She Wouldn’t Be The First Student To Complete Her Work While “Altered”


Count to ten.

Think before replying.


That old chestnut is actually fairly hard to apply in a classroom environment–where everyone’s eyes look expectantly at the teacher, where the teacher is supposed to be the font of information, where the energy is alive, where the teacher needs to carry the momentum with snappy decision-making. Particularly with today’s students, whose internal rhythms are accustomed to quick edits, it’s important to keep things moving.

Put simply, it’s a challenge to stop and count to ten when 30 Red-Bull-infused bodies are anxious to zip their backpacks and get out the door so they can check their phones and quell their jonesing for the next data hit.

While this thrumming feeling exists in the traditional classroom, it factors into online classrooms, too. To keep students from peeling off the sides of the pack and wandering off into the proverbial desert, the teacher needs to push ahead with an agenda of “Here’s what we need to do. Here’s how we’re going to achieve it. Any questions? Okay, then: let’s get on it!”

It might help to translate this feeling of “gitterdun already” into something more familiar. Consider this: have you ever visited a blog, taken a look at the length of the current post, and thought, “Too long.” When you see all those words asking you to slow down, take your time, put the brakes on your clicking around, you either skim or abandon. For most online readers, the feeling is “I’m here to say hi, maybe pop a quick note, and then I’m cruising to the next thing. Mostly, I was just hoping to see some pretty pictures of flowers and then tear the hell out of here.”

If you feel this way as a blog reader, imagine how an eighteen-year-old feels about his college class when he’s already running late for his shift at Target. The swirl of age, school, work, and a faulty transmission keeps him in a mental mode of Movin’ On.

As a teacher to students who are always Movin’ On, blipping in and out of their classes, their attention fractured by the demands of jobs, X-box, children, romance…

it behooves me to grab their energy and channel it. Thus, my general attitude as a teacher is:

1) the work is important, so do it well and right;

2) the work has a deadline, which you must meet;

3) as soon as one assignment is done, the next begins immediately;

4) let me know when you need to scream;

4) let’s join hands and gitterdun, my frantic chums. We can do this thing and come out the better for it.


Because the best way to get 150 or 175 students from Day One all the way through to Final Exam is constant motivation–pushing through to the next assignment (promise: reflection still happens!)–

and because grading and handling questions from that many students require that the teacher not take overlong in replying, I am Quick Reply McGraw when it comes to responding to their messages. Question? Excuse? Meandering tale of fear on an elevator? Photograph of a new bike? Clarification needed? Emotional breakdown?

I read it, view it, digest it–all in the space of a few seconds–and then I hit reply.

Of course, while many of my replies simply need to say “Look at the example on p. 214 in your textbook” or “You should have thought of that last week” or “Try closing your eyes and breathing deeply” or “Those tires look like they can plow right through the Spring mud” or “I’m sorry I wasn’t clear; I was trying to say that your introduction needs a better hook–perhaps a story from your own life” or “We have free personal counselors available on campus; would you like me to help you connect with one of them?”,

other times I do need to slow down


not type

the first thing

that pops


my mind.

The response to some questions shouldn’t be efficient. The response to some questions should be typed only after I


Count to ten.

Think before replying.


This is the spot where an example might be helpful, yes?


Last night, I got a very sweet email from an online student in an eight-week class (we do sixteen weeks’ work in eight weeks, so the deadlines hit at double pace, and there is very little wiggle room). As is the case with a surprising number of online students, she is pregnant. As is the case with a surprising number of online students, she has been intending to give birth during the semester and not miss a beat. By and large, these amazing new mothers manage to handle both chapped nipples and revising their thesis statements.


This student began her message apologetically, saying she had been debating even contacting me, but ultimately, she decided I should know her C-section scheduled for next week had suddenly, due to pregnancy difficulties, been switched to today.

As in: she was emailing me a few hours before she would head to the hospital for major surgery that would forever after change her life. As in: as I type this, she’s probably coming out of the recovery room. As in: I’m very glad she let me know so I can send a bouquet of 75 rattle-shaped balloons to her room at the hospital!

