A Brief Explanation
Back in April, I wrote the blog post below. I never published it, however. I found it this morning because I was looking for items that I'd written that dealt with kindness. On World Kindness Day, I thought this might be a nice sentiment.
As I read this unpublished piece, however, I see that it's an interesting little time capsule. In one way, it answers a question no one is asking:
What did it feel like to teach in the early days of the pandemic, back when you thought it was temporary or short-lived, back when you thought it would all be over by August or September?
In another way, it's a call for me to return to principles that maybe I've lost sight of now that I'm masked up and back in my classroom every day:
- student agency,
- kindness and patience in communication,
- mutual respect and the belief that I have as much to learn from them as they have to learn from me.
Why does being in my classroom mean that I have to be so busy? So curt? So unkind? (I'm probably being too hard on myself, but that's what I do best!)
I present this piece to you unedited. I don't remember writing it, but here it is. Take from it what you will!
"Time and the Art of Kindness in Communication"
This is what teaching in the pandemic age has taught me about treating others with kindness, respect, and generosity.
The Following Is No Longer True
As a teacher, I have hundreds of personal interactions every day. Students come into my classroom. We chat, we negotiate, we suffer through a give-and-take process that we hope will result in some kind of shared understanding. It’s exhausting.
In the midst of these many and varied interactions, I lack patience for:
- the teenager who has not taken the time to appreciate the thoroughness with which I prepared instructions,
- the teenager who fails to recognize the attention to detail that I have given in the assembling of this PDF of readings,
- the teenager who cannot fathom the amount of time that I have taken to provide thoughtful feedback on the latest draft of his/her magnum opus.
This lack of patience often manifests itself in curt replies, looks of disbelief, and dry, sarcastic comments that fall flat.
Often, I will feel remorse immediately upon that student leaving my sight. Was I too harsh? Why can’t I be more patient? Should I try to redo that conversation and make it right?
None of that is the case now. My classroom now feels like a quarantine zone, and the interactions that I have with students are not as sensitive to time pressures and bell schedules. This is the COVID Age, and it’s forcing teachers around the country to rethink how they do business.
And I’m one of them.
The New Normal for Those in Remote Situations
I will wake up on Monday morning, not at 5 a.m., but probably sometime closer to 7. I’ll roll downstairs, grab a cup of coffee, and bring it back up to my writing and meditation studio: a small, 8’ x 10’ room on the second floor of our house. I’ll begin my day with 30 minutes of meditation, a little light journal writing, and the aroma and flavor of that coffee. All of that will be accomplished before I begin to check in with students around 8:30.
Those check-ins will occur in a variety of ways:
• Some days I might videoconference with my students.
• Other days we use chat systems (like Slack or Microsoft Teams) to talk more informally and in short bursts.
• For specific assignments, I leave feedback in the Learning Management System (LMS) so that students can check it.
Sometime before lunch, I record a screencast in which I show students how to use the template that I’ve created for them in GoogleDocs. I upload it to YouTube and provide a link on the class’s webpage.
It’s nearing lunch time, so I goof off with Garageband on my phone because I’m trying to pick up new skills, and then I go downstairs to eat lunch with the family.
The afternoon looks pretty similar. I continue to check in with students, or they check in with me. I provide feedback on small pieces of work. They ask questions off-and-on into the evening, questions that I answer when I feel inclined, because after 4:00 p.m., I’m on my time.
That’s the new normal. That’s teaching in the COVID Age.
What’s this got to do with kindness?
One of the potential joys of this new environment — a perspective that most educators would do well to embrace — is our newfound freedom from the strictures of the school’s bell schedule. Students don’t need to ignore their circadian rhythms, wake up early, and get to school by 8 in the morning. Instead, they can work at their pace and on their time.
When I was in college, I remember I could not write a paper unless the sun was down. Even when I’d have a two-hour block in the middle of the day and I’d go to the library for what was supposed to be 120 minutes of unbridled productivity, I still found it difficult to produce anything meaningful.
Night time was my write time.
For many of my students, that seems to be the case. When I ask them to turn something in “before the next day,” I often get essays uploaded to the website after midnight.
And why not?
They’re staying up late anyway. They might as well use that time to work on their projects. Their brains, steamed up on Tiger King or some other Netflix binge, are at peak creativity. Use it!
The self-paced and self-timed nature of my new remote learning class structure has bled also into my own communication. Unless it’s an immediate and vital concern, I can take my time in crafting a response to a student. Rather than having to answer the question now because I’ve got that class to go to or that meeting to attend, I can digest the student’s question or statement and then respond mindfully.
What does a mindful response look like?
It looks like kindness. Rather than the curt replies that students might get if they waltz into my classroom five minutes before class is set to begin and ask me to review their entire essay, now I can send them back a quick message that sets us all up for success:
I’m happy to review this, Josephine! I’ll get back to you with some comments in a couple of hours, okay?
Josephine is happy with that response, and so am I. It frees me up to do things when I want to do them and it allows me to be kind and courteous to all of my students, regardless of whether or not they have timed their query well.
Do not hurry; do not rest.
Teachers all over the United States are expressing their frustrations about remote learning.
How do I replicate the in-class experience online?
This is the wrong question to ask. The answer is: “You can’t.” The small ways that you build your classroom culture — the decorations you choose, the lighting, the way you write things on the board, the way you setup structure and systems to apportion information and caring to your classes — are not really available to you in this situation. You have to adapt.
Goethe’s statement, “Do not hurry; do not rest,” has become a mantra of mine. Rather than trying to rush through these assignments, rather than trying to speed through communication with students, take the time to do it and do it well.
Begin with Kindness
Start by being kind in all that you put out there for students. There’s really no reason to scold a student in this new environment.
Most of our students are not used to distance learning. We might feel like we spent an inordinate amount of time making the instructions foolproof, but some students just aren’t going to understand them or pay attention to them. That’s just going to happen.
What’s your goal?
If your goal is to maintain a positive relationship so that the student can get the information that he or she needs, then kill them with kindness.
Prove Your Respect
When you do that, when you offer up kindness rather than scolding or guilt, then you show students that you respect them. A gentle reminder to check the class’s webpage, for example, might go much farther than an excoriating missive.
Slow down. Prove to your students that you hold them in the utmost respect. You came to teach. They came to learn. Let’s do this.
Layer in Generosity
The farther you swing the pendulum in this direction, the more generous you are with your communication, the more generous you are with the way in which you show your kindness and respect for students, the better response you’ll have.
Already, just three weeks into this new normal, I’ve had so many more positive interactions with students.
We are no longer rushed and harried to get through the day. We don’t need to worry about a thousand programmed events, extracurriculars, social interactions. Instead, we can focus on two very simple things:
• What are we going to learn today?
• How can we help each other to grow into better human beings?
Back to November...
Well, that's it. We're in November 2020 now. But that's what I wrote (and how I was feeling) back in April. It feels so distant now, so remote.