The toll from a pandemic

Perhaps the word is sad.

Or down.

Or angry.

Or afraid.

Or anxious.

Or lonely.

Or despondent.

Or resigned.

Or frustrated.

Whatever word best describes how you feel today as we plow through another day of the coronavirus pandemic is the right one. It doesn’t have to match what your best friend, your parent, your neighbor or your fellow teachers are feeling. It might not be the word that described how you felt yesterday, and it might not be the word that describes how you’ll feel tomorrow.

It’s how you feel today. You neither have to apologize for it nor deny it.

Ditto for our students.

And much like I should be careful before I privately judge how you feel, I need to be careful about privately judging how they say they feel. (And I’d be lying to you if I said I was always successful in exercising this caution.) But the gap between privately judging and publicly questioning is cavernous.

When I review my course syllabus with students at the beginning of the term, I always note the Services for Students with Disabilities offered by my university and discuss how that office can help them. I remind everyone that today that office might seem unnecessary to them. Then I say something like “but if you slip on ice and break your right wrist, and you are a right-handed person…suddenly that office is your best friend.”

My point: we can see a physical injury and we often are quick to want to lend a hand to a person in need, but a mental health issue or a learning disability we often can’t see. But we mustn’t pretend those conditions don’t exist, and we must encourage students who need such services to get them. Our institutions’ counseling centers are our allies here, and that’s another office I discuss during the syllabus review.

I was reminded of all of that today when I came across a social media post from an educator. The exact words she used in her post (which appears to have been taken down at some point) aren’t important; neither is the firestorm she created by what she wrote. Summarized briefly, and therefore incompletely, the woman questioned the legitimacy of the many extension requests she’s receiving from students this semester. She asked whether they were using superfluous or non-existent excuses to cover for not doing the work in her class(es) and to justify requested extensions to submit their assignments.

Of course, most of the comments I read (and I didn’t read all of them) in response to her post were harsh; the author made no friends and perhaps lost a few. (Full disclosure: I sent a private social media message to the woman asking if I could add her remarks to my blog; I didn’t receive a reply before her post apparently was taken down. In the interim, I adjusted what I had planned to write about.)

We educators lost one of the most powerful tools in our teaching arsenal when our quarter or semester was disrupted by the coronavirus epidemic. Forced to teach via remote delivery for the remainder of this academic year, we could no longer observe our students. Yes, I know we can see them through video chats, but we can’t observe them as we do when they’re seated in front of us. I’m not arguing semantics here: Please agree with me that we pick up so many cues about our students from their body language, facial expressions, moods and more when they’re in front of us. And when we know those students well, we pull them aside and ask what’s going on. (The “physical” I mentioned earlier applies, though in a different context, here; when they don’t look “right,” we know.) We can’t do that now, so we don’t know the depth of their anxiety, depression or whichever word accurately describes how each of them feels today. As a result, who knows how capable they are of completing the seemingly most mundane assignments we ask of them.

I recently got into an email exchange with a student in one of my classes. As our conversation ended, he thanked me for being the only instructor who had reached out to help get him to the finish line this semester. He offered no explanation for what he’d been feeling (and, of course, I didn’t ask him to); but if he had, I’d have been in a position to determine whether I thought it was legitimate or something else.

Remember that the right thing to do is ask a department head or dean if there’s a lack of clarity about granting extensions. Remember that there’s a (likely understaffed) counseling center where confidential referrals can be made. And remember that publicly questioning motives especially in times of crisis is impossible to defend.

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