How to help students thrive during pandemic times and beyond
Being overtly trauma-conscious and openly discussing current events provide a solid foundation for creating a compassionate classroom, says Ivania Delgado
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Students in helping professions are taught to uphold self-determination, autonomy and to identify the strengths of the people they serve. They learn and apply a systems-based understanding of people’s circumstances. Professors ask students to be trauma-informed and maintain a spirit of compassion and acceptance in their practice, yet many students will disclose that they have the opposite experience in the classroom. Students want to be seen and heard and want us to move beyond upholding a culture of punishment via grading practices and biased behavioural expectations under the guise of academic rigour.
Fellow educators, there is a disconnect between what we teach and what we do. Teaching to thrive means putting relationships and connections first and creating a learning community that increases the students’ awareness of their strengths. As such, teaching to thrive means we must ask ourselves tough questions about the learning spaces we create.
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In the past couple of years, we have collectively witnessed continued state-sanctioned anti-Black violence, disabled people being left behind by ableist policies across institutions that leave them unprotected against Covid-19 risks, and the recent reversal of Roe v Wade. I repeat to my students that anyone telling them, “I had to do this too”, is blatantly incorrect. None of us had to attend lectures, take tests or complete graduation requirements with a million deaths in our backyards.
In my attempt to remain trauma-conscious, for the past couple of years, we have openly discussed Covid-related deaths and other pandemic-related losses in my courses. We have discussed the exacerbation of all inequalities, including poverty, housing, anti-Black racism, anti-LGBTQIA2S+, classism and more in our backyard: Miami, Florida.
We have normalised speaking about current events such as school shootings, the hate-filled rhetoric surrounding the “Don’t Say Gay” law and our feelings about them. We have centred lived experiences and marginalised voices that dare to speak their truth about what it means to be a student today. We have made connections between the micro and macro and discussed how these connections have played out in the students’ lives. We did not look away, and we leaned into the discomfort.
Educators reading this and thinking: “Oh, that’s too political”, are absolutely correct, but as Bessel van der Kolk shared with us in his book The Body Keeps the Score, you cannot separate trauma from politics since your zip code plays just as much of a role in your health as your genetics do.
For folks that may be looking for help on this, here are some of the practices that students responded positively to in my courses:
1) Provide content warnings: Let the student decide how they will participate and encourage students to take breaks when needed to prioritise self-care. After all, they are the experts in their own lives.
2) Allow resubmissions: Self-correction, revision and extracting knowledge from the errors we make are essential parts of learning.
3) Anti-racism and anti-oppression in the classroom start with the self: Considering that educators have historically graded and evaluated students through a white, middle-class lens, it opens the door to biased evaluations of our students. BAME students know that proximity to whiteness correlates with higher rewards and have enough lived experience to know when they are recipients of implicit bias under the guise of rigour, responsibility and opinions on how a “disciplined” student performs. An excellent book to read to increase our self-awareness as educators is Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks. It is important to remember that this is a lifelong learning process, and humility will help keep us grounded in this work.
4) Flexibility with deadlines without penalty: We too readily reduce points for behaviour that may or may not be part of the assignment. For example, a project may reflect a deep understanding of the material, extensive preparation and research but lose marks for lateness. Educators could consider giving students soft deadlines and one hard deadline for pending tasks, allowing the instructor enough time to calculate overall grades. Let this also be an invitation to consider that late submissions aren’t the only behaviours we judge. We unconsciously grade behaviours such as absences, participation, completion of assigned readings or whether a student’s camera is on or not.
5) Recorded lectures for students to review at their own pace: Students have shared that having access to recorded lectures and discussions allowed them to pause the lecture, adjust the lecture speed, take notes and revisit content they struggled with. They feel in control of their learning by creating their optimal learning conditions.
6) Transparency in assignments: Provide descriptive details of why the students will benefit from completing this work. This includes clearly and explicitly mentioning the skills and knowledge they will acquire and how their assignments will be evaluated. A great way to ensure that students know what a successful final draft consists of is by providing samples of the completed work.
7) Offer extra Zoom meetings to focus on the most challenging and time-consuming projects: I call these working meetings. We all show up to actively work on the assignments together. In the community, students answer each other’s questions, listen in on brainstorming and work through the pieces of the assignment they find the most challenging. This is a practice inspired by Paulo Freire’s pedagogy. In these meetings, we are all students and we are all teachers. It allows the students to learn from and with each other in ways that are not present in my teaching. This practice conveys that they can be each other’s sources of knowledge and resilience during their academic journeys.
8) Establish weekly check-ins to set the tone for the class: I always try to be intentional with my check-ins. Every group of students comes with their histories and personalities. Being student-centred, trauma-informed and culturally responsive means we ask them what their needs are and shape the learning experience to meet them. For example, a great tool to use is mentimeter.com. I use it to ask them to share their psychological, spiritual and community resources with our class, and we put them on display for everyone to see. I remind them that we will lean into these resources during difficult times. Go all in, ask how they feel, get creative, play music and complete a gratitude activity.
9) Democratise the class as much as possible: Let’s co-create the learning experience with our students. I use several tools to create opportunities for students to vote on their preferences. Consider using a Google form to create a survey, while Zoom polls, Padlet and even the chat function on any of the live session applications can be effective. Creating a culture of feedback and opportunities to vote on their choices may not eliminate the classroom’s power imbalance but it can reduce it.
Adopting some of these practices over the years has allowed the most-impacted students during these pandemics to work at their own pace, complete revisions and resubmit without penalties – and have their behaviours met with compassion, not judgement and bias. It is important to co-create spaces for learning with our students where mistakes, and authentic participation as the whole human beings that they are, are welcomed.
Ivania Delgado is an assistant teaching professor with the School of Social Work at Florida International University and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology and Miami Dade College. She is also a mother, hija, partner and part of the Miami-Dade County community.