11 When Life Gets in the Way

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is a good model for understanding how education fits with other dimensions of life. IT instruction generally targets the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, things like respect, self-esteem, status, strength, or freedom. Maybe even self-actualization, because many students want to shift to an IT career for a more lucrative, more interesting, or more fulfilling career path. IT is a perfectly valid option for students who have a reasonably solid level of economic and personal security and who mainly just want more out of life. But what about the others? What about students lacking resources on even some of the most basic levels? Professional/technical programs often take for granted the most basic levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, but they should not. We may not imagine our students are lacking in food, clothing, shelter, or personal security. These problems, however, are very real for many of our students. For every self-actualizing student looking to IT for a more fulfilling career, there are probably three or four others for whom basic employment, health care, and affordable housing are the most urgent issues. Many students who apply for IT studies are looking for a job – any job. Quite a few are using unemployment retraining benefits, basic support grants, or student loans to pursue their studies.  They need their IT studies to pay off, and they them to pay off quickly.

For this reason, it might be argued that the core social justice intervention in an IT skills development program is to target highly employable skill sets, and to exercise students in those skills as efficiently and effectively as possible. All beef and no fat is the ideal IT coursework design for this reason. IT programs need constant revision, because the job market is a moving target. It is a disservice to students to require knowledge and skills development for technology employers’ no longer find relevant.

Unfortunately, some of neediest students often are least able to successfully complete our programs, because as the title of this section suggests, sometimes life just gets in the way. For example, one student reported that her abusive boy friend was cutting off her Internet access for an online course. Many students have dropped IT classes for catastrophic health issues like kidney disease, heart attacks, or brain seizures. Every so often a student is burned or flooded out of an apartment. Every kind of auto theft or car trouble is just another day in the life. Sometimes workplace good news becomes bad news for finishing a quarter. On many occasions students have had to drop out or lower their grade targets due to shift changes, increased responsibilities, or sudden transfers out of area. Military deployments and National Guard duties do not respect the academic calendar, nor do weddings, funerals, sick children, or aging parents. Occasionally, a student will fail an IT course for purely academic reasons like the difficulty of the material, lack of interest, or lack of effort. Far more often, the student would like nothing better than to pass the class, but in spite of every effort to do so, life itself had other ideas.

So what can an IT instructor do about social, natural, and personal issues far beyond the classroom? Mostly, just try to have some baseline understanding and sympathy for what students are going through. Most of us have been on the receiving end of difficult life situations at one time or another. How were you treated in those challenging circumstances? How would you have liked to be treated? Use that as a starting point. As a bit of a formula or template for effective communication with students who face sudden or catastrophic circumstances that interrupt their ability to study, consider some of the ideas below.

1) Start with sympathy or empathy.  When someone faces a death in the family or some other catastrophic life event, in the bigger picture, that is more important than your class. Recognize that.

2) Don’t make promises you cannot keep. Sometimes the world is just a tragic place and we all have our role to play, which sadly, may just be to witness the tragedy. Unless you can really legitimately fix some life problem for your students, don’t hold out false hope.

3) Stay in your lane. Refer back to the opening sections of this guide. Refer to your “scope of work”. Your job is to provide quality instruction on a set of learning objectives, followed by assessment, followed by turning in grades. Sadly, if a student cannot finish required work due to a financial, medical, or personal crisis, that student may not be able to pass your class in a timely manner. One might imagine a more flexible educational system that would not force a grade of 0.0 to be filed because life clashed with the academic calendar, but again, we all have our roles to play. Just like no medical doctor can save every patient, no instructor can get every student to a passing performance level through willpower alone. The student also has a role to play, and sometimes that role is cut short.

4) Research available services and make appropriate referrals.  The community and technical college system has a wide spectrum resources for financial aid, career counseling, crisis intervention, disability services, and other social services. None of this is funded as well as it should be, but nevertheless, the system as a whole is very aware that many students lack basic needs. Talk to other instructors. Find out what resources are available. Don’t try to be a fixer, but do try to effectively guide students to real services they may not be aware of.




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Making Connections: Instructors Guide for Information Technology Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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