Helping students cope and thrive in uncertain times
Strolling with her toddler in the suburb of a large city impacted by the pandemic, a professor friend reminisced about ‘normal’ life for herself and her daughter. She missed her days at the college, and for her child, the nurturing day care center. For at both places, they found connections, meaning, and comfort.
My friend longed for her office, her classroom, and the physical presence of her students. She missed the mental challenge of being asked pointed and intelligent questions where she needed to be on top of her academic game to answer. She felt nostalgic for the smell of the library, the sight of the sun shining on her desk and papers in the early morning hours as she reviewed notes for upcoming lectures.
She missed that slight thrill she got just as she rounded the corner going into her classroom. These images were so opposite to her sad thought that the quiet and deserted streets she walked felt like the end of the world, and she was surprised that it had ended so quietly.
If the effects of the pandemic can feel so terminal to a young, gifted academic with everything in front of her, what must our students who are suddenly forced into online learning environments feel?
We once stood in front of them, guaranteeing the protection of freedom of expression, if respect to all was upheld in our classes. We built a sacred space, created by mutual respect, open mindedness, and acceptance. Classrooms were a safe place to be vulnerable enough to listen to new information, consider it and expand the size of our boxes.
Students had their own sacred spaces too: at the coffee shop to share class notes and ideas, or at a study group in library meeting rooms. Our students are emotionally invested in the places they learn. This ‘new world’ of higher education during a pandemic is very unlike what they imagined college life to be.
While their teachers work heroically to provide virtual course content, the students miss the sensual stimulation of smells, sounds, and the touch of a physical environment. Many of us are missing that emotional connection to those physical places and the people there. While we professors are experienced enough to grasp the magnitude of this event and anticipate a hopeful new normal, our students often lack the life experience to rise above feelings of permanent loss.
Our students may be dealing with family members sharing increasingly cramped quarters, challenged with internet connectivity, stressed from reduced incomes, and isolated from friends. They’re now exclusively using mobile devices or computers to continue expensive investments in college.
These feelings of loss and helplessness are things that we can help reduce. Here are some suggestions from college professors and online sources to decrease the distance between our students and create virtual sacred spaces to help them reconnect with us in new, potentially more intimate and meaningful ways.
Email your students often
Reach out about more than content instructions. Tell them you understand how stressful lives have become and that you are there for support, not to add stress.
Your learning management system lets you send videos through email. At least once a week, I send a video message to my students, sharing my own challenges and telling them how proud I am of their persistence and grit. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t had a haircut for more than a month, or that my husband may forget and walk behind my camera.
In fact, my students have shared how much they appreciate “being in my home with me.” Now, as if never before, it is important to find ways to emotionally connect with others through these virtual social interactions.
And, while we can’t offer smell-a-vison, or taste TV, we can provide a more relaxed communication channel with our students to help them know we are real and very much invested in their success.
Now isn’t the time to be punitive or judgmental. While assessing performance requires that we judge the progress students are making, we need to rethink how we do it. Are we assessing progress towards mastery, or penalizing for missing deadlines, or not adhering to classroom policies, which may not even apply in a virtual classroom?
Assignment deadlines may become low priority in a home where young children need access to the only home computer to finish their homework, and the lack of income means a lack of food in the home. While some of us complain about the “COVID 15” pounds we are gaining, many of our students are struggling to find enough to eat.
Relaxed due dates have been received by my students with immense gratitude. They tell me know how much it has meant to them to know I really want them to succeed.
Being supportive does not mean throwing rigor out the window. It does require careful evaluation, sometimes on a case-by-case basis, of the emotional and physical needs of our students in context of the crisis and realistic expectations of academic standards.
Many are concerned about online cheating. Consider this instead: what is the desired learning outcome, and can it be assessed in a different manner other than typical high stakes exams? Can you assess your student’s mastery with an essay or open-book timed exam? Might a group project offer a final evaluation of the course content?
Be a positive influencer
Use language that lets your students know you are expecting a new normal. While education as we’ve known it has changed, it can be better. Remind students of their advantage of their social media proficiency. Ask for their input on ways for your classes to be virtually connected.
I’ve learned about super useful free conferencing tools from students who’ve been group gaming with them for years. Who knew? Give them the lead and let them show you how creative they can be. You will help them focus on what they can do increasing their self-efficacy.
You need to be on your game for resource referral. Where can your students find WIFI? Computers? Tutoring? Counseling? Many of your colleges already have policies and solutions to these questions.
For example, our college is creating a parking area where students can stay in their cars and gypsy off the college wireless internet to complete assignments. Drive-in WIFI! And, Student Services offers virtual counseling sessions at no cost to our students.
Many internet providers are offering home service at no cost during the pandemic, and some colleges are loaning laptops to students to finish their college terms online. There are many new and innovative solutions being created on the fly to help students.
