The Struggles of My Students Gave New Meaning to How I Think About Compassion

In the midst of teaching during this challenging time, my students reminded me about the importance of empathy.

Fizkes/ Shutterstock
Fizkes/ Shutterstock

The last few months have put us all to the test. The sheer scale and unpredictability of this global pandemic have affected each and every one of us – some in more challenging ways. I cannot even begin to imagine those who have lost loved ones, those who have experienced the wrath of this virus, those who have lost jobs, and the immense pressure and stress placed on our healthcare professionals and frontline workers. COVID-19 has upended countless lives, and college students are no exception. 

As an instructor at a community college with a predominantly underserved population, I have witnessed firsthand how the pandemic has in many cases profoundly affected both the physical and emotional well-being of my students. Many of them are part-time adult students who are either supporting themselves or their families. Many have lost jobs because they work in the service industry. They are experiencing feelings of uncertainty and danger, which has led to feelings of shock, confusion, frustration, and worry. Their minds are full of questions many of us will likely never have to ask as we work from the comfort of our home offices attending zoom calls and fitting in virtual exercise sessions throughout the day. How will I pay my rent? How do I feed my kids? How do I afford a computer to do my assignments? The list goes on and on.

My institution has done a phenomenal job of informing students about resources that are available to them, but this has not been enough to sustain them or support their needs for a longer period of time. Funds from the stimulus package excluded many college students, and other aid has simply not been enough. I hear the stories of my students, all the while trying to keep them motivated and engaged. One student shared with me that both of his parents lost their jobs so he has to support the entire family. A couple of students fell behind because they tested positive for coronavirus. Some of them managed to return to their homes overseas before many of the travel restrictions were implemented, and resources and internet connectivity has been a problem for several of them. Some cannot afford internet access or a computer, so assignments are hand-written and sent to me via photos. This pandemic has further revealed the gargantuan digital divide in this country and has perpetuated the inequities that already exist. Others are supporting children and older parents. Without work they are struggling to stay afloat, including paying rent and putting food on the table. Others are completely alone in the city, without family, and feel isolated and imprisoned. Others are so completely consumed by the fear of the virus that they have literally locked themselves in their homes and are now dealing with anxiety and depression.

When some students have reached out to me as to why they have not completed assignments, I have listened carefully to their words of fear and uncertainty. I have encouraged them to express their feelings and reminded them that their responses are neither “good” nor “bad”— stress responses are different ways we’ve adapted to threatening circumstances. I have also provided them with additional emotional support resources so they can dialogue with a professional.

I have encouraged them to re-create their current reality and structure their days. Routine has become immensely important as we continue to deal with the uncertainty of this virus and perhaps a surge in the coming months. Setting time to work, study, exercise, cook, and connect with others establishes a routine and keeps us occupied and healthy.

They have been encouraged to connect with me on all my social media platforms, and at the same time, I’ve encouraged them to do that with each other. We will sometimes connect over Zoom for no other reason but to reconnect as humans and share our thoughts, concerns, and moments of joy. In addition, I’ve reminded them to be cautious about how much time they are spending on media consumption. Constant coverage can worsen anxiety, so limiting time in this regard becomes important.

Finally, I have reached out to my students, not only to send reminders about homework and assignment support, but also to check in with them. I have made myself available to talk. I have been flexible with due dates and late submissions and have focused more on skills acquisition and understanding of concepts. I have modified the ways in which their knowledge can be demonstrated, giving them more flexibility and in turn ownership of their learning. This is not a commentary on how to teach online, but it goes without saying that compassion and understanding are necessary – always necessary but more so now.

But through all of this I have come to see the beauty of the teacher-student relationship and how patience, empathy, understanding, and kindness must be at the root of our teaching, not just during a crisis, but every single day.

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