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The Empty Desk: Caring Strategies to Talk to Students About Their Attendance

By Rose Russo-Gleicher

On any given day, at least one-fourth of all college students are absent from class with serious consequences for their grades and eventual completion.[1]  Ultimately, 30 percent of college students drop out after their first year and half never graduate.[2]  Faced with these empty desks, faculty members turn to common strategies: frequent quizzes or a quiz at the beginning of each class; electronic ID cards to monitor student attendance at large lectures; providing written feedback to individual students about the number and percentage of their absences compared to their peers; or, allowing students to earn a “stuff happens” card that can be used to excuse an absence or late paper submission.[3]  

But there is increasing interest in another, possibly more effective strategy: demonstrating acts of caring about students, especially those who are absent.[4]  Professors should reach out to struggling students and practice “tough love” that includes “caring deeply” about students, says one researcher.[5] Others suggest a new focus on behaviors that enhance student learning, such as modeling, feedback, respect, listening, discussion of strengths and weaknesses, and recognition of the student as a unique individual.[6]  Two studies show that an alarming 44 percent of students reported that an instructor had given up on them; both studies mentioned that a lack of caring is when a professor makes no effort to find out why a student is missing class or tells a student that passing the class is impossible.[7]   

Despite increasing attention to low college graduation rates and ways to increase student attendance, few specific caring strategies have been offered to help faculty talk to students about attendance or the personal problems that may be preventing their attendance. This paper is based on my experience teaching counseling skills to human services/social work students at a community college, as well as my expertise as a counselor in job training programs. I provide  specific strategies and sample dialogues for faculty who wish to talk to students about absenteeism in a caring and concerned way.  These strategies have been successfully used in my classes over several semesters. I also provide national resources that may be useful in addressing some of the problems shared by frequently absent students.

Ten Caring Strategies

Here are 10 strategies that I have found to be effective in dealing with student absences.

Beginning of semester procedures. Several procedures at the beginning of the semester can prepare for future contact with a student, if needed. On the first day of class, I give out a copy of the college academic calendar, review the syllabus, go over a list of questions related to the syllabus (a syllabus quiz), and make sure to get student e-mail addresses and phone numbers. The syllabus contains a calendar of dates for all class meetings, exams, and papers, as well as detailed descriptions for all the assigned papers. This enables students to plan for all course requirements (no surprises) and I follow this schedule to the extent possible. I arrive early to the classroom whenever possible. On the second day of class, I continue to collect contact information from students who missed the first day of class; such absences may be a sign of an ambivalent student.  Most recently, I also have sent out test e-mails to students after the first week of class to make sure I have the correct e-mail addresses. From time to time, I ask students if any of their information has changed.  I also assign a short writing assignment, which can be completed without research, due shortly after the semester begins.

The syllabus indicates that students should only be absent for specific reasons (indicated below.) When students return, they must show documentation regarding their absences, except in the case of a family death. I also accept absences for religious holidays.  In my classes, an “excused absence” is due to:

a court/legal issue (for example, jury duty, parole meeting, court date, incarceration), an appointment for public benefits or entitlements that could not be scheduled at any other time, or a severe health issue. What is a severe health issue?  A severe health issue is being contagious (pink eye or flu, for example) in the emergency room, in the hospital, or having a medical condition requiring an immediate medical appointment that could not be scheduled at any other day/time.

Red flags about attendance.  Early on, I learn student names, note attendance problems, and speak with students privately before or after class, by letter, by telephone, or by e-mail, depending upon the circumstances. For example, I may ask a student to stay a few minutes after class. “X, could you please stay a minute after class, there is something that I need to talk to you about.”  In a discussion with the student, I demonstrate concern that he/she is missing too much time from class, remind he/she that the tests are primarily based on class notes, and ask what is happening  that is keeping him/her from attending class. There are several situations when I contact students:

• absent the first day of class, attends, and then is absent again very soon;
• absent for two consecutive classes any time during the semester;
• absent three times, not consecutively, if this maximum number of absences is reached in the first third of the semester;
• absent one of the first three days of the semester and has not turned in the first, short written assignment usually due around the third class (I give two written assignments);
• absent once or twice and a low grade on the first exam (I give three tests);
• absent the day after a school break/vacation of at least two days (Thanksgiving in the fall semester, and Easter/Passover in the spring semester);
• absent three times at any point in the semester; or
• absent from an exam.

