In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we deal with closed campuses and everything going online, we find ourselves teaching in the face of an array of circumstances that make learning difficult. The undercurrents of the unknown run deep. There are our own health concerns and those of the ones we love. There are financial worries. Will there be food in the grocery stores? How do we avoid getting on each other’s nerves here at home? How long will this last? And finally, how do we teach when minds and hearts are a thousand places other than learning?
We can help students focus by providing the leadership that they’ve come to expect from us. Although we may feel inches from chaos, we do know how to teach, and we understand how students learn. That doesn’t mean we ignore or downplay the challenges, but what’s happening in the course—that’s our bailiwick. Calm, steady leadership quiets panic and conveys confidence that we’ll figure it out together.
Teaching under a new set of circumstances requires flexibility—the ability to respond to events on the fly. It’s not a time for rigid standards and fixed policies or for clinging to how things have always been done. At this point, most of us have cobbled together a plan for what’s going to happen in the course, but it’s a work in progress and will evolve as circumstances change. We’ve unexpectedly been jolted off course, but we are still on the road and committed to doing what it takes to move the course forward.
Along with the uncertainty of the situation comes an opportunity to be with our students in different and deeper ways. Helping these students become a community of learners may be easier than it’s been in any other course. As challenges emerge, we can talk about them! We can ask students to describe how problems look from their perspective and encourage them to share ideas, solutions, and other options. There’s no need for social distancing with remote teaching. In fact, it’s a case for a close relationship with the teacher and students working together in the face of shared struggles.
It’s not always bad for students to see teachers struggling with the details. My colleague Lolita was telling me stories the other day about her first attempts with a synchronous online session—and she’s an experienced online instructor. She was ready for her second set of PowerPoints, but where were they? She clicked on icons and moved from screen to screen—her face registering the disgust, frustration, and embarrassment she felt, forgetting that 40 students were looking on. With no PowerPoints, she had to give up and end the session early, but with poise and grit in her voice she announced that she would find them and do better next class session. I’ll bet students identified with her, comforted by the fact it’s a trying time for everyone.
The gift teachers most need to give themselves right now is space for a less-than-best performance. Frustrating teaching experiences are filled with potential for learning—for the teacher, yes, but also for the students who get to see how a pro builds mistakes into a better performance. Instructors need to occupy that space with humility but also with confidence. We are master learners who know that mistakes are powerful teachers.
Teaching in troubling times opens up learning possibilities beyond those the course provides. In compelling ways, we are making sense of our priorities and seeing more clearly what really matters. Life is possible with fewer than 24 rolls stashed in the bathroom. We are experiencing emptiness without our communities—and grubby fullness with too much family. But the absence and closeness of those most meaningful to us awakens the frightful possibility of losing any of them. This is life on the edge with lessons ready for learning. All that’s missing is a teacher.