The point of her email was this: she had started the rough draft of her research paper but hadn’t gotten very far yet. She had to go in for this early C-section on Wednesday. She knew the rough draft was due by noon on Thursday. She wanted to assure me that she was still certain she could get her paper done on Wednesday, after the surgery, and even if her draft truly was rough, rough, rough, she would get something posted by noon on Thursday.

After reading her message, I quickly hit reply and started typing.

As the first words flowed out of my fingertips, I stopped. Started typing again. Stopped. Made myself really stop. Count to ten.

What my Quick Reply McGraw hands had been typing was a joking, “Oh, honey, there’s no way you’re writing the rough draft of a research paper on the day you had a C-section. NO WAY. Not only are you going to be in pain and a fair bit overwhelmed by this unrelenting new world you’ve just entered, you’re going to have a bunch of visitors, and you’re going to be on a morphine drip, and you’re going to have to clasp a pillow over your stomach at the merest hint of a sneeze. Oh, and then there’s that little thing called Your New Baby, and I don’t know if you’re planning on breastfee…”


Just STOP, McGraw.

What we had here, in this student’s message, was not only a lovely, almost-plaintive moment of “I’m a little scared, but you can count on me” from this young woman, a moment of sharing, a moment when she harnessed her voice and announced that she had big things coming,

we also had a teachable moment for the teacher.

This message didn’t need a quick, all-knowing reply. This message deserved a more measured response, one that acknowledged her excellent intentions rather than rolling out an overbearing “Well, I’ve been there, sweetheart, and let me tell you…” tone.

Turns out, ten seconds of silence is just long enough to tame a blowhard.

I took my hands off the keyboard, thought about what kinds of words might serve her best. Simple. Positive. Affirming her plan. Leaving the door open for commiseration. Not trying to own or direct her experience. Tossing in a dash of the cheerleader to counter her nerves.


And then, only after actually thinking about her as a person on the precipice of Hugeness,

did I type.


“Wow. Not only am I sending all good thoughts your way, I’m stunned that you’re determined to turn in the paper by noon on Thursday. I mean it: WOW. I’ve had a C-section, and I was good for nothing for quite some time after (long, complicated story, though–and yours will be quick and easy, I’m sure).

Anyhow, thanks for letting me know. Happy wonderfulnesses to you and your baby. May it all go well, and whatever you can get posted for the rough draft is better than nothing, for sure.
I’m excited for you!

Of course, to be deeply honest, I have to admit I can’t see her getting that rough draft written (what, she’s going to access the library databases and find peer-reviewed journal articles in between pushing the button on her morphine drip and attempting to put her feet onto the cold tile floor and stand up for the first time?).

However. I can tell you this. If she does post a draft by noon on Thursday,

no matter how crappy it is,

I will have nothing but respect for its every unfocused paragraph and uncited statistic. I will slow down, note the missing apostrophes, wish for a proper header,

and write careful feedback worthy of her effort.




18 responses to “She Wouldn’t Be The First Student To Complete Her Work While “Altered””

  1. Lil Avatar

    Whoa. Good luck to her with that plan. That’s pretty damn awesome as plans go.

  2. kmkat Avatar

    You are a wonder. (Just like your student.)

  3. ilyanna Avatar

    Thank you for your mercy. And good luck to the young woman in question. She is amazing (you are, too).

  4. Secret Agent Woman Avatar

    I can only say here – bless her heart.

  5. Fragrant Liar Avatar

    Seriously? Ten seconds is all it takes to silence a blowhard? Cuz that’s not MY experience, being a prolific blowhard from way back.

    D’oh, perhaps I should have waited those ten seconds before setting my fingers on the keyboard to type this comment.

    Okay, lesson learned. 😉

  6. chlost Avatar

    I remember that feeling of being able to anything, and everything. For the most part, I truly did do most of it. Perhaps not exceedingly well, but passable. I hope she slows down just a tad to enjoy it a bit. Thank you for being such a supportive teacher….many are not, and many more are not interested in learning from their students. So many instructors feel superior and have nothing but disdain for their students. But I knew that about you… are exceptional, too.

