- After over a year of teaching during COVID-19, educators have plenty of achievements to be proud of
- Compassion and encouragement were essential for maintaining positive relationships with students and fellow faculty
- Clear communication, along with an expanded presence in online learning, prevented confusion before it happened
- Firm, defined boundaries benefited both educators and students
Paul Coats is a Course Supervisor and Core Lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University
If asked what some struggles you faced as an instructor during the pandemic were, you might easily speak for an hour without pausing to take a breath. However, what you may not be as well-prepared for is the question, “What are you most proud of from your teaching during a pandemic?”
To answer such a question would necessitate more than a simple recital of our grievances with a virus. Rather, it would require deep reflection on the work that went into our responses to these challenges which were not always as salient as the challenges themselves. However, we have all had to adapt, develop, and ultimately evolve in a freakishly fast (and dare I say heroic) manner to guide our students through what has likely been the most chaotic and frightening time of their young lives—and possibly even our own!
Practicing this exercise in reflection is much more than just a pat on the back. Rather, it is an opportunity to dig deep and find true, merited encouragement in our accomplishments, bringing these to light to inform our future teaching.
As in any group therapy session, someone must initiate the conversation. So, let me begin with my own reflections on what I consider to be successes during a global pandemic in a 100% online experience at the university level.
1. Compassion, Kindness, and Encouragement
This may be surprising to some, but even amid the pandemic, many students were quite aware of the overburdening of their instructors. Nevertheless, in spite of this, the overwhelming majority of them trusted their teachers to provide a quality learning experience.
For instructors, however, the increased level of stress and demand on our time and attention had the potential to make us lose sight of our students’ struggles. In my capacity as both a teacher and supervisor, I observed that, whenever this happened, the students would respond in like manner. The stresses and fears of each party would play off each other until the tension exploded. Likewise, this pattern could apply to the relationship between supervisor and instructor supervisee, but with greater authority comes greater responsibility. I knew that I had to lead by example if we were to all make it through in one piece.
As tensions grew during our first full semester of the pandemic, so did my concerns for the welfare of the students and instructors, and I knew something had to be done to avoid a catastrophe. The start of this was as simple as one strong statement: the health of our instructors and of our students was of the highest priority, and flexibility was the key word.
Instructors needed to be flexible with themselves as well as with their students, prioritizing their own personal needs and encouraging their students to do the same. I made it clear that I would work with the instructors and support them in this goal and asked that they did the same with their students. I ended by saying that “‘We are all in this together’ is not just a cliché; it is about survival and having patience with one another, and with ourselves.” I sent a similar announcement to my own students and, from then on, I reiterated this in every interaction I had with stressed-out instructors and students alike. I then backed up my words with concrete actions—listening to their needs and devising means of reaching their goals that were tailored to their specific situations.
Though I received very little direct feedback from instructors and students during my ongoing and intentional “campaign of kindness,” the result was a successful semester for all involved, to our grateful surprise. (Granted, I was also preaching to the choir, as no one considered themselves experts in the current environment by any means. Flexibility and compassion were welcome tension breakers that diffused any issues before they arose.)
Later, I learned that this minor gesture did wonders for relieving at least some of the pressure that was threatening to crush both our students and instructors.
“Instruction does much, but encouragement does everything.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When I was in college with an impending mid-term, my father told me that the apporaching exam I feared would quickly pass, and that the sun would still rise on the next day. Often, it takes just a simple word of encouragement to clear the clouds that keep us from seeing beyond our struggles.
Throughout the pandemic, I continued to encourage the students and instructors, thanking them for the great work they were doing “in what may prove to be one of the most difficult moments in our careers.” I further reiterated that, once we finally got through this, all future obstacles would be a breeze. I knew it was important for all of us to remember that no matter how difficult it got, this experience would stay with us, and we would be stronger because of it. Yet again, another cliché, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” came to mind, but this time breathing new life.
This point cannot be stressed enough: clear instructions prevent confusion whereas ambiguity and assumption invite chaos.
This was magnified a thousand times by the abrupt jump to online teaching. One of the greatest concerns of students during the pandemic has been the lack of clarity and communication with their instructors, and their greatest desire has been to have more interactions with their instructor, particularly one-on-one (such as office hours).
