Do you ever feel so completely overwhelmed by the external circumstances around you it seems almost impossible to remain calm and steady when you need to be present in the classroom? Has 2021 started with a sense of renewal but quickly given you feelings of apprehension and cause for concern?
A new year is under way and you have already felt the emotional pull of the year we all hoped to leave behind, along with the continued drama that fills the news almost every day. As an educator, you have to somehow separate yourself from the emotional reactions you may be experiencing, if you want to have a clear mind and remain focused on your students. But this isn’t always easy to do, especially if you continue to pay attention to the news and social media. It can leave you feeling emotionally drained.
Yet consider your students and what they expect of you as their instructor. You are expected to be focused on their needs and ready to guide them through the learning process. Instructors are really not “cut some slack” for feeling overwhelmed and having a less than perfect day. When you are involved in your instructional role, and supposed to be focused on the developmental needs of your students, there is no downtime provided. This means you either must be plugged in mentally, and fully available to provide quality instruction, or you need to ask someone for help.
Why is all of this so important? If all of these circumstances are so challenging for you as an instructor, consider how even more challenging it must be as a student. I’m an online instructor and my students are typically the non-traditional learners, who are working full-time while also attending school. They are not only balancing work-related issues, most are also addressing pandemic-related issues, which may include financial challenges, home schooling, remote work, and the list continues. These students are feeling the impact of significant stress, while also attending school.
As an instructor, you must set aside the events of the day and focus intently on your students. If your students needed your attention before, and assistance to be able to persist, they need it now more than ever. In fact, many students need to feel a sense of hope, in order to continue on in their academic program. There are many students who are internalizing negative reactions they experience, and absorbing negative emotions from those around them, and the result is a feeling their hard work may or may not pay off in the end. Your encouragement, while they work, is vital to their success.
It’s as Simple as: I’m Here to Help
The first key to the establishment of a relationship with your students is availability. It is being responsive and demonstrating your appreciation for their effort, contribution, and attempt. Even if they may a mistake or get everything wrong with a written assignment, there was an attempt. The point is they showed up to class and they were present. You must also mirror that presence with your willingness to be available and ready to assist them. That readiness can be developed in multiple methods. Just be certain your students know it will be consistent from week to week.
I’m “old fashioned” in that I offer Office Hours during the week, which includes daytime and evening hours. I also offer Office Hours on Saturday, which I understand seems out of the ordinary and a significant investment of my time; however, we live right now in extraordinary times. If I can assist and resolve a student’s concern with five minutes of my time, it is time well spent. When I began teaching online over 15 years ago, the institution I worked for required weekly Office Hours and it was instilled within me, as to the value and benefit it could offer to students. I’ve never forgotten it and even know what it was like from the perspective of being an online student, when instructors I had offered it.
What can also be transformative is your disposition towards your students. When you are in the classroom, engaging with learners via email or classroom messaging, be careful about the words you use. A simple statement in reply to a classroom message or email, such as “I’m here to help”, can change the disposition of a struggling student. I also include this statement any time I provide feedback, whether it is formal feedback for grading, or informal feedback to help guide and coach a student. Those words let the student know I am a resource and available for them.
Give Students a Reason to Feel Hope
If you are teaching online, it will not be easy at first to determine if your students are adapting well to the class, or if they are facing challenges related to the current external environment. As the class progresses, you may receive emails or messages which inform you of their status and challenges. The most difficult aspect of teaching online now is observing students who struggle and not knowing if it due to a lack of academic skills, motivation, stressors, pandemic-related issues, or any other number of reasons. During a “normal” or pre-pandemic time, you could provide resources related to the specific academic problem. But now there may be a number of factors interfering with the student’s progress.
This is when your relationship with students becomes even more important. In addition to availability, and the use of reassuring words, students will benefit from something beyond the scope of your instructional practice. This is the development of a mindset of hope. It doesn’t mean hope of a better life, career, or future, which is beyond the scope of the class. It is the hope their effort and time dedicated to classwork will mean something in the long term. If they feel hope, and they persist, then completion of a course will lead to completion of another. Eventually they will complete their degree and well on the way to completion of their goals.