  7. logo™ Avatar

    Oh Joc,
    you are the bomb, I wish my English teachers has been even half as amazing as you. Those ten seconds were well invested and though I have to say 10 seconds has often not been sufficient to work such magic in my own case I am delighted for her sake that you took them and to such good effect.

    Here’s hoping she manages to post something and that she has a supportive circle to help her as she juggles two of life’s pivotal demands— college writing and childbirth.
    I hope your students appreciate the gift they’ve been given in you.

  8. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar

    I love the ten second rule. THINK. You have given her a gift of affirmation. I wish I had your wisdom and kindness. You’re like Solomon with a vagina and you totally rock.

  9. Jess Avatar

    Solomon with a vagina, I like that. Your students are lucky indeed.

  10. A Cuban In London Avatar

    Well, I, for one, love long, meaningful, witty and humourous posts like yours. The reality you describe is present-day Britain. The attention span is so short that you fear students might throw themselves on the floor if you so much as string two sentences together with a subordinate clause in the middle. Too much info for their tiny brains to digest. They go on overload and… well, the floor is a perfect solution.

    I wish you the best of luck with your plans.

    Greetings from London.

  11. Friko Avatar

    I’m glad you stopped to think. This young woman most certainly deserves a thoughtful rather than flippant, meaningless, glib, answer. Blimey, I can’t for the life of me see how she can achieve what she says she will.

    Being given to glib myself, it always surprises me when somebody actually takes time to genuinely connect with others. It is quite wonderful to be with someone with whom you can drop ‘glib’ and relax into calm and considered communication.

    As for blogs and blog readers: a pox on the skimmers and their ilk.

  12. Friko Avatar

    PS: Just now I read some of the comments here. QED

  13. lime Avatar

    dayum! bless her brand new mama heart for even caring about the rough draft under such circumstances. then again i can recall waking up from surgery when i had to have my arm re-assembled and some of the first words to my mother were, “please email my two online profs for me…” and bless your teacher heart for giving her whatever space she needs to learn both your lessons and the lessons of life.

  14. pam Avatar

    Do you think men will ever understand how truly amazing women are?
    I raise my glass to you, and her, and all those who juggle study,career and family.
    My brain turned to mush when I was pregnant and all I wanted to do was sleep. I continued to teach in between throwing up – the little children knew the cue to grabbing the empty ice-cream container from the art supplies and construction pile to rush it to me. I’ve never looked at dark blue icecream containers the same since, or life for that matter.
    Bless her heart, these new Mums have no idea what they’re in for in that birthing suite, and you are an angel to write what you did.
    This is a long comment.
    Thanks for sticking around for all of it!

  15. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar

    I recently had a student miss less than a week of school after giving birth and I was pretty darned impressed by that. I love your availability to your students–I am just the same.

  16. Monica Avatar

    You are so much a better teacher – and person – than most people!

    When I was pregnant with my first child ( 21 years ago!!!) I too was a student, and had it all planned out to give birth during the 1 week of autumn break, and then be back in school, with baby carriage and all. My German teacher just couldn’t stop laughing when I told her, and just went sure you will, Monica, sure you will ! and walked away, still laughing…

    you can imagine my 24 year old insulted self, thinking that teacher was just an old cynical fart…

    the fact that I did take a 6 months maternity leave has nothing to do with this story..

  17. Meg Avatar

    I love the absolute optimism possessed by this student. I love that she assured you she would meet the deadline. I love, love, love your ability to stop, breathe and craft a sensitive, worthy response. I say this because I am that student. When I was younger, I assumed that my superhuman powers could overcome any crazy obstacle in my path, despite all evidence to the contrary. Sometimes they actually did. Other times, I learned something. As she will.

  18. sweffling Avatar

    Teaching is truly a calling: a good teacher has influence way beyond his/her imagining. I am sure your message meant a great deal to your student, well done:)

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