Single Parents in College

Aug 28 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I've been teaching for a long time. One of my jobs was at a large urban university, albeit R1, that had relatively large numbers of older women (ie in their late 20s to early 30s) going back to school. I taught classes that were good for people who wanted a health sciences career of some sort. Many times (more than 3) I had people show up to class, kid in tow, saying "I have a day care problem". My standard response was "fine, until the moment class is disrupted". That never, as far as I remember, happened.

Now comes an article titled "5 Ways Professors Can Help Single Moms Stay In School".  I must say I have lots of mixed feelings about this article. So, here are thoughts, although in a slightly different order.

3.  Help me to network with others like me. When assigning group projects, devise a way for students with children to work together. If I have to meet with these strangers for periods of time outside of the classroom, I will be much more engaged and able to learn if my colleagues are willing to put Powerpoints together at Chuck E. Cheese’s instead of the library.

First of all, I hate group projects. They either reflect the best  or worst person in the group. But that is irrelevant here. According to my Uni, I cannot ask you about your personal life. In fact, whether your age, religion, sexual preference, race, gender, etc is your business and not mine. It is illegal to ask about marital status and parental status on an interview for damn good reasons. Imagine what would happen if on the first day of class I asked "I'd like all the single parents in this room to self-identify so that I can make sure you guys are working together". I'd be censured within five minutes of the end of class.

This concern also applies to #5:

5. Reach out to me and find out who I am. I know you have hundreds of students and it’s impossible to connect personally with each and every one of us. Even so, it’s likely that I’ll never tell you I’m a single mom, because I’m afraid you will think I am less committed to my studies. I’m not. Most of us are more committed than other students. The women who have gone before me are more likely to have persisted if they had personal connections with their professors, and your recognition of me as a student facing overwhelming obstacles to be in your classroom means I will likely stay around longer—and eventually graduate.

I'm sorry, I can't just say, "hey all the single ladies...". In fact, I'd love to connect with each and every one of you. Of course I can see who is a little older and who is not. Roughly. But I cannot act on it. If you come up to me and say "I'd like to talk with you, Prof. Theron", great, I'll invite you to my office, or suggest making an appointment (right then and there). But what you say in  #5 here is true of many many sub-groups of people. It is true of people of color in a largely white university. It is true of the physically challenged, the ones who have an obvious issue that I can see (think crutches) and the ones who don't (think heart condition). It is true of Islamic women in headscarves, and people who look white and aren't and people with gender dysphoria and people who are gay and people who don't have enough money to "do college right". Which brings us to #4 on the list:

4. Consider that I’m financially strapped. I understand we need to have books in order to learn, but please don’t force me to make a choice between giving my daughter a new My Little Pony for her birthday or an expensive supplemental style guide. She is going to win. Every time. I’ll look the style guide up online or borrow it from another student.

I understand your daughter is going to win. But are you more or less cash strapped than the kid I had who was supporting his disabled father and working a 50 hr a week job while trying to stay in school? Or the first kid in the family to go to college, except that the family doesn't see the value and the kid is on their own? I am sure there are profs who do not understand what being working class means. But there are likely people with less money than you in this class. I do my best to balance the knowledge that some kids don't have enough money, that I don't want to favor the rich, with what I think is going to best for you to succeed in what I have to teach.

Let's get the next one out of the way.

2. Rethink your phone rules. When you make the rule that cell phones must be turned off in class, consider that I need to be available if my child is running a fever or gets trampled by a herd of elephants while I am listening to your lecture, and that will take precedence over your wisdom. I’ll put it on vibrate, but it’s got to stay on.

What do you think working mothers (in fact, those working class mothers) did 20 years ago before cell phones? Those single parents who had jobs that did not include having a phone on your desk, or even a phone at the head desk? What do you think parents who were teaching did? Do you think that they worried? Of course they did. Did they have access to a phone every hour of every day? No. They didn't. They managed to figure out how to do what they had to do to put food on the table (#4) without being able to be constantly reached. I'd ask that you reconsider this one. There's a reason for a no phone rule in class. You ask that I take you seriously, well, if you are going to be running out of class frequently, I am not going think you take it seriously.


