COVID-19: Compassion in Our Courses During Uncertain Times

March 13, 2020
By Jamiella Brooks, Ph.D., Center for Teaching and Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic raises important concerns about teaching in times of disruption and uncertainty. While many of us are preparing to reformat our courses in emergency response mode, it’s important to also remember the human imperative of our vocation. 

One thing we can all do right now is to acknowledge what is happening, and to represent the impact of COVID-19 on our teaching, and our lives, as something that cannot be singularly defined. We are all impacted differently, and opening up as to how this is affecting you, personally, while inviting students to do the same, is a way to humanize this experience. “Students, I’ve never taught a class online before, so please be patient with me as I will be patient with you,” is a great way to start, for example. Right now there is a cognitive demand being asked of all of us. Whether stressed by preparing to teach remotely, worried about housing or food insecurity, concerned about vulnerable family members, concerned about immuno-compromised and high-risk individuals, worried about one’s ability to travel home as an international student, or the second job one might lose--what’s true is that many of us have a lot more of the “outside world” impacting our daily work. Let’s acknowledge that and be empathetic.

Most importantly, we need to name those in our population who are most vulnerable. While those who are more susceptible to the disease of COVID-19 appropriately come to mind, we also must not forget the threat of racism. Our Asian and Asian-American students, friends, and colleagues need those of us who don’t hold these identities to stand up for them. They increasingly face hostility, bigotry, and economic insecurity, and microaggressions even at the level of the name assigned to the virus. In your classroom, making a statement against xenophobia, microaggressions, and racism as a pre-emptive move. Let your students (and colleagues) know ahead of time that it will not be tolerated. For example (feel free to use/edit as a template):

This class emphasizes respect for one another. As such, it does not tolerate racist, bigoted, or microaggressive statements against our Asian and Asian-American peers. If needed, the virus is to be referred to as COVID-19 or Coronavirus and not by any other name, particularly names that are geographically specific (it’s still unclear as to where the virus actually originated from). Our goals have always involved learning from one another--we cannot learn if we hold ideas that disrespect our peers. If you make a mistake, please be open to gentle correction via DM. Likewise, if I make a mistake, please call my attention to it and I will make the necessary corrections.

 
The psychological toll is aggravated for vulnerable populations, and true of everyone as we scramble to reformat our classes. As we continue planning, consider Karen Gross’ helpful strategies for addressing COVID-19, “beyond soap and water.” When shifting our courses to an online format, it is important to communicate openly with our students about how we will move forward. To summarize, Gross’ excellent suggestions include:

  1. naming the trauma (e.g. we are moving to a remote format to reduce large group influence of COVID-19; I know this is a burden and I hear you);
  2. taming the trauma (e.g. let’s start class using breathing, calming, or other humanizing activities, so that we can have a space to express our concerns while continuing to learn. If we are too anxious, it heightens certain parts of our brain that prevents us from learning);
  3. framing (e.g. let’s remember the goals of the class and what we hoped to learn, and meet those even in the midst of disruption.)

Doing nothing is doing something--it is ignoring the very real challenges that we are collectively experiencing. Communicating your compassion is the best way to humanize your classroom--whether online, or cancelled, or pending--so that your students feel encouraged during this uncertain time. 

Special thanks to Jamiella Brooks, Ph.D. from the Center for Teaching and Learning for contributing this article.

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