:: As we return to teaching this fall and the pandemic rages on, I want to share three things I’ve learned about teaching with empathy during Covid.

Many of us are preparing to teach this fall, some of us in person. Many of us are nervous about teaching in person, and if you are in that group, I’m so sorry and sympathetic.

Some of us are preparing to teach online again and, if we were new to online teaching before Covid, we might be getting more familiar with it. That’s good.

I taught my first fully-online legal writing course during the Fall of 2020. The course was a legal writing course for third-year law students. I prepped all summer; by the time the semester started, I thought I had everything figured out. I’d spent months planning the course. I’d researched online teaching technology. I’d completely redesigned my syllabus, even though this was a course I’d designed, taught before, and wrote the textbook for.

The point is, I took nothing for granted when shifting to online. I started from the ground up with my course design.

I did so because I knew that the conditions of the pandemic made everything different and new for both me and my students, and I therefore needed to treat the course as one that was different and new.

The first thing I learned as the semester started was that my planning was not good enough. 

The heart of the advice I write about here has to do with empathy for our students and for ourselves. It also has to do with mental health—both theirs and our own. We must take care of one another, constantly. Taking care is ongoing work.

I’m just one of the many voices who have written about teaching and empathy; I urge you to seek out more. I write now to revive the call as the new semester approaches.

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Here, I give you a list of three important things I learned about empathy while teaching during the pandemic. 

1. Avoid too much technology.

When the pandemic hit, tech companies were eager to push solutions to help everyone take their work online, including solutions for teachers. Desperate and eager, we teachers embraced this technology. Many teachers, me included, embraced too much technology.

I did so with the best intentions, hoping to provide the best experience for my students. But too much technology wore them out. I should have kept things more simple.

In retrospect, I realize that all I needed was (1) videoconference software, preferably the one that was adopted across our institution (that happened to be Zoom) and (2) a course management software (I used MS Teams).

Most importantly, I needed to not use all of the bells and whistles of my CMS. I needed to pinpoint the need I was trying to meet. For me, that need was this: a simple way for them to turn in assignments and for me to give feedback. That’s all.

That’s my empathetic technology advice, for you and your students: Pinpoint the need. Meet the need as simply as possible.

I also realized that the more I could keep technology familiar (i.e., the same technology that they used during a regular school year), the better. During the pandemic, my students did not need to spend time learning vast new computer skills on top of everything else. That was asking too much. (And neither did I.)

And worst of all, I heard stories of teachers who dinged students’ grades when they failed to manage the software properly. Good lord. Unless you are teaching a computer science or software class, you should not be grading your students software skills. That’s basic pedagogy. It’s also humane.

2. Beware Rigor Anxiety

“Rigor anxiety” is the fear, held by a professor or administrator, that a curriculum will not be difficult enough to meet the academic standards of a particular institution, department, or course. Some professors felt rigor anxiety when they were taking courses online and believed they needed to dump more work on students to make sure students would learn enough without in-person contact, or … something like that. These professors feared the course wouldn’t be rigorous because it was now remote. “More work” was their solution.

They were wrong.

Indeed, they had it so wrong, they had it opposite. They should have been cutting back on work, not piling on more.

Cutting back, Katie? Absolutely. I decreased the number of writing assignments during the semester by two.

I learned the most amazing thing. I had been teaching the course all along with two too many writing assignments in my course—whether in person or online. When I teach this course on campus again, I’ll keep this new assignment count. I’m grateful that I learned how much better I could teach my students without piling on so many assignments.

With fewer assignments, were able to go deeper into the material. Students were able to learn more without rushing through things. The course was rigorous. And my course design wasn’t driven by fear.

In “Hope Matters,” for Inside Higher Education (IHE) Mays Imad (Twitter) writes, regarding rigor during Covid: “Establishing continuity doesn’t mean you increase the amount of work required of them. I say this because I worry that some of us might be fixated on the rigor of the materials presented.” This fixation on—or anxiety about—rigor should not be what drives our course design.