1. Acknowledge I exist in your syllabus. I am making enormous efforts and sacrifices to be in your course—if I am running late or miss a homework deadline because my child was ill or needed to have a green bean extracted from his ear, I’ll find a way to make it up to you. Please put it in writing that you will make provisions for this possibility by stating explicitly that students with family responsibilities should contact you by email regarding missed or late work.

I know you exist. I can see the exhaustion in your face. I know you are working three jobs: school, parent and the one that puts money in the bank to make the first two possible. It's a tough, tough road. I want to see you succeed. My course is not a sorting mechanism for the rich and privileged. My course is trying to help you learn something, master something, so that you can go and do something more after my course.

But, family responsibilities are only one thing that gets in the way of getting stuff done. In my syllabus is a statement about getting help if you need it. If you are having trouble with deadlines, come talk to me.  You are not the only one with challenges, and as a teacher, I need to help all my students.  If you know there is a problem ahead, come tell me. But for me, I want to, I have to, treat my students equally. In my experience, everyone has a problem, a handicap and a need for special consideration.

But what about the extra benefits you get from being a parent? Or having lived a little longer than some 19 year old? There are advantages you have, and should I accommodate the people who do not have your advantages? I am not just being snide here. This is a real problem: where do we draw the line on helping and accommodating?  Someone who is blind should have someone to read the exam to them. I know single parents believe they should have more time. But what about someone who is disorganized?

In the end, this class is a little thing. A bagatelle in life. What are you going to do with a real job in the real world? There are accommodations for parents, but probably not as many as you want or think you need. Right now, you see the need for parental help because you are a parent. Only recently has the working world acknowledged that elder care can be as time consuming and far more emotionally draining than childcare (there is none of the joy of raising children, and huge enormous swathes of sadness). I'd ask that you take a step back and thing of someone else, someone with different challenges than yours. What do you want to do to help them? And go hug your child, because your challenge is not the challenges that others have.


Followup from the tweets:
Just overheard 2 UGs: "backin the day when phones didn't have internet, how did students cheat?!" <_<

— DrElizabeth Sargent (@esargent184) September 1, 2015

12 responses so far

  • anon says:

    I'm not sure about your response to #2 (everything else seems perfectly reasonable to me). Granted I'm a young'en, but 20 years ago, I also doubt day cares had rules about needing to pick up your kids if they came down with a fever - people were less health conscientious (paranoid?) back then. So expectations have changed as cell phones have become common. Also, maybe back then social expectations and a lack of daycares meant that fewer mothers could even think of coming back to school. That's certainly true if you go far enough back, and I'm reasonably sure you agree that it's a shame.

    What _is_ your reason for not having phones on in class? For most profs it's to minimize distractions. As for distracting other students, I would think having it be on silent/buzz is enough to minimize that (most kids these days are so used to ubiquitous cell phones, I doubt they think the buzz mode is distracting). And if the students are distracting *themselves* with their cell phones... well, they're (mostly) adults, and they can make their own decisions.

    Also, I hate to say it, but most campuses now have emergency text notifications which the students et al. sign up to receive. Given the rash of campus shooters and lockdowns that the US has been having, I would want the cell phones on (but on silent) for safety...

    • potnia theron says:

      Let's say your child is in surgery. How much attention do you want the surgeon, the nurse, the anesthetist paying to your child? I am not saying that a student in lecture is the same as OR staff. Just making a point about the necessity of constant and immediate communication.

      We live in a world where we believe that !!emergencies!! are happening ALL THE TIME and we NEED TO KNOW right fucking now. We don't pay full attention to much of anything. And I think we suffer for that. Yes, its every adult's choice. Leave your phone on or not.

      And, no, no one can tell if you've got your phone on buzz. Go ahead. But if a phone going off (repeatedly) in a lecture is a sure signal to the teacher about relative importance, attention and commitment.

      • DJMH says:

        But that's not the point: the point of the original article is that the parent needs to have the phone on all the time in case a child does fall ill. That's not a common event (hopefully); it might only be once in the semester that the call happens to come during your class; but it is important to the parent.

        I also carry the Bat-phone (the cell phone that we give as the emergency contact info to all care providers/schools) everywhere. If I couldn't bring it into a meeting, I would be more distracted during the meeting by anxiety that I might be missing an emergency call, and therefore pay less attention to the meeting.

        And yes, your comparison of your lecture to an OR is pompous beyond belief.