Confidentiality and tips on writing letters. A letter is a good way to maintain confidentiality, an important value for social workers, as well as to connect student actions to consequences.[8]  Sometimes, I cannot reach a student by phone because they changed their cell phone number and didn’t tell me or I cannot read their handwriting.  I type a note to the student, listing the dates they were absent and indicating that they need to call me or make an appointment to discuss their attendance.  I e-mail the letter to the student and also give he or she the letter on the next day that they attend class. Even though attendance is mentioned on the syllabus, students might forget that attendance counts or they might not remember how many absences they’ve compiled.  In the letter, I indicate:

I write letters because I am concerned about my students and want them to succeed. I am concerned about your attendance. Class notes and participation are an important part of the class.  The exams are highly based on class notes and worksheets done in class.  As indicated on the class syllabus, the course policy allows X number of absences. You’ve been absent on (list dates with and without excuse notes). You’ve used X number of absences already. Attendance and class participation are X% of final course grade. The last day to drop a class without a grade is X.  Please contact me by phone or e-mail, or see me before or after class to discuss your situation….

Confidentiality and finding a private location to talk to students.  Sometimes it is a challenge to find a private space for a brief conversation with a student. Our empty classroom, before or after class, is often the best place. I will hang a sign asking students to wait outside a minute while I talk to a student with whom I have an appointment. In semesters when the classes using the same room are spaced too closely together (less than 10 minutes apart), I’ve used a bench in the student lounge and spoken with students in a whisper. I have given up on using the adjunct office at the college where I work, which serves more than 100 adjuncts. Someone else is always present, which makes students feel uncomfortable. Although I thought it was polite for me to leave the adjunct office if a faculty entered with a student, others have not been that accommodating to me.

Due to that lack of private space, telephone, and e-mail play a big role in reaching students. When I have a student’s phone number, I can call from the privacy of my home, first verifying that the student also is in a private place to talk. I always ask if he/she “has a minute to talk” knowing that the student might be at work, in the street, or with friends or family.

Issues that relate to student attendance.  Eventually, I find the right time and place to ask, “What’s keeping you from attending class?” My experience has found that their reasons are similar to the reasons cited by students who don’t complete college: having to work to support themselves and/or their families, financial problems, being the first in their family to attend college, homelessness, being immigrants, and an inability to develop relationships at school.[9]  Similarly, the reasons for absenteeism from college reported in the literature are:  illness, family commitments, doctor/dentist appointments, assignment submission due dates, pretending to be ill, feeling tired or oversleeping due to schoolwork or other activities from the night before, having a personal errand to run at the time of class, attendance not taken being during class, needing a break, and being out of town.[10] 

More specifically, my students tell me that many personal and family issues have kept them from attending school and many bring documentation. Some of the problems that impact their attendance are: lack of childcare or after-school programs, immigration issues, breakup of relationships, being a crime victim, having a partner or sibling or spouse with legal problems, substance abuse issues, dealing with domestic violence, dealing with an unexpected pregnancy and/or miscarriage, death of a family member or friend, “coming out” about gay/lesbian issues, homelessness, financial problems involving a sudden loss of a job or entitlements being cut,  conflicts between work and school schedules, time management, career confusion, having a special-needs child, and more.  

Given the variety of responsibilities carried by college students, in addition to their schoolwork, it isn’t a complete surprise that college students have a lot of mental health problems.  Mental health problems among college students are on the rise, particularly depression, eating disorders, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, alcohol abuse, attention disorders, and self-injury.[11]

I explain that although I am a licensed social worker, I am here as a teacher or educator. I express my concern and my desire to connect the student with resources. I am also concerned about finding out if the problem is impacting their other classes as well.  If it is a serious issue, I am always prepared with the brochure from the college counseling center and an extra copy of a list of suitable hotlines and appropriate resources to give to the student.

 I am concerned about your attendance. You need to get help about this issue because it is keeping you out of class. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that being absent from class puts you at risk of a low grade. I would like to see you pass the class and get a good grade. The college has free and confidential counseling at the counseling center so you can get help with the issue, be able to attend class, and succeed at college.

