Three ways to act with positivity and kindness toward students this week

Three ways to act with positivity and kindness toward students this week

The email subject read: "Covid positive test for child". It came from one of my students who is a divorced single dad with two young kids in the public schools, last Friday afternoon after he had to duck out of our Friday online meeting suddenly. He and I had talked a few times this semester about what it's like to take a challenging college-level math course, in a hybrid setting, in the middle of a pandemic, with young children and a complex family situation to navigate. Fortunately, the email message was not that one of his kids had tested positive for Covid, but another kid in one of his kids' classes, so he was letting me know that he was going to self-quarantine with his crew for a couple of weeks. Still a challenging situation but also something of a relief, for both of us.

It was also an occasion for me to stop and think about the depth and breadth of the stresses that my students are experiencing right now. In case you haven't noticed, both dimensions are appallingly great. I doubt that most of us ever had to deal with taking college classes under anything like these circumstances. I'm aware of this, and yet I'm as guilty as anybody else of starting to lose my composure with students this time of the semester, and resorting to the accusative "They" when referring to them, as in: They won't do the reading. They won't interact with me. They didn't read the announcements. As if lumping all my students into a single monolithic They and then treating them all as an object, rather than as humans dealing with exceptional circumstances, all in the name of "blowing off steam", helps anybody.

Every week in my weekly review, I make a list of the various roles that I play in my life and set one "Big Rocks" style goal for the week for each role that I play. For the role of "Teacher" it's almost always something task-related like "Finish grading Checkpoint 4" or "Get all of week 5 planned". This week, though, the goal is:

Maintain positivity, kindness, and proactivity each day

In one sense this is a bad goal, because how do you measure whether you've met it? There's no "proactivity-o-meter" attached to me. On the other hand I think prioritizing kindness, a positive outlook, and a proactive approach toward students is exactly the right thing to focus on in week 9 of a 15-week semester, especially this one. In fact it's the only goal that will keep all of us sane for the last 6 weeks of the term.

Although it's hard to measure these things, it's not hard to plan for them. Here are three things we can all do this week that advance the goal of kindness, positivity, and proactivity:

  1. Give a student survey. Most of us are either at the halfway point in the semester or a little past it. It's therefore an excellent time to give a mid-semester student survey and give students a chance to express how things are going for them. Here is the survey that I gave my students in week 5 and I will be giving them something similar this week. That survey will include: The five questions for the Five Question summary and some items about the learning activities in the class --- but most importantly it will include some free response items asking things like How are YOU doing? What do you need? What can I do, or do differently, to help you finish the semester strong?  The most important thing about these surveys is that it honors students' experiences by giving them a chance to express their successes and frustrations; the single biggest complaint I have seen from students is simply that nobody is asking them what they think about how things have been going this semester, which to me is both baffling and extremely troubling. Break that cycle with a one-page Google Forms survey.
  2. Give students a break. Look ahead to this week and the next 2-3 weeks and ask yourself: Would it be possible to take a couple of days to call a cease-fire on content coverage and assessment? That is, can you carve out two days during the next 2-3 weeks in which no new content is covered in class meetings; those class meetings are converted to open drop-in hours for students; no homework is due; and there are no assessments due? I can tell you that I built my entire Fall class schedule around having this "Fall breather" today and tomorrow; it was expensive, and I had to cut stuff from my syllabus to make it happen. But I have gotten more explicit notes of appreciation for this act from students than for anything else I've done this semester. Students are not machines! They are human beings who can't be pushed for 12-15 weeks without significant breaks. Giving them one, by simply rearranging your schedule, will make them stronger going into the final stretch. If you think it's impossible for your class, here's a challenge: Find the 1-3 topics remaining in your course that are the lowest priority --- the ones that, if you're honest with yourself, have the lowest impact on students now and in the future --- and simply cut them from the course. Then use the time freed up for what I've described. Don't think about it or justify keeping them: Just eliminate them and don't look back. Don't start thinking about why you "can't" do it; you don't have to tell anybody that you're doing it except your students. Then, next semester when this is over, we can talk about whether it was more beneficial for student success to include those 1-3 lowest-priority topics or to give students a break.
  3. Express yourself. Above all, the simplest and in many ways most effective way to help students is simply to clearly express that you understand what they're experiencing and that you see what they're doing. Try ending your class meetings with something like: Thanks for attending today. I really appreciate you and your work in the class, and I'm glad you attended today because I know you're under tremendous pressure and had a lot of other things on your plates. It means a lot to me that you were here today. Even if you are not feeling 100% appreciative of students right now --- sometimes you have to say what you want to feel in order to actually feel it. (Or as my life motto states, fake it till you make it.)

And don't look now, but next semester starts in under 90 days. So another thing we can do this week is start thinking about how we will make next semester a better experience for students and setting priorities for student success, such as: having clear and measurable learning objectives, aligning learning activities and assessments with those objectives, trying out better forms of grading and assessment such as mastery grading, and making a commitment to minimize your course so that "breather days" like I described above can be baked into the schedule (especially if your school, like mine, has eliminated spring break).

"Positivity, kindness, and proactivity" doesn't mean you engage in toxic positivity by saying everything is going to be just fine because you've selectively ignored the real difficulties of the moment. It means that you have both eyes open as you work through the semester and that rather than indulge yourself in gloom and doom (I'm looking right at you, Twitter) you look for the opportunities to grow, learn, and help. If you do, then it seems likely that you'll make a lasting difference to students like the single dad in my class who probably needs understanding more than he needs to learn math right now.

I'd love to hear from others who feel the same way about this, and what you're doing to help students --- leave it in the comments.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.