If you need ideas, just Google the need; you’ll be surprised to discover the commitment and innovation of educators and professionals nationwide.
Some may be asking, “How can I afford a new digital tool when I already paid for a book?” Pearson is working hard to provide students with access to digital learning environments at no cost while they adjust to a new normal of distance learning.
Please remember, you are also essential workers and first line protectors. You can create new sacred learning spaces for your students, and discover your own well of creativity and innovation. Write to them, support them, be flexible with rigor and show compassion tempered with the desire for them to learn. Be a voice of hope for their futures. Need some inspiration? Give this shout out to your students to encourage self-care. Feel free to borrow:
We’re all in this together. I want you to know I care about more than just your grade in this class. I care about how each of you are navigating these strange days and new ways. I want to take a minute to offer some tips for taking care of yourselves.
According to the CDC, you may feel any or all of the following symptoms of stress during this pandemic:
- Changes in the way you sleep (more or less than usual)
- A hard time concentrating
- Intense moments of fear over your health and the health of those you love
- Changes to your existing chronic health conditions (asthma, high blood pressure, etc.)
- Desire to escape through alcohol or other drugs
You may have added stress by setting a few high and unrealistic goals during what may feel like an extended vacation. These might include:
- Lose 20 pounds
- Learn a new language
- Make straight A’s
- Become the model student, wife, husband, parent, child, (fill in the blank)
- Write a novel
- Read the top 20 books recommended by professors nation-wide (one I make every summer and break)
You might want to lower the bar on some of these. This is not your spring break. And it is not the best time to fail to reach goals you have set. You need to feel good about yourself, not set the stage for failure and frustration.
But you do need to have goals that are attainable and measurable to help boost your mood when things are tough. If you’re still lying on the couch after crawling out of bed at noon and eating chips and salsa for breakfast it’s time to expect a little more out of your days. Self-awareness and self-efficacy are some of the most important factors in happy, successful people.
To develop your self-efficacy, try setting challenges for your day like:
- Stay in school and finish the term (even if it means you are not the star student you were 6 weeks ago). Finish! It’s good for your brain.
- Talk with me about problems you are encountering with this new online learning.
- Tell me what you need in order to pass the course and we’ll find a solution together.
- Set a realistic calendar that you can adhere to in order to finish the work needed.
- Set your day with gratitude. (I know it sounds corny, but it really, really works.)
- Eat healthy (I didn’t say diet, but you can do better than chips and salsa three times a day.)
- Stay connected to your peers (you’re a master at this already but keep it up)!
- Exercise (doing a Jazzercize class on YouTube with those in your home or virtually with friends may provide your laughs for the day.)
- Laugh a lot. (Turn on any movie that makes you roll on the floor even if you watch it every day).
- Turn off the news except for quick catchups. (There were many people who gave themselves post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following 9/11 watching news 24 hours a day.)
- Wherever you find comfort and hope, stay in that quadrant at least once a day with purpose. (You might meditate, pray, read the writings of your religious faith, or just uplifting authors who motivate for the good).
- Get outside of yourself. Do something every day for someone else. Do it deliberately. (You might call someone you know is alone or make some masks for friends or front line workers, do a chore for someone else in your house as a surprise. It’s amazing how much we get when we give just a little.)
- Seek online counseling services if you feel drawn to damaging behaviors. There are so many excellent resources for this. If you need help finding a resource, please let me know and I’ll be happy to share.
- Finally, here are a couple of resources that I think you might find useful to help you work smart and to help you relax after working smart.
I will close as I began. You are not alone. We are in this together. I know we will get to the other side and we will have discovered so much about the depth of our strengths, creativity, persistence, and compassion.
About the author
A native Floridian, Terri worked in North Carolina for 15 years, directing non-profit agencies primarily in the fields of health care and services. Terri moved into academia where she has taught in higher education for over 19 years, teaching communication courses first at Guilford Technical and Community College, completing her master’s degree in communication studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Returning to her native state, she taught communication and college success courses with Polk Community College as she completed her Ph.D in Psychology with an emphasis in social psychology.
As a dual credentialed professor with Eastern Florida State College, Terri has been teaching both psychology and communication courses for over 13 years, using Pearson products in classes first with with MyLabs and continuing with Revel as it expanded the list of authors and developed additional integrations such as Shared Media. She has taught extensively, both in face-to-face and online platforms, a wide range of communication and psychology courses, designing a number of master courses for online programs. She has been a free-lance Faculty Advisor with Pearson for approximately 11 years, making the choice in 2019 to leave full time academia for full time employment with Pearson as a Revel Faculty Advisor for liberal arts.
A skilled presenter with excellent oral and written communication skills, Terri’s preferred research methods are qualitative with a special interest in social psychology and well-being across the life span. Most recently, she published an article based on her research of women choosing to make new committed relationships in later life.
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