Practical tips for accommodating late students, and other reflections

There is a wonderful discussion taking place on Nadine Fawell's blog which was sparked by a post on being late for yoga class.  It started with a post about the role of a teacher when students are late for class and evolved into a discussion of the idea of "individual sovereignty" in your yoga practice. There are some great discussions in the comments section, which is actually where this post started.

I agree in principle with the idea of individual sovereignty, and agree totally that respect for a teacher must be earned through a process of relationship - not automatically given. But I don't agree that my sovereignty as an individual entitles me to behave in a way that might be disruptive to those around me, and in a class setting, that sometimes that needs to be enforced.  And so there is really a contradiction in group yoga classes, because while we constantly hear that "your practice is all about you", it's not actually ENTIRELY about you as long as there are other students with you in the room.

Reading the discussion makes me reflect on how, as a teacher, I struggle to find the balance between showing compassion and being accommodating for the one or two or five latecomers, while still showing the same compassion and respect for the 5 or 10 or 15 students who were on time.  I struggle to create a safe space for ALL our students to practice - which may mean understanding and accepting people who arrive late, but it also may mean setting boundaries so that their lateness doesn't have a negative impact on other students.  This of course depends on the setting (is there plenty of space, or will students have to shuffle around to make room for the latecomer?), the timing (is everyone a bit late because traffic was awful, or is the same person constantly walking in during meditation and noisily unrolling their mat?), and other specific factors.  I don't think that teachers should set rules arbitrarily - but I have observed that sometimes individuals behave in a way that negatively affects others, and as a teacher we do need to mitigate the effects of those actions.

It seems to me that there are 3 approaches that teachers (or studios) can take in dealing with lateness:
  1. Have a strict on-time policy and lock the doors when class starts
  2. Have a 5-10 minute grace policy but don't allow people in who are more than 10 minutes late
  3. Allow people to come into class whenever they arrive
Personally I teach somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd options. I think we need to be flexible - if a student arrives late, and I know that the person can warm up and safely join the practice, and if there is space for them to do so without disrupting anyone else, then I don't see why they shouldn't come in for what's left of the class.  But if I think the student might injure themselves from not being warmed up, or if other students would have to interrupt their practice to make room for them, I would ask the person to come back next time.  And if someone was chronically more than 15 minutes late I would likely talk to them to understand their circumstances and see how we could work around them. This approach suits my space and my circumstances - I teach dontation-based, drop-in classes that are often large groups - if I were teaching in a more intimate space with small groups, I might enforce Option 2.

If you are going to have students walking in after class has begun (which, let's face it, most of us always will) are some other practical things you can do to minimise the disruption on other students:
  • Ask students to leave some free space near the door so latecomers won't be stepping over anyone when they arrive.
  • Encourage students to set up a mat for a friend if they know s/he is coming late.
  • If the class is full and can't accommodate any latecomers, put a sign on the door explaining the situation so the class won't be interrupted unnecessarily.
  • If people enter during a meditation or breathing session, ask them to wait outside or to sit quietly by the wall until the meditation is over, OR
  • Don't schedule a meditation period at the very start of the class if you know for sure that people are going to be coming in late. Instead teach warm ups first and leave time for a period of stillness during or at the end of the class.
  • Hold discussions in class to get feedback about how people feel about lateness. Encourage people to be on time while also encouraging others to be accepting and compassionate of latecomers.
What else have your teachers (or you) done to ease the disruption of students coming in late? I'd love to hear your experiences or ideas.