Teacher let student fall asleep in class — and maybe that's not the worst idea

Maggie Parker
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Long gone are the days of getting detention for dozing off in class. Well, at least in one teacher’s classroom.

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A Cheney, Wash., high school English teacher, Monte Syrie, shared a story on a Twitter thread of why he didn’t punish a tired teen for falling asleep in his class and instead let her snooze. He’s getting a lot of praise for his empathy. “Meg fell asleep in class yesterday. I let her. I didn’t take it personally,” he wrote last week. He said the sophomore was exhausted, thanks to a very early math class, “farm-girl chores,” track practice and races, and, of course, “adolescent angst,” which might be the most tiring of them all. He realizes that his class is “only a part of her life, not her life,” so he let her get much-needed zzz’s.

The teacher’s original tweet has almost 4,000 likes, as of this story. In another tweet, he admitted that the student didn’t use the class time wisely or hand in her essay on time, but he didn’t feel the need to “beat her up about it.” Besides, she emailed him the paper later that night. He also addressed the fact that this definitely goes against protocol, which anyone who has ever grown out their bangs only to hide sleepy eyes can attest to. “I know we all somewhat subscribe to this notion that there’s a right way of doing things, and letting kids sleep in class falls outside the boundaries. I get it, and I’m not suggesting that we make it a permanent part of repertoire/routine, but I am suggesting that we sometimes trust our instincts, even if it goes against the grain, maybe especially if it goes against the grain, for I am not always convinced the grain best considers kids,” he suggested.

She, like all my kids, has shown signs of exhaustion/fatigue, but she had never fallen asleep before,” Syrie told Yahoo Lifestyle. “I think any of my kids could nod off. It just happened to be Meg on that day. Have I had kids fall asleep in class before? Yes. Will I again? Yes. Am I suggesting that we just simply let kids, then, sleep in class? No. But I am suggesting that we practice compassion.”

He might be one of the few teachers in his school who would react this way, but he doesn’t care: It’s his room. “And in my room there are lots of things I CAN do,” he wrote. “I can’t control the world outside. I can’t offer Meg a math class later in the day. I cannot feed her horses (many horses) in the morning or evening. I cannot run 6 race-pace 300’s for her. I cannot spirit away her teen trouble. But I can give her a break.” It would have been one thing if she had been snoring away or making herself a bed on the floor in an act of disrespect, but she wasn’t.

Syrie told Yahoo Lifestyle that Meg is a great student. “She was tired. So I gave her a break. I can do that.” And she still got her essay done. “In fact, serendipitously, she proudly told me so when I ran into her at the grocery store at 6:45 this morning. She was getting some breakfast before her 7:10 math class. She’d been up since 5:00 doing chores,” he wrote, concluding the thread.

Even Meg’s classmates were understanding; no one said anything about her sleeping, but Syrie knows they were aware. “And I think they didn’t say anything because they get it. They did not cry foul. They live her same existence every day. They understand.”

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Each follow-up tweet received hundreds of likes. Followers have been inspired to share their own stories of sympathetic teachers. “Teachers like you are such a blessing to our children,” actress Katherine Willis responded. “My son who is 15 had a mental breakdown on Tuesday and the student success teacher let him sleep in his office and he called me said he did a professional judgement to allow this- I’m thrilled my son has someone he can go to and trust. What he did for my son was awesome,” someone else shared. “When I was in HS my bf broke up with me, college applications were due, and I fell apart. I showed up to a test in tears. My teacher took me into the hall, told me it was OK, and sent me home. He let me take the test later. I will NEVER forget his kindness and empathy that day,” wrote another follower.

Other educators chimed in too. “10 years ago I had a homeless student who would fall asleep in class about once a week. The 1st time it happened he came in after school to ask about what he slept through and to thank me. That pattern continued all year… 7 yrs ago he graduated,” wrote one teacher.

