Stop – look – cross [to the kind side]
Stop before you judge the student who did not show up to the Zoom session. One had technical issues earlier this week. No less than three have contacted me they have relatives who passed away, in the past two days. All I did was reach out via email, and tell them I noticed they did not show up to the synchronous session, and/or had not taken part in the discussion on Canvas, and I invited them for a chat with me during drop-in times (aka “office hours”). I told them all I wanted to know was if they’re ok, or if they need any assistance. And so they dropped in. And so they told me. And I told them to take time to grief. This course will be there for them when they’re ready. “Figureoutable” is the new buzzword, but for once I like a buzzword.
I now trust my students to not invent dead grandparents, illnesses, or car engine problems to get out of an assignment. I used to be on the other side, for a ton of different reasons. Eventually I figured out that my life and that of the students’ becomes a lot easier if I see myself not as a prison guard. But I had never seen any other model of teaching, I guess.
We are dealing with a proper pandemic that is now present in 185 countries, and has afflicted more than a quarter of a million people already, and it keeps growing. The chance of multiple students in a single course having to deal with illness or death among their relatives increases exponentially, just like the virus itself. This is not a time to start tracking students’ movements. This is a time to be there for your students. Shortening the time of the exam because that gives students less time to cheat? Giving them more work because you think that they won’t cover enough material if you’re not meeting with them two or three times per week to give them in-class tests? Demanding they turn on the video camera while they write an exam, telling them not to look away from the keyboard/screen/paper? Using surveillance technology to make sure they’re not drifting off to websites or chat (I’m looking at you, Zoom)? Heard from my students or from colleagues at other institutions that this is how some instructors try to teach now. Spoiler: if you need to work that hard to stop your higher ed students from cheating, you probably want to think again about your assignments. It’s definitely not being there for your students.
I have this feeling that next week is going to be great, because we got through week one and we have some confidence. And I have this strange sense that after that things will not simply settle. In less than two weeks in many locations other than northern Italy the health system will start to buckle: maybe New York, California. When we realize we’re really in for the long haul, from week three of remote learning onwards, we will need to increase our flexibility. Students will miss sessions, need extensions, faculty members will fall ill, everybody stretched too thin already by being thrown into the deep end of remote teaching, so we won’t be able to cover for colleagues. Who will be there for our students? Who will be there for us? What will our learning community look like?
I am an incorrigible optimist most of the time. But I am also realistic enough to realize that we haven’t got a grip on this disease right now. I think the best thing I can do for my students is to stop before I judge, check in on their situation, give them the benefit of the doubt, and keep reaching out with respect for their situation and with kindness. Sure, there may be the odd one who tries to game the system and abuses my trust. But for so many others this may be just the gesture they need to keep hanging in there. It may be the most impactful thing you do in your entire career: you may be that teacher who was there for them during that year that everything went to hell in a handbasket, the person who inspired hope, because you showed up as a fellow human being who cared about them, who trusted them, who created a safe space for them where they did not have to perform, but could just be. The learning will happen, if you teach with humanity and compassion. Now more than ever.