Instead, Imad suggests: “Reflect on the notion of rigor and continue to challenge and support your students. As instructors, we often must balance rigor and support.” (Imad provides lots of other great advice that is worth revisiting as we approach another school year under the pall of Covid.)

Furthermore, our students can tell when professors refuse to update their pedagogy with changing circumstances. Writes William Ellis for IHE, in “It’s Compassion, Not Capitulation, to Ask Less of Students Amid Disruption,” our students have been “involuntarily reassigned midsemester to a learning medium that they expressly avoided by enrolling in on-campus courses [he wrote during Fall of 2020], were asked to adapt under less-than-ideal conditions but were more often than not held to standards that ignored the realities of the situation.” (Ellis teaches at @SaintLeoUniv.) Our pedagogy must not be detached from reality.

But what about these “standards”? Aren’t standards, by definition, “universal,” no matter what the medium? Isn’t that what makes them “standard”? Of course they’re not. There’s no such thing as universal standards, only standards in context. (This should be obvious. Plato was wrong.)

Ellis writes, in an attempt to ascertain why certain professors refused to be flexible under the pandemic. He points out two different types of professors who opted not to change their pedagogy: “Purists,” whose “approach was like whistling past the graveyard; because they maintained normal expectations of their students, their pupils might somehow rise to the challenge in defiance of extraordinarily unfavorable circumstances. For other teachers, I suspect that rigidity was a means of dealing with the uncertainty and strain of developing and teaching online courses for the first time.”

I can appreciate how hard it is to translate an in-person course to one that is online. Having empathy for your students requires that you also have empathy for yourself. If we ever fly on airplanes again, we’ll listen to the flight attendants tell us to put our own masks on first before helping those beside us. If you feel overwhelmed, however, you can’t inadvertently punish your students. Instead, seek help. It’s out there.

3. Be ready to change gears during the semester.

During the semester, I asked my students for private, honest feedback. I knew that they were struggling because I, too, was struggling. So I asked them to let me know how things were going in all aspects of their education and lives, not just my course. And I asked for suggestions, if they had any, for how to make things better.

Imad gives similar advice: “Ask each of your students how you can help them. … in times of uncertainty and unknowing, we can create a space where our students’ voice and insights can illuminate the path we are carving out for them—and us.”

My students’ insights helped me reshape the course mid-semester to better meet their needs: They told me that the technology was too complicated. They told me that they had trouble understanding what assignments were due at what time because I had scattered course information in too many places. They told me they were afraid they weren’t going to be able to keep up with the writing assignments.

Because I asked for their feedback, I was able to fix these things immediately. Here is some of what I did:

(1) I pared down the technology. See item #1, above.

(2) I compiled all assignment information in one place—the syllabus—instead of using all of the digital tools at my fingertips. If I changed an assignment, I changed it on the syllabus and distributed it immediately with a class announcement—just like I would have done with an in-person class. This change rendered the syllabus and information distribution more familiar, and avoided fancy technology for technology’s sake.

(4) I canceled an entire writing assignment and built in a make-up week for our learning. (No rigor anxiety!) Despite my best efforts to cut back at the beginning of the semester, my students let me know that I hadn’t cut back enough. Here’s the thing: When I taught the class in person, I never asked whether my students felt overwhelmed. My guess? I would have received similar feedback about the number of assignments. I only asked during the Covid semester because I was teaching during the pandemic. Now, I’ll keep the new number and schedule of assignments going forward because the schedule is better for all learning.

The important takeaway is that these ideas should make your life better as a teacher while making your students’ lives better, too. A teacher and their students are a symbiotic unit.

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I’ve written more on the topic of teaching during Covid, empathy, rigor anxiety, and more for the wonderful magazine Women In Higher Education (edited by Kelly J. Baker). Here are some links if you would like to delve deeper.

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(c) 2019

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Thank you.

-Katie