Flexibility, Communication, and Compassion

Over the past few weeks many universities and K-12 schools have shut down face-to-face meetings and turned to online classes and coursework. This move is substantial, and there are a lot of things to consider when thinking about how we, as educators and students, will approach this shift. As such, today, I want to take a moment and walk through what I am thinking about doing in my own courses. I know that K-12 is different, but hopefully some of these things will be useful to instructors and students in elementary, middle, and high schools. The NCTE has posted a lengthy list of resources for English Language Art distance learning.

We know that many K-12 districts lack technology training for online classes, and that many students may not have access to computers or even the internet. This does not help students in any way, especially if they cannot access the material. One of my kid’s schools sent home lesson plans for the next six to seven weeks with worksheets and other materials. For K-12 areas that have spotty access to he internet or technology, this is a good form of practice from my point of view.

As for the college level, we cannot assume that every student has access to technology or the internet away from campus; however, I do not know a more efficient way to connect with students in this situation. All of my students, and I know this is a very small sample, have cell phones. The work can be done on cell phones; however, that is not ideal. We do not, at my college, have the ability to provide students with technology to take home so they can complete the work. So, if students do not have a computer, apart from a cell phone, what do I do? This is what I have been thinking about lately.

First and foremost, I have to think about what the best possible approach would be for classes. Do they need to be synchronous or asynchronous? Initially, I thought about having synchronous sessions on Zoom where students would meet virtually at the same time as our face-to-face classes, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to provide students some flexibility.

Right now, I am thinking about a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous classes. I would set a time, the same as one of my courses, and have students meet. I would record the session to post for those who couldn’t attend, and I would have an assignment based on the lecture and discussion. This would allow for me to reach all of the students and to also provide them with an assignment to gauge student learning towards the course outcomes.

The benefits of this approach would be that it would allow students to engage with the material when it is best for them. During this time, students, as well as faculty, will experience unexpected events that will warrant their time. As educators, we must be mindful now, and always, of our students’ lives. We must remember that they are people, just like us. They experience the same things we experience. We must be open and compassionate, not just during this time but always, to our students.

We must be flexible. A few years back, I adopted a new late paper policy, and this policy has benefited myself and more importantly students. Instead of penalizing students by taking off points for late papers, I now give them a week after the due date to turn in essays. The only caveat is that I do not comment on the papers. They must come and see me to discuss their grade. (I do actually make brief comments though on the rubric.) This practice has allowed for students and myself to be flexible in the classroom.

What I have learned through the implementation of this policy and through my almost two decades in the classroom (college and K-12) is that flexibility, compassion, and communication are key to success in courses. We, as educators, can be flexible, and our flexibility, I would argue, comes from our compassion. I want to see students succeed. I want to see them pass my class. I want them to learn. I want them to acquire tools that will assist them in the future.

In order for students to do these things, I must be open to what they are going through. Most of the colleges where I have taught are predominantly first-generation and/or non-traditional students. For some of these students, they take full course loads while working forty hours a week while taking care of families and other responsibilities. For some of these students, they take full course loads while participating in athletics. Again, their lives do not start and end with my classroom. My course is merely a part of their life, not the be all end all.

Compassion allows us to see what students go through and to provide flexibility to help students succeed in the classroom. We need to work with students to help them succeed. In order to do this, we must communicate. First-generation students, like myself, are not likely to approach teachers for help or flexibility. They do not know, for the most part, that this is what we hope they will do. Even when I stress, over and over again, that I want students to communicate with me, they do not do so until it is past due dates or too late. How do we get students to communicate with us as teachers? It is a two-way street.

As an educator, I think we can show students that they need to communicate with us by being flexible and compassionate. We need to show them that we understand their lives outside of the classroom. We need to show them that we want the to succeed. Bottom line, we need to show them that we care for them apart from just the grade they get on the transcript. When we do this, we foster a learning community, not a grade factory where some pass inspection and some fail.

During this time, let’s practice these three things in our pedagogy, and when this passes, as it will, let’s continue to practice flexibility, compassion, and communication. If we do that, students will succeed. If we do that, we will succeed. If we do that, we will all be nourished. If we do that, we will all benefit. We will foster learning and growth.

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