People first: Teaching through difficult times

Higher education does not really prepare us well to be higher educators. This is no surprise. Most higher education instructors teach following the model that they found most effective as students, that was modeled for them by mentors, or that they feel is most accepted in their disciplines. Instructors learn by modeling and observation, but the models are not always carefully chosen and the observations are not always debriefed. Still, with time and practice, an instructor’s teaching craft is (hopefully) honed and strengthened while concurrently their content knowledge is deepened and solidified. This is the trajectory of an engaged instructor.

In much the same way that we have little preparation to teach, we also have little preparation to address student needs during difficult times. Even folks who are well versed in pedagogy because it happens to be one of the topics they teach are not prepared for teaching in difficult times. (Yes, that’s me! I’m raising my hand to the sky!)

The difficult time I remember as a student — the only one — was when the Space Shuttle exploded. I was in high school. We were in the midst of January exams, and it was already a weird time because my grandfather had just passed and my mother was 2000 miles away at the funeral, leaving me and one sister at home. Dead grandfather. Fear of being home alone. Shuttle. Exams. I think there was a major snowstorm in there, too. It all converged, and then the next week my mother was home, classes resumed as usual, and we just moved on.

The first difficult time I taught through was 9/11. But you know what? I don’t even remember what happened in my classroom at that time. I was a new professor, newly married (as in the weekend before), and everything was surreal. I went to campus, we were sent home due to a bomb threat, and then we stayed home that week. I remember traveling to a conference 2 weeks later, but nothing about teaching at that time.

In the years since, I have vivid recollections of working thorough hurricane anxiety and aftermath with students. Compassion for anyone directly affected, patience, and reworking a syllabus usually gets us through those experiences. More difficult was sitting in a classroom with a group of students 36 hours after a shooting on campus, working through the feeling of violation in our safe learning place. A year or so later we worked through another shooting together, this one in town but affecting students in my class more directly than the prior one. And then there was the class that met the day after the last presidential election, a time when my students did not feel like they were in a good mental space to learn … and to be honest, neither did I. These post-event classes were difficult, but we tread carefully and allowed space for everyone to work through their emotions.

This year’s challenges have been bigger, and extend well beyond an event. COVID-19 dispersed us all into different hiding places, leaving us to spend a lot of time alone with our loved ones or families, and with our anxieties and fears. It posed technology, economic, work at home and childcare challenges, and disrupted classes far more than any of the hurricanes I’ve worked through. COVID-19 has affected everyone. In contrast, the hurricanes I’ve worked through were brief group events (hunker down) followed by a period of supporting the folks who had direct hurricane damages (an unfortunate group that I belonged to during Hurricane Hermine).

This summer I’m teaching a heavy load (2 classes, 2 colloquia) and find myself struggling to teach through a difficult time again. The news is full of conflict and anger, and the anti-racist movement is doing important work. So many people are angry, fatigued, and full of other raw emotions — the kind that make it difficult to focus on much else. Posing an even greater challenge, the topic of one of my classes is social media. It’s a rough time to be online. It’s a rough time to be human.

Last week was yet another reminder of how little my education prepared me for teaching during difficult times, and also of how important it is to put people first. I worked long hours all week, although I have fallen behind on grading. The time I would have spent with grading has been spent connecting with others and reworking my class deadlines and, in some cases, activities.

Early during the last week I started checking in with individual students who I sensed were struggling, and acknowledging in class spaces that this is a difficult time. Later in the week I reached out to all of my students with a check-in email. I asked them to tell me how they were doing as people, how they were doing as students, and if there was anything I could do to help them at this time.

I am honored that so many of my students replied and shared their feelings and experiences with me. They are struggling with the effects of racism and COVID-19, and all of this sitting on top of any number of individual situations (health issues, family issues, etc.). Their responses made me cry. I cried for the pain they are feeling right now. I cried knowing that none of this is anything I can fix (I’m one of those fix-it kind of people — I see a problem and I want to help).

As a teacher, I feel like there is so little I can do. I can listen. I can — and have — done a few things to give students in various classes a pause or a break from the workload, so they can take a few days to just tend their needs as humans without the added stress of student duties. In my social media class, where accessing the tools we’re learning about has meant accessing current events, I’ve been working hard to revise the learning plan. We’ll restart on Monday with a collection of safe online spaces where fatigued students can learn without being immersed in current news/social media feeds, and alternate spaces where students who feel the need to keep exploring and discussing anti-racism and online activism may do so. I’ve been thinking about tools and spaces, context collapse, and how to meet diverse needs. I want to give my students choice, recognizing that each needs to process this moment in unique ways, and will have different learning needs.

In my other classes, I’m making pedagogical plans to be responsive to the current situation within the context of what we’re learning in the course. The other courses tie together research, ethics, and publication. I’m reviewing my planned readings and thinking about how to invite different voices to the conversation.

And, of course, I want to keep being there for my students. Officially, my job is to teach and get everyone to meet the learning objectives formally approved by the university curriculum committee, but that’s not enough. I can also listen, provide alternate options to original plans, and provide breathing/healing space for those who need it.

Am I doing this right? I have no idea. I have no model to follow. I’m just doing what feels right. Theoretically I could have done nothing, and just kept trudging forward. That didn’t feel right.

I hope my students will give me feedback along the way, and keep the dialogue open. I respect them so much for persevering as learners during such a difficult and uncertain period. I simply cannot say it too many times: People first.

2 thoughts on “People first: Teaching through difficult times

  1. Dr. Dennen, thanks so much for this compassionate post. As one of your students in the social media class, I really appreciate the option of Safe or Open spaces for discussion. I may engage in some, and retreat in other tasks, but having the option is welcome. Thanks for putting student’s needs first.


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