Classroom accommodations – part 1

Teaching in a classroom entails number of different considerations and adjustments to be effective and successful beyond just lecturing for the audience. Like in any community or society, human dimension is – although not always explicitly emphasized – an essential component in teaching and learning. Assessing the students’ needs and expectations through careful observation, and adjusting to and accommodating the necessary changes would benefit both teachers and students. I suppose that teachers should give a fair treatment and opportunity to his/her students and give them care considering everyone is a precious human being – at least such an attitude whether it is feasible or not.

Over the years, I have learned that there are many areas that I need to be aware of for the students’ needs for accommodation in class. Some students may have physical or mental disability (sometimes with multiple issues), some may need to observe their religious holy days during the semester, some may need a technical accommodation (e.g. allowing them to Skype in to the class while they are traveling or taking a class from a different city), and yet others may have an unexpected emergency situations with their family or loved one. The university provides a detailed instruction at the beginning of each academic year on how the professors should accommodate such cases. How much ever detailed descriptions the university may provide, there are always cases that fall into a gray area which requires the professor’s discretion. And that is a hard part.

One year I had a female student who had an anxiety attack in the middle of the class. I remember it was the first class after a midterm exam. I half-jokingly told the class at the beginning of the class that “You must be hating me now.” Students just chuckled at my silly comment, but one student shouted at me from the back, “We still love you Prof. Min!” Wow. I thankfully nodded to that direction with smile on my face, and moved on to that day’s lecture. Perhaps in the mid-part of the class, while I was speaking to the 250-student class, one student began to stomp down to the podium area. I tried to behave as naturally as possible because sometimes students come in and out for bathroom or whatnot during the class, and an indication of my distraction would affect the focus of entire class. But it was different at this time. She came straight down and stopped in front of me, who by then was with a bewildered look in his eyes. She handed me a piece of paper – in front of 250 sets of eyes – and stormed out of the classroom. It was a memo with her name and phone number. I knew I only had a split second to decide how to respond. A number of thoughts popped up in my head during that short moment: “Oh, God, now I am a subject of gossip (this was the same student who had shouted at me with affectionate remark earlier)”, “Why she left me her phone#?” ,”How should I act properly now?” I ended up casually putting the memo aside on the lectern and resumed speaking as though nothing serious happened. I don’t know how other students handled it, but it was a challenging hour to concentrate for me. Thankfully, the puzzle was solved soon when the student contacted me by e-mail apologizing her reckless behavior in the classroom and explained she was under anxiety attack. I assured her that I was not insulted or offended but just surprised because I didn’t know what was going on and she didn’t need to worry about me. I also suggested her to contact the Student Disabilities Services office on campus to have a professional help if she needed. With their official assessment and a letter, I can accommodate whatever needs of her more properly, I said. It was a happy ending after all, but it was a new learning experience for me.

Sometimes, diverse needs of the students with disabilities break a shell of my limited views, and force me – in a good way – to change the way I think and conduct my work. One year, I had a student with severely impaired vision in my large introductory class. I had had some students who had a disability of hearing and would let them record my lecture (or even transmitting the recording to a 3rd party to transcribe it) or get other students’ notes, but not with a vision issue. I was at a loss at first, because most of my lecture slides for this introductory class were filled with lots of colorful images. I had a dilemma. Should I modify my lecture slides substantially with less graphic images and give more explicit verbal explanations to the class to assist this student’s need (which can be less effective or even boring for the rest of the class), or should I rather justify myself of not adjusting my slides to help the majority of the class? What would be a wise way of adjustment? Thank God. I was lucky. One of the TAs volunteered to sit next to him and explained the images on my lecture slides while I was lecturing. She acted like a personal interpreter for this student. I was so grateful. It worked out in such a wonderful way after all.

(continued in part 2)

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