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March 27, 2020

By Shelley Howell, Ed.D.

We are all in this together. It’s not just a phrase of the day, or an empty platitude. We really need to work with our students to help them through this time of anxiety and uncertainty. How we respond to this crisis as faculty has great impact on how our students feel and respond to the same crisis. We have the opportunity right now to show our students our own humanity during this experience by showing compassion, empathy and understanding for their situations.  As stressed as you are about teaching online, your students are just as stressed (possibly more so) about learning online.  

Here’s why.  

First, our students have been taken out of their now-familiar routine of school and away from their peers and friends. They are being asked to learn in an unfamiliar environment, in an isolated situation. Some may not be comfortable with the technology used in online learning. They may not have the capacity at home to view videos or watch you lecture live. We don’t really know what technology issues our students might be dealing with right now. 

Second, many of our students have moved back home with their families. For some, this is comfortable and has helped reduce their anxiety. For others, this may have caused more stress. Maybe home isn’t the best place for them. Maybe their families are dealing with health issues.  Maybe they or their families are considered essential personnel and need to work longer hours. Maybe they now have responsibility for younger siblings who are also home from school. Maybe they are now homeschooling their own children. Our student body is so diverse, we have no idea what each student might be going through in their personal lives. 

And last, but definitely not least, is that many of us may become ill. Our students, their families, our own familiesand many people we know and love may suddenly not be well. Just knowing this may cause anxiety and stress. Not to mention the stress of when or if it does happen to us.  

Being compassionate and empathetic is not synonymous with being “easy.”  It doesn’t mean we should ignore rigor and academic standards. Here’s what being compassionate and empathetic does mean: 

  • Don’t just put your content online and expect students to engage with it on their own. Include clear and specific instructions and expectations for each assignment. Then check in regularly and maintain an open line of communication.  There is no such thing as over communication in online teaching  
  • Be lenient and flexible with deadlines. This isn’t the time to be harsh with students who miss deadlines, no matter the reason. Reassure them that they can reach out to you for help. 
  • Acknowledge and discuss with them that things are different. It’s okay to express your own anxiety and uncertainty during this time. Reassure students that we will get through this together. 
  • Consider changing high-stakes exams to individual projects, papers, or a series of lower stakes quizzes. Missing one quiz is a lot less stressful than failing a big exam. 
  • Ask how they are and what you can do to help them with this transitionProvide a discussion thread for topics outside of your normal content.  Share this UTSA Student Support Services Guide for a list of UTSA services available to help.  
  • Take this time to connect with your students on a more personal level. We all need that right now.