up in my Latin class because he missed last week due to a religious observance. In the first week of class, he had notified me that he would miss this week, so I was expecting it and I have had no problem helping him catch up. After all, how would he learn the new material and retain his Latin abilities without outside help? He had tried to stay caught up with the readings and homework, but it was clear from meeting with him that he needed more review. So I helped him. The most interesting part of this story to me is how he reacted to my help. He was very thankful and his response implied that other teachers would not have been so helpful. His reaction has made me think about what constitutes an excused and an unexcused absence, and what that means for help outside of class.
What is an excused absence?
Our university has no policy, except to excuse an absence due to religious observances. Absences due to training for the National Guard or Army Reserves seem obviously excused. As do ones due to illness. But whose illness? The students, yes; but what about a family member’s trip to the hospital or when a family member undergoes surgery? Absences due to funerals also seem to fall under “excused;” but what about the family who wants to celebrate a potentially last birthday with an elderly grandparent? Does it matter whether the student notifies you ahead of time?
I have been asked by students about all of these issues lately, and I have wondered: What message does it send to my students if I do not excuse these absences? Am I saying you shouldn’t celebrate a grandparent’s birthday out of state? Now, I would love the chance to celebrate one last birthdays with my deceased grandparents. Am I saying you shouldn’t care for your family members? Is the implication of not excusing an absence even something worth considering?
Does an excused absence effect how much help the student can get outside of class?
When a student misses a class, and you’ve determined whether the absence is excused or unexcused, what is the result of that determination? Do you penalize the student if the absence is unexcused? Is the penalty in the form of a lower grade or not being able to get extra help so that the student learns what they missed that day? Is the latter a reasonable penalty in a skill-based class like Latin? No matter what your answer is, you should be upfront about it from the first day… if you have an answer to these questions then.
I don’t have many answers to these questions at the moment. I raise them now because the attendance policies on the syllabi often attempt to be black and white, but students’ attendance cannot be so easily classified and responded to. It is always going to have some arbitrary element to it. What guidelines help you, or seemed to help your favorite teachers, determine how to handle students’ absences?