Convey empathy.  I listen very closely to the student to convey empathy, an understanding and feeling for their situation. I try to put myself into their shoes. When talking to a student by telephone who has been absent because of a death in the family, I might say: 

I’m sorry to hear that your aunt passed away. Please return to class as soon as possible. We have free and confidential counseling at the counseling center. Would you like to talk to a counselor about this?

Convey hope. Hope is defined as a social worker’s ability to convey interest, belief, and confidence in a client’s ability to take constructive action to improve their present and future and it plays an important part in a client’s motivation to change.[12]  Early in the semester, students need to know that they can try to increase their attendance and try to pass the class. To further provide hope, I also recently have started matching peer tutors to students who have had absences due to medical issues or a death in the family.  To convey hope, a professor can say: 

I am hopeful that you can pass this class, if you try very hard. You can catch up with what you missed by making a study group with another student and attending every day for the rest of the semester. I have seen other students in your situation, catch up and still be able to do well in the class.

Offer choices, assist self-determination.  Social workers adhere to the value of client self-determination.[13]  We give people the freedom to make choices in their lives by exploring options and consequences. I try to get students to obtain free and confidential counseling at the college counseling center by giving them a brochure or by making a referral. However, students often decline the opportunity to attend the counseling center stating that they don’t have the time to go because of work and family responsibilities, scheduling conflicts, and/or confidentiality concerns. Some of their legal, health, or financial problems can be better addressed by an outside agency. 

Self-disclosure.  When a social worker shares relevant personal information, it helps develop the worker-client relationship by increasing rapport and trust.[14]  Ask yourself how sharing information will be helpful to the student. Think back to a time when you were in school. Did a teacher ever help you?  A small bit of self-disclosure helps students connect with me as a human being and see that I am not perfect. If a student is having a hard time balancing work and school responsibilities, I might let a student know that I also worked part-time while I attended college. If a student talks about the demands of family and school, I might let a student know that I work part-time because I am the parent of a special-needs child.

Combining empathy, self-disclosure, and hope. In the process of talking to students, I model social work concepts (empathy, self-disclosure) and social work ethics (confidentiality, client self-determination). With my human services majors, I help students understand that if they are to become effective helpers, they need to ask for and receive help when their personal problems impact their success at school. If a student expresses concern or embarrassment about talking to a professor, I convey a combination of empathy, self-disclosure, and hope, which usually encourages the student to talk.  For example:

It’s hard to talk about this. You can change, if you try very hard. You would never know that I was once very shy. A professor helped me.  She used to call me and mail letters to my home in the old days before there were cell phones and e-mail. I graduated.  I got interested in teaching and I made it to the other side of the desk. Whoever imagined that one day that I would become a professor?

When students don’t want to go to the counseling center, I have other resources ready. I have lists of crisis hotlines. I have lists of resources for free or low-cost legal, medical, and related services in the community. Faculty who are not social workers, including those who live a great distance from the college, might not know about these resources or have the time to do research. Several national websites are likely to be most useful to students. (Please see the box of suggested resources at the end of this article.) On many of those sites, students can click on links to find state and local resources.  

Sample Dialogues

Sample Dialogue # 1:  Excessive absences due to death in the family and the use of peer tutoring. The following is a sample conversation with a student who missed the first five days of the semester; we spoke privately after class in the classroom. The student was given a peer tutor, passed the first test, and successfully passed the course as well.

Prof.:  Welcome to class. You missed five classes. What happened that has kept you  out of class? 
Student: Death in the family....(Student elaborates details.)
Prof.  I am sorry to hear that. You missed a lot of class work, but we are not having a test yet for another three weeks, so you have time to catch up.  I have a  peer tutor for you. A classmate will help you to give you the class notes, go over them with you,  answer any questions that you have about what you have missed, and help prepare you for the test. What do you think?
Student: Thank you....

Sample Dialogue # 2:  Absences due to selecting the wrong college major. This is a sample conversation with different student who has continually missed class or arrived late without a significant reason. This was a private conversation after class in our classroom.

