Like many other teachers, my classes switched from in-person, face-to-face classes to remote classes via Zoom in mid-March 2020. My classes during this current semester were held entirely remotely. I am very fortunate to teach at a University where our new president (not our old one) allowed faculty to choose whether or not they taught in person.
As I’ve taught, via Zoom, I came to understand that students are under tremendous amounts of new pressure. On top of the worry, grief, and loneliness that has gripped many of us in the past months, students also have to contend with working longer hours in harsher and less friendly conditions, caring for sick family members and younger siblings, and trying to keep up on challenging workloads even as their reserves of emotional and intellectual energy are significantly depleted.
In other words, in order to succeed in school, students need school to respond appropriately to the new pressures the students face. I have tried many things. Here are three policy changes that seem to have worked well.
- Deadlines Are Now Suggestions
For the past 10 years or so, I have had a pretty flexible deadline policy. As long as students ask me before the deadline, I am willing to grant students extensions upon request. We negotiate a new deadline, and in the past, that deadline has been firm.
In pandemic teaching, I’ve found that students often need more time that they expected even after a negotiated extension, not because they didn’t plan appropriately, but because something in their life changed: a loved one got sick (or worse); their work situation became more draining; their homelife experienced a negative shift; or, something like that.
Now, I am even more gentle with deadlines, and if students miss them, I’m ok with it, with one exception: if it messes me up. I’m under a lot of new stress, too, I explain to students. Having a pile of assignments to respond to is hard on me, and I need to plan as best I can to manage my own stress. The students seem extremely receptive to my needs, too, once I explain them. Things have gone well.
Yes, some students are turning in work quite a bit late (and almost all of them give me some notice about that), and–in a wonderful side benefit–the work has been higher in quality than in previous semesters. (I plan to post a separate entry about that fairly soon.)
- Kindness Comes First; Learning Comes Second; There is No Third
I’m a pretty easy-going teacher to begin with. But during the pandemic, I’ve tried to become truly kindness-forward.
I am more verbal about my care and concern for the students I have classes with. For the first and last few minutes of class, I ask how they are doing. I ask if they have questions or suggestions for each other about coping. I even ask them if they need me to beat anyone up for them, a service I pretend to provide. (In truth, sometimes students do want me to “beat someone up,” but I just give them advice about how to handle the matter. It’s virtually always a class or school-related matter, but if it’s something beyond my expertise, I refer them to our counseling service or the appropriate academic office. I follow up with them to see if they got the help they needed.
I also listen more. Seriously. I have been consciously working to listen harder and longer to my students. They seem to have noticed.
After kindness, I focus only on student learning. What can I do to help them learn more, faster during this pandemic? That’s my constant question as a teacher. Anything that doesn’t truly support student learning, I eliminate. I’ve become ruthless about it. There is no time for anything in my inaction with students that doesn’t immediately result in better, faster learning. Fortunately, kindness seems to be massively powerful for helping students learn.
- Praise Students More
On their written assignments and in response to their contributions to class discussion. I am far more praiseful than in the past. I thank students–sincerely–for their participation. I also find nice things to say about their oral and written work, and I say them. None of my praise is unwarranted or overblown, but it is consistent, frequent, and heartfelt.
I say things like:
- That comment was really insightful because . . .
- I really like how your idea built on X’s idea. That shows you were really listening to X and thinking about what they said.
- You wrote this section really well because . . . , and it would be even better if you . . .
- I really enjoyed reading this paper. Thank you for writing something I liked.
I have long been a strong advocate for the power of praise in education. Check out this old, but famously-good essay by Donald Daiker called “Learning to Praise” that truly inspired me. And you can find a lot of my ideas for specific ways of praising student writing here.
In the pandemic, though, it seems praise is even more important to help students feel genuinely good about themselves and to continue to build the capacity to keep growing and learning even at a time when most of us might be happier to curl up into the fetal position, hibernation-style, and wait for the vaccines to end this madness. Students have always deserved positive feedback. Now, they need it more than ever–and it’s even more powerful than before.
I wonder if what I’m learning about pandemic teaching is really just good pedagogy at any time. My policy changes are actually just more intense applications of policies I leaned toward already. But that remains to be seen once we’re out of these cold, dark woods. In the meantime, I will do everything I can to ensure my classes are bright spots for the students and for me.