How to teach and support students through times of stress or disadvantage

Thinking about how we treat our colleagues and making small changes to teaching can support student and staff wellbeing, says Doug Specht

Doug Specht is a Director of Teaching, Learning and Quality Assurance at the University of Westminster

Much has been written about “compassionate pedagogy” over the last ten years.

This approach is about creating learning environments in such a way as to support students through times of stress or disadvantage. Understandably, during the last two years the idea has found itself pushed into the limelight – as universities and their staff seek to not only continue high quality learning and teaching during the pandemic, but also to assist students through a globally tumultuous and highly distressing time.

While the broadest understandings of compassionate pedagogy include the well-being of academic and other staff, most of the focus over the last two years has been on students. Despite the fact that the Omicron variant is still around, there is little appetite for a full move back to a wholly online timetable. And with absences still at high levels, university staff are stretched thinner than ever.

We all strive to ensure we continue to support our students by offering compassion and support, but without this compassionate pedagogy also encompassing provision for staff there may not be enough energy in the tank. After two years of changing and adapting our learning and teaching, first to fully online, then to blended or hybrid modes, there is little energy to reinvent pedagogies for this new semester.

Instead we might look at what we already know and what we already do. Then, we can shift our focus to encompass our colleagues within our compassionate approaches to teaching throughout the ongoing pandemic.

Shifting relationships with colleagues

First and foremost, we must start by being kind to ourselves. It is near impossible to practise compassionate pedagogy when we are near our own breaking points. The difficult semester ahead might call for us to go “the extra mile”, this should be balanced with appropriate rest and support.

Secondly, we must recognise that we are all coping differently. We are adept at doing this with our students, by recognising their own journeys and the impact of their own backgrounds. This is less often extrapolated to working with colleagues, with whom we are more likely to share our own concerns, opinions and thoughts on the pandemic. Differences in coping strategies can lead to frustration.

Some individuals like to absorb as much information as possible, spending hours on social media or news websites. Others prefer to limit the amount of news they take in. Some may be still very committed to social distancing, while others may take a more flexible approach. A proportion of colleagues may immerse themselves in work, finding comfort in being busy, while others struggle to keep up and stay focused.

Given the likely variance between us and our colleagues, the crucial thing we can do right now is to be generous in our interpretations of other peoples’ behaviours. If we get a curt email, let’s not assume the person is annoyed or being rude. Instead, let’s imagine that they are under time pressure and didn’t have time for their usual niceties.

It is important to not try and compare our lives, worries or suffering – or to compare them to other professions. Phrases such as “at least you aren’t a medical professional” or “school teachers have it harder” are diminishing rather than offering perspective.

Third, it is essential to remember that colleagues will not see the world the exactly as we do, and they will have different ways of coping with grief and uncertainty. They may be under pressures we can’t see or fully understand. Instead, let’s look at the small but vital changes we can make to our teaching that grow space for compassion for colleagues.

Supporting colleagues and ourselves

This is not the time to call upon people to re-write whole syllabuses, but to focus on changes which can simultaneously support students and colleagues.

There is no better time to move towards student-centred learning. Reducing the portion of classes led by the teacher, towards a greater amount led by students can be a daunting, but liberating process. In a class of 30 students, two-minute contributions from each student can be as rich as 60 minutes of lecturing.

While it may take time to plan and develop true student-centred classes, we should consider how we might set-aside at least 20 minutes of each session for activities that do not require additional input. This gives us a period to breathe and reflect during a session, whilst allowing time to ensure everyone is actively learning.

Reducing grading is another way of buying back time. This approach can often improve the student experience as well. While summative assessments can’t be altered at this stage of the year, many courses have time intensive formative assessments modelled around summative assessments where grades are given.

As such it makes sense to replace in-class tests, pop-quizzes or other evaluations that require grading, but which do not contribute to the student final marks, with alternative formative assessments. These alternatives may be discussions, exit cards, or one-minute (oral) essays. They can still provide students with feedback, whilst lowering workloads and stress all round.

Similarly, tweaking feedback to feedforward will help students know how to improve their work in the future, whilst simultaneously supporting colleagues who teach their other classes. Feedforward that signposts where to get help and support as well as what went well can help students move forward in the curriculum, knowing they are already more prepared and ready to progress.

Finally, we should think about participation. The pandemic has prompted much debate around whether cameras should be on, the issues for quiet students, and the problem of presenteeism. As we embrace compassion, we must consider not only the hours a student is visible, but the quality of their learning. The same compassion should be extended to our colleagues. Some maybe less visible, but before we judge, we should consider why.

We are certainly in for another turbulent period, with lots of unknown unknowns. Thinking about how we treat our colleagues, and how small changes to our teaching can support their and our wellbeing is going to be paramount to making it through to the end of the academic year.

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