We are all stressed. Many institutions across the US announced this week that they’re going to be moving their classes online. This change came suddenly, which means that for most instructors and students, there was not enough time to train or prepare for online teaching. As we begin to teach online, changes in and outside our institutions continue to develop minute by minute.
During these times of stress and uncertainty, add some compassion practices to your teaching:
- Do a check-in exercise where you give students the chance to express their different concerns, then reflect on how to cope with them. You don’t have to have the answers, because they have most of the answers.
- A cliché can go a long way. Say “Yes, this sucks,” “I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this,” “Change is hard,” “We’re going to figure this out together,” “Everything is going to be OK”. Ask “How is everybody dealing with the stress?” “Are you all doing alright?” Let your students know you’re with them.
- Slow down. We are in a state of emergency, we might not get through all the material we originally planned on our ambitious syllabi. But, by making room for compassion, we can get through most of it.
- Adapt your expectations. Attendance might be down, participation might be lower or take different forms. Acknowledge that this is because of the circumstances. Assignments might look different. There have been a few articles on this blog on how to adapt your class online. I let my students participate through the chat option on Zoom as well as speaking out, and that led me to get responses from students who are usually very quiet in the classroom. Speeches for this public speaking class are now going to be video submissions instead of live speeches.
- Make sure to tend to your own stress and own up to your responsibility. Although you’re not expected to have the answers to everything, you are the guide/facilitator of your class. In response to all their questions about the schedule, I told my students “I don’t have all the answers right now, but that is mine and the institution’s responsibility to figure out, and you will get an email from us as soon as we know what’s going to happen. So your responsibility is to just check your emails regularly.”
My rationale and implementation of these suggestions:
For graduate students, TAs, adjuncts and probably other faculty, the pressure to suddenly and quickly develop skills to translate teaching methods to online classes constitutes an emotional, logistical, as well as financial strain. Many instructors are having to move their classes online while also having to now take care of their children after childcare has been suspended, or others who need their care at home.
Your students are facing similar challenges. I am teaching a Public Speaking class this semester, and, when I walked into my classroom for our last face-to-face session, I looked at my students’ faces, noticed a few were absent and that the stress on the faces of those present was clouding up the room. This is not business as usual. I always start my classes with 5-10 minutes of checking in, inquiring about my students’ weekends or what they think about the latest news and events. These check-ins sometimes wrap up quickly and sometimes they lead to interesting discussions about controversy surrounding the latest speeches in politics or award shows like the Oscars. This time, checking in took 40 minutes and had the highest participation rates of any other class activity. My students expressed worries ranging from fears of them or a loved one catching the virus, inability to make travel plans due to uncertainty regarding the post-spring recess schedule, missing or worrying about family who are far away, etc. and that’s on top of the concerns of moving the class online; how to use Zoom, how to avoid disruptions, the camera entering private spaces, what the background should be, how to run classes with family/roommates in the home etc. Some students shared conspiracy theories they read on reddit, others tried to think about what the world might look like in the worst case scenario. Their voices gave me insight about what would be on their minds as I teach.
These concerns are without a doubt more immediately critical than any class material. None of us have definitive answers as to how to fix most of these problems, nor are we expected to. But the reality is that our students are coming into class with these thoughts and worries, and if we don’t provide them the space to vent a little, these worries are going to get in the way of teaching and impact our students’ well-being. We cannot ignore or just gloss over the stress we’re all under.
So, I want to invite you to take some time out of your class to acknowledge the stress and carve out some breathing space. This can be a space for compassion, time to let it all out, including the Reddit conspiracy theories, the apocalyptics scenarios, the fears about schedules, health concerns, and other worries. Hearing these fears and inconveniences is not going to harm anyone. It will make everyone feel heard and less alone. bell hooks wrote about engaged pedagogy and teaching being a labor of love, this is one way to practice that approach.
After letting out all of our concerns, I flip the script. As a practice in some kind of pedagogy of hope (as per Paolo Freire). I point out the weight of all these concerns and I ask my students to come up with solutions and daily practices that we can all add to our lives so we can get through this in the best way possible. Other than washing your hands, they suggest you spend less time on Twitter, practice mindfulness in different ways like meditation, yoga, have a tea or coffee ceremony, reach out to your family or support network, be patient as schedule changes unfold, and pet a dog or cat. In this way, I showed my students (as they showed me) that they have tools necessary to get through this. The apocalypse scenarios were replaced with jokes, and students slowly started to break out into small groups pointing out the ridiculous things they’re seeing on social media. That was my cue that it was ok to move on to the class material.
In periods of uncertainty and instability, the pressure to respond to fast-paced changes can take up a lot of our time and attention. We are asked to adapt and acquire new skills while maintaining the quality of our work. Making room for compassion in the classroom helps acknowledge the stress we are all under, and reframe this as an issue we are all facing together rather than separately. Despite our challenges being different at the individual level, having room for these challenges to be shared and simply acknowledged can act as a reminder of the common humanity of the experience we are all going through at this time.
I grew up in the Middle East. A Palestinian citizen in Israel, where the only constant was uncertainty. Politics at the local, national, and regional levels constantly impacts personal lives in ways that interfere with education, safety, logistical concerns, and general well-being. This was all treated as normal and taken for granted. This experience taught me the value of compassion. Without listening, sharing, making room for your students in the class, there will be no learning.
Sulafa Zidani is a Doctoral Candidate in Communication at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her research is concentrated in social, political, and cultural aspects of digital media technology, global and transnational communication, and cultural hybridity. Zidani’s educational background includes a dual-major BA and MA in Asia Studies and Communication and Journalism from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and an MA in Communication from USC Annenberg. Her pedagogy draws on 8 years of experience as an instructor, mentor, or TA, and on scholarship in feminist, critical, and transnational pedagogy.