Prof.  What’s happening with your attendance? You’ve been either late or absent every class since the semester started.
Student: I work at night as a security guard and get off work very late. It’s very hard for me to get up in the morning. I never usually take a morning class, but I needed this class and it was the only section open. I’ve never taken a class before noon.
Prof.:   Yes, it is hard to work and go to school. I also worked when I was in college. Maybe you can get an alarm clock?
Student: I have an alarm clock but I forget to set it.
Prof:  Well, I would like to see you pass the course and earn a good grade. The exams are highly based on class work.  I’ve been doing this long enough to know that being absent puts you at risk for a low grade or failing grade on the exam. Please  try harder to set your alarm so you can be in class and do well.
Student:  OK

(A few weeks later talking with the same student privately after class in our classroom.)

Prof.:  You’ve been arriving late to class again and had another absence. What’s happening?
Student: I don’t know. It’s just really hard getting here. I live in X which is really far away from here.
Prof.   Yes, that’s a bit far from the college. I also live far from the college but in the opposite direction from you. I live near X but I’m here on time for class everyday. Besides your attendance, you also got a low grade on the first test (D) and this is a required course in your major. I am just wondering if this class might not be what you expected.  Maybe, this class is boring or not the right major for you, and that’s OK. Human services isn’t the right major for everyone.
Student: Yes, you got it now. (Smiling).  It is a little boring for me. I thought this class was going to be about how to save people or help people like in a hospital. Maybe I want to do something like physical therapy?
Prof.:  Thank you for being honest about your situation. You enrolled in a course and it is not what you expected. So it is hard for you to get here everyday because you are bored.  Well, as you probably know, it is too late in the semester to drop the course right now, but I can offer you extra credit if you go to the college Career Center.  I would like you to talk to a counselor there and take the career aptitude tests to help you find the right college major for you. It is free to all students. If you bring me a letter from the Career Center signed by a counselor indicating that you attended an appointment there, you can earn 5 points extra credit toward the next exam, but you still have to try your best to attend class every day and be on time to class.  How does that sound?
Student:  Really great.  I will go there.
Prof.  Here is the flyer for the Career Center. Good luck and see you at our next class.

Sample Dialogue # 3: The absentee student who says, “I don’t have a problem.” I had a student who was absent once early in the semester, earned a low grade on the first exam (D), and had two consecutive absences.  This is the first phone conversation:

Prof.:  Hi. This is Prof. X. from Course XYZ at the college. I am calling because I am concerned about your attendance. Do you have a minute to talk?
Student: Yes.
Prof.:  You’ve been absent two classes in a row. What’s going on?
Student:   I’m fine…Everything is OK… I’ll be back in class… 
Prof.  OK. See you in class.

(The following class, the student is absent again. This is the second phone conversation.)

Prof:   Hi. This is Prof. X from Course XYZ at the college.  Do you have a minute to talk to me?
Student: Yes.
Prof.:  You were absent from class again. What is it that is keeping out of class?
Student:   I’m fine…Everything is OK…I’ll be back in class.
Prof.:  Everything is not OK if you’ve missed three classes in a row and got a low grade on the first test. There is a good reason why you have not been in class. I am definitely concerned about you. Please tell me what’s happening with you? (This would usually bring the student to be honest about the attendance and then I can connect the student to the resources he/she needs to address the problem.)
Student: I really can’t talk about this kind of problem with you.
Prof.:  Yes, I understand that it can be hard talking to a professor about some things, but I am ready to listen to your story and get you to the right resources.
Student: No, no. I can’t talk about it.
Prof.:  Well, the college has a counseling center that is free and confidential and you can talk to a counselor. And I won’t know what the problem is. And that’s OK. All I need is for you to be back in class so you have a chance of passing the course. Would you like to see a counselor in the counseling center?
Student: Yes.
Prof.:  (Gives details about location/hours of the counseling center.)

The above student returned to following class, class participation increased, exam results improved, and the student earned a good final course grade. I was happy to see that the small effort of two phone calls made a big difference in that student's life.

Results of these Caring Strategies

Although I want to identify as many at risk students as early as possible during the semester, I realize that not every student can be saved. Unfortunately, during my first two semesters as a professor, several students did not respond to my efforts and failed the course. Perhaps, as a new professor, I didn’t chase those absentee students enough. Since developing and applying these caring strategies, however, I have been able to track down all my missing students, encourage them to return to class, and all have passed the course.  Furthermore, in addressing student attendance through caring strategies, I aim to model for my students what a social worker is.