Going online may have amplified these challenges. But this only meant that the response had to be just as intentional. Here are some ways that I found to successfully confront these challenges head on:
In the online mode, presence is particularly important since students have no physical interaction with you or their peers, and much of their work may be done on their own. BE THERE. This means using all resources you have to increase your online presence:
- Revamp traditional “virtual office hours.” Make them as attractive, available, and easily accessible as possible. This could be as simple as making your office hours more flexible (such as adding “and by appointment”) or converting them to group study hours (with you as the guide), while always reminding students they can make an individual appointment as needed. The goal is to make them fully aware that you are available for them.
- Regular video announcements. Students should see your face (virtually) and hear you articulate your understanding of the tasks for the day/week ahead, their progress in the class, what instructions they need, tips for success, you name it. Put a face to the instructions and updates wherever possible.
- Share what you enjoy with your students. This could be content-related or unrelated to class, from your personal hobbies to professional interests, such as a noteworthy or relevant article you came across. Use your LMS as if it is your own personal social media platform to pique your students’ interest, retain their attention, and attract them to your course page regularly.
- Incorporate your personality. Integrate your personal touch at every opportunity, even in plain text, just as you would if you were presenting instructions orally in class. This could be inserting your humor or using unique fonts, images, memes, GIFs, etc.—make it reflect you.
Over time, students will not only come to recognize you, but your constant presence will become both familiar and comforting (and perhaps be quirky enough to give them a laugh or two!).
Although transparency is key to any successful class, this was particularly appreciated during the pandemic, when so much in our lives seemed obscured. By giving clear objectives for every task and even clearer instructions to help them reach these, students are given the tools to their own success and (with your guidance as needed) have a clear path to get there.
Likewise, any grading or standards must be clearly articulated, with your consistent presence in the background reminding them that they can always come to you with questions or doubts.
First, follow up on your promises. Set effective yet attainable goals for yourself in the presence of your students and fulfill them every time. If you agree to provide a detailed key for a homework assignment, don’t delay it! When you are consistent in delivering on your promises, you instill confidence in your students. Here, low-hanging fruit can be just as effective as major time commitments, so choose wisely!
Second, encourage students to ride shotgun on major decisions. This is also known as shared decision-making or creating a democratic classroom. When so many of our students felt they had no control over what was going on around them, honoring their voice or their vote in the decision process was an incredible tool for buy-in.
The most powerful moments for my students were when they knew they were heard. For example, I responded to their mid-semester feedback point by point, detailing their collective concerns and the corresponding actions I took or the steps I suggested to remediate them (for example, where I made changes to the LMS, created additional review content, or reminded them of their responsibilities to their peers in group work activities). One class even had the opportunity to vote to eliminate an exam to focus greater attention on their course project, taking full responsibility for the shift in assignment grade weights.
3. Making Clear Boundaries and Clear Expectations
Just as you are reminded on every flight that you must put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others, you must take care of yourself first by creating clearly defined boundaries and expectations for yourself and your students. Otherwise, you may easily slip into what is known as helper syndrome (aka “compassion fatigue”) and, ultimately, end up burning yourself out (see this eBook for tips on how to prevent burnout).
The best way to develop boundaries is to start with what is most important to you, your loved ones, and your health. For example, do you need weekends to yourself or for spending time with family and friends? Make that clear to your students so that they know that, as far as you are concerned, weekends are for rest and work will resume on Monday. Does your home life require your full attention such that you cannot bring work home? Let students know they will have your full attention during working hours, and that frantic midnight emails will be promptly responded to at 9:00 a.m. the following workday.
The above recommendation is not only of immense importance in improving your quality of life and making you a more organized and effective teacher, but it can also indirectly influence your students to reap the same benefits. More often than not, if your students know your weekends are sacred, they will be confident that (for your class, at least), they won’t be receiving homework announcements or assignment instructions until Monday. Likewise, if a student knows you will not respond to emails after 5:00 p.m., then they will not waste their energy (and valuable sleep) on writing an excuse for missing an 11:59 p.m. deadline.
We have all been there, but by setting boundaries for ourselves, we encourage our students to do the same. Share the sanity!
As the pandemic lessens and hopefully dissipates entirely, this does not mean that lessons learned and successful strategies developed must also fade into the past. Instead, continue their use and development, whether your program has decided to maintain online teaching to a degree, or to return to 100% in-person classes. Students’ anxiety has not dissipated, and incoming college students won’t necessarily be able to check their trauma at the door. The need to maintain and improve on our pandemic practices will most likely increase rather than lessen. So, let’s build on what we’ve learned and use what didn’t kill us to make us stronger!
Want tactics for merging the best of your online instruction with your in-person teaching? Watch our Empowered Educator webinar: Boundless Teaching: Blending the Best of Virtual and Traditional.