Kindness in the Classroom Is More Important Than Ever During Covid-19
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
What would you like to keep, if and when your university returns from online to on-campus instruction? The sudden move from in-person to remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the exciting educational technologies now at our fingertips. Your institution has probably invested large sums of money in new software, perhaps while expenditure on people stagnated or decreased. Marketing emails about various other products may have made their way into your promotions or spam folders.
Programs like Zoom, Prezi or Kahoot, to name only a few, have many uses and benefits. Their makers certainly have my gratitude. However, more than by any app and gadget, I was impressed by basic human qualities shown by teachers during the last year and a half: generosity and kindness.
When buildings closed and Internet connections were disrupted, my colleagues and I could no longer expect the same levels of attendance as before. Empathy for struggling students made hard deadlines become flexible. For at least one or two semesters, some of the usual penalties did not apply. Instead of covering content, I spent the beginning of many class meetings just finding out how participants were coping with the unprecedented pressures in their lives. (See a related article, “Literacies Teachers Need During Covid-19.”)
Students responded positively to the compassion they received. Surprisingly, they gave my chaotic courses in 2020 higher ratings than those of some previous years. (See a related article, “5 Ways to Connect With Online Students.”)
There is, of course, nothing new about positivity, acceptance and forgiveness in higher education. Long before lockdown-related concerns about mental health, mindfulness was promoted in various settings. I first learned about it from Buddhist monks and secular practitioners when studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, between 2008 and 2012. Soon thereafter, two colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, Byrad Yyelland and Robert Bianchi, introduced me to Appreciative Inquiry, which affirms strengths and successes.
Nevertheless, many of the words commonly referenced at universities hardly elicit warmth: “excellence,” “elite,” “competitiveness,” “critical thinking,” “problem-solving,” “problem-finding,” “problematizing,” et cetera.
In a new book titled “Generous Thinking,” Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of English at Michigan State University, has called for a more constructive than competitive spirit. According to her, academics should build new ideas rather than tearing down old ones. However, voices like hers are few and far between. What most scholars want to see at the core of an article is an “argument” rather than harmony.
As a teacher of history, I easily find more examples of injustice than justice in how humans have organized themselves. Slavery, for instance, seems to have been an unfortunate part of almost every era.
I am not against all negative emotions. Anger, for instance, is often understandable and sometimes necessary. Organizers of the academic Strike for Black Lives, such as the physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, rightly called for the dismantling of oppressive structures.
As a teacher of history, I easily find more examples of injustice than justice in how humans have organized themselves. Slavery, for instance, seems to have been an unfortunate part of almost every era. Other than moments of escape and liberation, hardly anything is positive about this topic. As much as I do want to smile at my students, a somber expression usually seems to be the most appropriate.
Kindness as Part of Teaching
If the topics of my courses are overwhelmingly serious, I have to bring in kindness through other parts of my teaching. At the start of meetings, I make a habit of asking more than simply, “how are you today?” I inquire how their week, their semester and even academic year is going, inside and outside the (virtual) classroom. If they suffer from stress and anxiety, I request advice on what I can do to alleviate it.
Genuine interest in students as whole persons is, of course, very important. Equally so is generosity in the feedback I give them on their work. Early on in my teaching career, I adopted the sandwich method, in which negative comments are wrapped in between words of praise. Whether I speak about a student’s creation, I make appreciative statements at the beginning and end, with criticism in the middle. My sandwiches consist of thick slices of bread and a meagre filling.
Commending students on their efforts does not mean that you should give everybody an A. I have not done so, even at the height of the pandemic, when my colleagues and I sought to provide as many accommodations as possible. After all, fairness is as much of a virtue as magnanimity for anybody in a position of power—whether for a present teacher or a past king. I want to reward those who work hard, and rarely everybody does. I do not grade on a bell curve though. With around fifteen participants, my classes are perhaps too small for meaningful statistics anyway.
However tough or easy you want to be in giving grades, I recommend that you do not spend too much classroom time on discussing them.
Discussing Grades Only in Private
However tough or easy you want to be in giving grades, I recommend that you do not spend too much classroom time on discussing them. Students and their sponsors tend to overemphasize, if not obsess about, them anyway. This can easily lead classmates from healthy competition to toxic rivalry.
If a student asks me why they got a B, I respond one-on-one. Such a private conversation protects confidential information and shields them from humiliation. I also avoid posting grades and other sensitive data on a learning management system, because my students and I have little control over third-party software.
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Kindness makes little appearance on job descriptions or in academic honors. Rarely do selection committees at universities explicitly look for an educator who is generous. This adjective can easily be misunderstood as meaning less rigorous.
Warmth and compassion, however, are qualities inherent in teachers that cannot be replaced by technology. They might not have a price tag, but they are still highly valued by those we seek to serve.
Jörg Matthias Determann teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @JMDetermann.