The Importance of Saying Goodbye to Your Students in Times of Uncertainty

Graduation cap with saying goodbye written on it

This spring our campuses were closed, and we quickly moved all classes online due to COVID-19. Though we have continued to work and teach together, many of us did not get to say goodbye or formally celebrate our time together as part of our larger departments and university communities. In addition, we are all experiencing the isolation and stress of sheltering in place, job loss, health fears, housing insecurity, and sustained life changes. Saying goodbye is important and hard under normal conditions, but our current context makes it even more important that we intentionally say goodbye and provide students the opportunity for celebration, closure, grieving, meaning making, and connection.

The current pandemic can make school and work feel less important, a bother, hopeless, and a distraction to what really matters. Students and teachers can lose sight of what they have learned and accomplished during the past semester, and potentially over their entire time in higher ed.  They may even lose sight of how important their field, contributions, expertise, and relationships really are. Though difficult to endure, these are normal responses to crisis, stress, and loss. However, when we are getting ready to finish a hard semester and/or to graduate, we do not want to feel disappointed, powerless, disconnected, or that our time at our universities and colleges did not matter.

This is where saying goodbye and intentionally planning the end of your semester is essential. Goodbyes, celebrating accomplishments, and having closure supports good teaching practice and trauma informed pedagogy. Trauma, chronic stress, and loss, challenges our sense of purpose, takes away our agency, and strains relationships. As we intentionally say goodbye, think of ways you can give students a sense of purpose through making meaning of their hardships and accomplishments. Empower them by reminding them of the skills and strengths they possess. These things help combat the loss and stress experienced by students and instructors alike.

Honor your students through:

  • Reinforcing their purpose and larger connection with you, their profession or discipline, and the world
  • Recognizing all that they have overcome and accomplished, reminding them of their strengths and their ability to influence change in their world
  • Sharing the importance of relationships by providing space for them to connect with you and their peers through saying goodbye and stating how you will stay connected in the future

Given all the competing pressures right now, you may think you don’t have time to devote to goodbyes, but please challenge yourself as to whether the final chapter or lecture is really necessary and instead, make time and space for your students to name and celebrate their hardships, accomplishments, relationships, and to say goodbye.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Consider making a goodbye video, reviewing main take aways from your course, what you have learned from your students and how they have impacted your life, how you will remember them, and your hopes for their future.
  2. Provide your contact information and encourage students to stay in contact with you in the future. Encourage them to get on LinkedIn or join an alumni group on campus.
  3. Use space in their final assignment feedback to include a personal statement and goodbye to each student; make sure to use their name.
  4. If possible, have students invite family and/or friends to their final virtual presentations and capstones to honor all that the student has accomplished.
  5. Create a meme or GIF with added humor from any technology mishap, or share an inside class joke and distribute to your students in the final week. Or have them create something in a final discussion post.
  6. Have students share what they have learned, accomplished, and created, and acknowledge them getting through despite the pandemic!
  7. Hold space for students to share their appreciation and feelings to one another and the instructor through a video chat like Flipgrid.
  8. Express how their chosen field and accomplishments prepares them to make a difference in the world.

In addition to honoring students, it is important to recognize the stress and loss our faculty and staff has undergone. In the past month, we have moved all our courses, support services, administration, and research to virtual and online settings. We have listened to students report job and family loss, learned to convert all our assignments to online platforms, and perfected Zoom meetings, all while managing our own homes, health, families, home schooling, grief, job loss, and daily worries of the pandemic.

Honor yourself and your colleagues through:

  • Recognizing your own successes in teaching during a pandemic
  • Complementing others on something you have noticed about their teaching and response during these high stress times
  • Creating a top 10 list of embarrassing faculty technology blunders for “going online 2020”
  • Thanking an advisor or other staff members for all they are doing to support students
  • Taking pictures and documenting all that your departments and universities are doing so you can look back on it later and celebrate
  • Acknowledging and finding meaning in the numerous conversations and emails you are having with students about ordinary things that are really having an extraordinary impact

Additional Resources:

*A previous version of this essay was published in the Early Bird as a SIP (Strong Instructional Practice) at MSU Denver. Thanks to the SIP team for editorial feedback and support.

Ann Obermann LCSW, PhD, is an assistant professor and online education coordinator in the Department of Social Work at Metropolitan State University of Denver.