How do you nurture a sense of hope in your students? You can implement at least one or more of the following strategies within your instructional practice to accomplish this goal.
Happiness as a Disposition: Students develop a sense for how you are feeling, whether you teach on-ground or online. This is reflected in the tone of your posts, messages, and emails, simply by the word choice used. My recommendation is that you make happiness a choice, every day you decide to interact with students. You can be happy regardless of circumstances around you, and maintain an authentic happiness, simply because you are able to teach. I look forward to interacting with my students, even when I am feeling the most challenged, and during the pandemic I was challenged. But I was determined to still maintain authentic happiness and you can too, just by the power of your intention.
Optimism as a Point of View: If you are going to help students feel a sense of hope while they work, then somehow you must also hold a point of view that is optimistic. This may go against every personal belief you hold, and yet, as an educator you need a different perspective during your instructional interactions. This is a time to promote a sense of what may come or what is yet to be, otherwise, why should students continue to work on their degree program? Keeping your beliefs out of the classroom and remaining neutral can be challenging, but this is needed if you want to enter into intellectual discourse with students. You need an objective lens from which to frame your discussions, based upon research and data, rather than bias and subjective opinions.
Positivity to Bring About Change: While happiness is a disposition, positivity is a specific strategy to be implemented within communication, posts, and feedback. There is quite a difference between a response that begins with “Student” versus “Hello Student”. A positive approach is one in which you, as the instructor, are viewed as approachable and easy to interact with, rather than someone who is to be feared and avoided. When students feel comfortable interacting with you, from the perspective of being able to send you a message or contact you, then you are presented with an opportunity to bring about change. This is when you can learn more about their background and the unique challenges they may be facing. I’ve heard of many who were facing pandemic-related challenges, which allowed me to work with them.
Encouragement to Develop Success: There is one aspect of teaching that I always believe in, regardless of societal conditions, and it is the use of encouragement. Whether I acknowledge a student for making an attempt or an effort, there always needs to be some form of encouragement within feedback provided. I know all too well, especially having been an online learner and not physically present to interact with my instructors, how it feels to receive cut and paste commentary that offers nothing more than rote statements. But a few words that seek to uplift can make all the difference in the next attempt made, and the decision as to whether or not the student will utilize the feedback provided. It all becomes a matter of building up the student’s confidence so they are able to become successful.
You are a Beacon of Hope
This is a challenging time for you and your students. I do not want to minimize the potential for stress that you, as an educator, are likely to experience. My intent with this post is to bring awareness to the potential influence you have on students, along with the ability you have to help them during a time when they need your guidance the most. Somehow, you need to be able to manage the stress and emotions you are experiencing, well enough that you can become a source of inspiration and hope for your students. They may or may not look up to you now, but they do expect you to be available to help them, especially when they become frustrated.
A positive disposition can become quite challenging to maintain at times, especially given how long the pandemic has been going on. Yet if you can shine a beacon of happiness, optimism, positivity, and encouragement, you will help to create a sense of hope for students, especially those who are struggling to stay engaged and motivated. I’ve found this can become transformative not only for my students, but for myself as well. As I see my students feel uplifted, and develop a sense of accomplishment or improvement in their disposition, I too feel better empowered to manage the stress of my day. Even if you only help encourage one of the most discouraged students this week, this sense of hope you’ve helped to instill within them will lead them to success in your class and beyond.
About Dr. Johnson
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has been working in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005, with roles including Doctoral Chair and Committee Member, Faculty Development Manager, Core Faculty, and Faculty Development Specialist. Dr. J’s background also includes work as a Human Performance Improvement Consultant, and prior to 2005, he was a Manager of Training and Development.
Dr. Johnson is an inspirational author, writer, and educator. His life mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others. He has earned a PhD in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement (TPI), a Master’s in Adult Education, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).
As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has published three books related to higher education, including two about online teaching. Dr. J has also published over 230 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and mindset development.
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