        • potnia theron says:

          mmm... it is not that my lecture = OR. it is the student = surgeon. read carefully. I have no delusions about the significance of my lectures.

          • DJMH says:

            Uh, if the student is the surgeon, then you're saying that paying attention to your lecture is as important as a surgeon paying attention to her surgery. That's absurd.

          • Anonymous says:

            @DJMH: You seem to have a little trouble reading, so let me help you out:

            "I am not saying that a student in lecture is the same as OR staff. Just making a point about the necessity of constant and immediate communication."

            In other words, you would expect a single parent who is a member of the OR staff to deal with not being immediately reachable when they are in the OR, no? But this is somehow too much to ask of single parents who are students?

            Also, let's not forget that most classes longer than about an hour usually have a bathroom break, etc., so no trouble at all to check one's messages then.

            In general, articles like this really tick me off. Flexibility and accommodations are for *everyone* and have to be fair to all -- being a single parent doesn't make you a special snowflake. The world doesn't owe it to you to rearrange itself because you decided to procreate.

          • DJMH says:

            it is the student = surgeon.

            What part of that is hard to read?

            And yes, I have different expectations for people who are operating on patients as I do for people who are listening to a regurgitated lecture that could just as well be online. Call me crazy.

            Most daycares, since you clearly know nothing about this, have a policy that you must pick up your child within one hour after they contact you. So given even a short commute from class to daycare, spending an hour without one's phone can put you in big trouble at the daycare.

            Plenty of the article sounded silly, I agree, but someone has to be a the point of contact for kids in school or daycare and the notion that one student whose phone is on vibrate is going to Ruin the Lecture!! is tripe.

      • anon says:

        Not to pile on here, but don't surgeons have staff who answer the phone or take messages and such on their behalf when they're in the OR? That's my naive impression from Grey's Anatomy at least 😉 Or if they have familial emergencies there are protocols to follow for subbing out the surgeon as necessary. I am sure someone on the blogosphere knows. Anecdotally, I totally talked to my cat's surgeon while he was still working on her - that's almost like my kid's surgeon, right? 😉

        And actually, I have been on campus lockdown twice. Once for an active shooter in the vicinity (high school), and once for a suspected shooter (grad school). My husband nearly attended (and has friends who did attend) Columbine. So perhaps that makes me more paranoid than most... So while emergencies are quite rare, and you can get by without constant contact like ye goode olde days, IMO being a good modern citizen means learning how to filter your messages and not get distracted by constant connectivity.

  • sweetscience says:

    Regarding #3 (and 5), a professor can "reach out" by simply allowing a place for a student to identify their needs/restrictions voluntarily. For example, if you are assigning students to a group, consider sorting them by information they give - could be a survey that includes project-related skills that you want to balance between groups as well as time constraints or other factors that influence group work outside class. Then they don't even have to identify the source of their needs if they don't wish to.

    Obviously this is very difficult for a large class; if you let students choose their own groups, say, "If anyone has any serious time constraints due to sports or family responsibilities, etc. why don't you come over to this area and see if anyone matches your availability?" Then they have the opportunity to connect with others but do not have to identify their issues to the professor if they don't wish to.

  • GMP says:

    I too hate group assignments with a burning passion and never give them.

    What I do that helps people who work and presumably would single parents as well is that I try to avoid scheduling face time for things that don't absolutely require it. For instance, exams are during class time, not in the evenings; I use Moodle for my classes and all homework has to be turned in electronically at the student's leisure, so it's not a big deal to submit from home if you are missing classes and you will get your grade electronically too.

  • […] us to doing something about guns, if twenty dead elementary school kids didn’t) Totebagging Single Parents in College Sales tax election to come down to one voter in failed gerrymandering […]

  • chall says:

    Intersting. I left teaching a couple of years ago and haven't thought about this in a while. I have an issue with the "reachable at any moment" but I can understand that it's important at certain times of one's life to be reachable all the time. My main issue is that people seem to misuse this to a huge extent and THAT disturbes me in the class. Like the class I took the other month, people were walking in and out taking their phone calls. It's not like you can ask them "is that really an emergency" since their phones were off/on vibrate but the constant moving in and out really made it hard on both the teacher/lectureer and us in the class who benefit from more calm sourroundings.

    I guess I'm priveliged?

Leave a Reply