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Some just used this opportunity to heap praise on their professor. “You can learn so much from @MonteSyrie … loved the conversations and discussions from your classroom management class at EWU. Teacher/student relationships are everything!” wrote one fan. “Everyone commenting just get to see this small part of why Mr. Syrie is so great. He’s probably my favorite teacher from high school, or all of school and I only had him for a year. Way to go Sy. Glad everyone gets to see how fantastic you are,” added another. “We are so glad Luke gets to start his day with you every day this semester, Monte. He thinks the world of you and so do Kent and I. Your impact is felt near and far. THANK YOU!”

Even the school superintendent was grateful. “The school didn’t know about it until the thread went viral, and the local news stations wanted to interview me. The district superintendent emailed me thanking me for all that I do to connect with kids, meeting more than just their academic needs, addressing their social/emotional needs as well,” he said. Syrie plans on continuing to treat his students with empathy. “I will do it again. And I think, based on the overwhelming positive response, I am not alone in either doing or thinking that I did the right thing.”

Meg was grateful too; Syrie told Yahoo Lifestyle she thanked him the next morning for being understanding.

Child and adolescent psychologist Barbara Greenberg sees exhausted students every day and is commending Syrie’s decision. “He’s speaking to the problem of youth exhaustion; we know that our kids are getting too little sleep, and it’s affecting them in a variety of ways,” she said. A few years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later. “Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty,” the academy wrote in a press release on its new policy statement, “School Start Times for Adolescents.”

High school students like Meg have so much on their plates, they need their sleep to manage the stress, as well as function and remain healthy, Greenberg said. “He could have taken a punishment model, but instead he approached her with empathy and kindness in an out-of-the-box kind of way and that’s wonderful.”

She agreed that letting students sleep through class shouldn’t become the norm. “Instead, I think whenever you see students exhausted, you have to approach each situation on an individual basis instead of having one general rule, like if a kid falls asleep or doesn’t hand in an assignment on time, we should immediately punish them. I think we have to look at children as individuals to the best of our ability.”

Greenberg believed this is a sign that something needs to change; it could be the school start time, or it could be the number of responsibilities and activities children have. Syrie agreed. “To a certain degree, we create conflicting worlds between which our kids are being crushed,” he said. “Parents have to help limit their kids’ activities. As a parent, I know how hard this is. My wife (also a teacher) and I try to prevent this with our own children. The struggle is real.” He urges parents to help their children get a good night’s sleep and “take away tech” at night. “I know too many of my kids who are checking Snapchat all night long. They can’t resist that notification.”

Change needs to happen in the classroom as well. “Schools have to keep school at school as much as possible,” Syrie suggested. “Yes, that may be an extreme suggestion, but something has to give. And I believe that we can be the ones who bend the most.” No, that doesn’t mean no more homework. Syrie knows that taking homework out of the equation will be extremely difficult. “In the meantime, we can be flexible. We can allow students to submit late work without penalty. If it’s important work, then when it’s done is secondary to that it’s done,” he pointed out. If only he had been around when we were in school. “We can allow kids to retake assessments and redo assignments. This approach alone cannot only reduce stress, but it can put the emphasis on learning, not grading. Kids don’t get stressed out about learning. Kids get stressed out about grading.”

“This is also a call to schools to look at the times that they start,” Greenberg added. “It would require a major restructuring of our school day and year, but the benefits would be worth the inconvenience,” Syrie said. “It is a kid-based decision, another phrase that we too often pay lip service to in education. It would benefit kids.” Greenberg said many high schools have taken to starting school later in the morning, “because we all know that school starts too early.” Still, 40 percent of high schools in the U.S. start before 8 a.m., according to theAmerican Academy of Pediatrics in 2014.

Or, maybe it’s simply adding in naptime. “If we are gonna have our kids get up this early, maybe like very young kids, they, too, deserve a nap during the day,” suggested Greenberg.

Until those changes are made, perhaps more teachers can take cues from Syrie and allow a few unofficial snoozes. “I will let kids sleep when the need requires. I would risk my career for it. Maybe I already have.”

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