I would recommend that each college compile a list of community resources that can be distributed to all faculty.  In addition, each college can develop mental health screenings and train faculty to use them.  While paying attention to student attendance is time consuming, especially when there are large classes, if every faculty member would use these caring strategies to make a difference in the life of even just one student, they also would find it is worth the time and effort.

Resources for Students Needing Outside Help

Benefits/Entitlements/Financial Help:
 http://www.govbenefits.gov/

Crime victims:
  National Center for Victims of Crime: 1-800-FYI-CALL  1-800-394-2255)
  http://www.ncvc.org/
  Safe Horizon’s Crime Victims Hotline: (866)  689- HELP

Drugs and Alcohol:
  Alcoholics Anonymous (AA):  http://www.aa.org/
  Al Anon and Alateen (for friends and families of alcoholics):
   1-888-4AL-ANON  (1-888-425-2666) or
  http://www.al-anon.alateen.org/meetings/meeting.html
 Cocaine Anonymous (CA): http://www.ca.org/
 Marijuana Anonymous (MA): http://www.marijuana-anonymous.org/index.shtml
 Narcotics Anonymous (NA): http://www.wsoinc.com/
  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
   http://www.samhsa.gov/

Eating disorders:
 National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Information, referrals, resources.
  Helpline: 1-800-931-2237      http://www.edap.org/   or
  http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
 Overeaters Anonymous (OA): http://www.oa.org/

Mental Health:

  American Psychiatric Association  http://www.psych.org/   or 
    http://www.healthyminds.org/

 American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/

  National Association of Social Workers:  http://www.helpstartshere.org/
  
  Mental Health America: 
   Counseling for mental health issues and suicide prevention.
   24 hr crisis hotline # 1-800-273-TALK (8255) 
   http://www.nmha.org/go/information   Go to website for information.

  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
   http://www.samhsa.gov/

 Mental Ilness:
 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Information, referrals, resources. 
   http://www.nami.org/ Information Hotline:  (800) 950-NAMI (6264)
  Treatment Advocacy Center. http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/ (legal resources)

Suicide Prevention:
 (The) Jed Foundation. http://www.jedfoundation.org/
  An organization devoted to raising mental health awareness, preventing
  suicide, and reducing stress among college students. 
  Suicide Prevention: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

ENDNOTES

[1] Friedman, Rodriguez, and McComb, “Why Students Do and Do Not Attend class,” 124-33. See also Broucek and Bass; Fuller; Gump; and Shrodes.
[2] Bowler, “Dropouts Loom Large for Schools,” 36-9.
[3] See Shrodes and Clump; Bauer; and Whitford for more about quizzes. Fuller describes attendance-taking strategies. Broucek and Bass assess the effectiveness of written feedback about absences. And, Weimer discusses the “stuff happens” card in more detail.
[4] Lewin, “College Dropouts Cite Low Money and High Stress,” A-27. See also Zaitsev, “Students’ Expectations and Classroom Management of Learner-Centered Sessions in the Community College,” 47-53.
[5] Arras, “It’s a Simple Game: A Professor Reduces His Teaching Life to a Few Bullet Points.”
[6] See Hawk and Lyons, “Please Don’t Give Up on Me: When Faculty Fail to Care,” 1-23.
[7] Weimer, “Do Faculty Give Up on Students?” and Hawk and Lyons op cit both discuss this situation in greater detail.
[8] Confidentiality is a key tenet of the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics.
[9] See Banks; Edelman; Foderano; and Lewin for a more complete discussion about issues impacting student attendance.
[10] Friedman, Rodriguez, and McComb, op cit, and Hughes, “Student Attendance During College-Based Lectures: A Pilot Study,” 41-9.
[11] See the American Psychological Association; Cooney; Gabriel; Irvine; Lewin; Mozes; NEA; Trainor; and Whitford for more information about the various mental health issues students face.
[12] Smaldino, “The Importance of Hope in the Casework Relationship,” 328-33.
[13]NASW, op cit.
[14] Bradmiller, “Self-disclosure in the Helping Relationship,” 28-35.

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Rosalie (Rose) Russo-Gleicher has been an adjunct professor of human services at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY) since 2008, and a social worker in New York since 1995. Correspondence can be sent to Dr. Russo-Gleicher at RoseDSW@aol.com