As a teacher of writing and mindfulness, I often use cross-genre approaches in my classrooms. For my writing classrooms, that might mean simple breath work, meditation, or movements to help my college students deal with stress and practice self-awareness. The techniques take only a few minutes, but the payoffs are big. Not only do I receive positive feedback from my students, but it seems to boost overall concentration and engagement levels, as well. Students have reported feeling immediate improvements in their stress levels and some have indicated that they’ve used these techniques to reduce test-taking anxieties and social-anxieties outside of my classroom.
However, like many teachers around the world, when the coronavirus hit and my face-to-face class were quickly converted to a fully online classes, these in-class mindfulness practices stopped. In fact, when first moving into emergency remote teaching mode, many of my student-centric activities that help with engagement stopped. As a firm believer in engaging students in the learning process, I knew I had to convert my person-to-person techniques and cater my mindfulness approach to an increasingly stressed, anxious, and remote student body.
Maybe it’s like this: Right before your class begins, you rush to busy the kids, feed the cat, let the dog out, and then log on, desperately hoping nothing comes up during your live class. Or maybe it’s like this: You were so engrossed with the project you’re working on that you’re a little late, but you’ve taught this so many times that lecturing about this stuff is like pressing a button. Or is it like this: You have your outline in front of you, chapter materials open, ready to jump into curricula as soon as the mic turns green. Sometimes you go over time, but mostly end exactly on the mark.
Under normal circumstances, I would write these off as different approaches to teaching and leave it at that. Distractions? A part of life. Autopilot? Good for you. No-nonsense? Awesome. But these aren’t normal circumstances. There is nothing normal about what we’re doing right now, and I believe these circumstances demand a little more presence and consideration of your students’ experience.
Take time to check in
A recent article, “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning,” states that “well-planned online learning experiences are meaningfully different from courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster.” Indeed, a planful online learning experience is essential to create a vibrant online learning community based on discussion and engagement. However, taking the necessary time to orient students to the expectations and flow of your classroom might feel impossible for those of us thrown into remote learning via the recent pandemic.
However, I believe taking time to engage with your students, as difficult as that may seem through blank screens and muted audios, is absolutely necessary, particularly when emergency remote teaching.
There are two ways I have done this. First, I open every synchronous meeting I have with broad, open-ended questions. How is everyone doing? Does anyone have any questions about anything beyond our classroom that I might be able to help with? How are your other classes going? The questions are basic, but the trick is to give students time to respond. A ten second pause between each question may be what someone needs to open up. The second way I have engaged with students has been to set up a regular “Question and Answer” session. These weekly ZOOM meetings, though optional, are always packed, which leads me to my next point: empathy.
Believe your students
I have always been fascinated with the propensity in higher education not to err in favor of the student. Of course, there are students who lie about missing class because they’re hungover or turn in their assignment late because they didn’t manage their time or fail an exam because they didn’t study properly. But I don’t know anyone who is “on” all the time. And in the middle of what might be the most stressful time in our life, I don’t think we are sacrificing anything by showing empathy—even if that means flexibility—to our students.
I had two of my students reach out to me to ask for an extension on an assignment that was due that night because they needed to study for another class. Normally, would that be a good reason to grant an extension? No. Did I grant them a 24-hour extension? Yes.
Don’t be afraid to share
Part of building rapport with your students can be sharing a little more about you. Because I’m teaching online through the quarantine, I’m sharing a little bit about how this is impacting me at home. For instance, especially during the opening comments, I might encourage my students to consider their mental and physical wellness and share helpful, positive articles I’ve read. Helping them see that they are not impervious to feelings, and by reinforcing positivity, you can guide them through these unprecedented times as a thought-leader and mentor.
Aurora D. Bonner is a writer and educator who helps others think creatively and mindfully. She has worked in higher ed for 14 years, teaching and promoting student success. Find her at aurorabonner.com
Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T. and Bond, A. (2020). The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching And Online Learning. EDUCAUSE Review. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning