For teachers in 2020, the year was marked by chaotic transitions, distant classrooms, and new training to help us navigate a mostly online curriculum. But what was left out of those conversations was the impact Covid-19 would have on the minds of teachers and students. We quickly learned how fear, anxiety, and depression could make learning more difficult, if not impossible.
As a resident artist with Teachers & Writers in the Bronx, I was taught how to craft curriculums around inclusivity and multiculturalism, and how to avoid racial bias in my lessons, even as a light-skinned Latina. I studied how to respond to those having a tough time at home or with school. These trauma-informed teaching strategies had two functions: to understand why kids act out, disengage, or struggle to succeed in class, and to create a community where they feel cared for and heard. I left that job for one in higher education, but the lessons left a deep mark on how I would teach at the college level.
Understand and Connect With Trauma
In the spring of 2020, we experienced a loss of control. Undergraduates were let go from jobs and internships, and many were forced out of the dorms and back into their childhood homes. Students of all ages lost the communities they had been building at school—and some even lost loved ones—leaving them feeling depressed, anxious, and angry.
According to Beth McMurtrie from the Chronicle of Higher Education, trauma decreases one's ability to plan, recall information, and focus. Coupled with teachers who did not take full advantage of their learning technologies and who assigned more busywork to make up for lost time in the classroom, young people became simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed. Many struggled to succeed with online learning, and in some cases, dropped out altogether.
Joanna Johnson was a freshman at LIM College in New York City last spring when she moved back to Putnam Valley, New York, due to the pandemic. She helped take care of her mom, who had been injured in a work-related accident. On top of that, her mom’s small business was struggling to survive. “School, at this point, was at the bottom of my priority list, even though I truly wanted to do well,” she later told me.
As a then 26-year-old professor who grew up talking to my peers on AIM and making friends in online chatrooms, I knew how the internet could be a conduit for raw human connection. I changed all of my discussion board prompts to questions about how everyone was reacting to the coronavirus.
- What is one thing you lost and one thing you gained because of the shutdown?
- Share one article you read that you think we should all know about.
- Name a song you’ve been listening to non-stop and post a link so we can hear it.
By demystifying Covid-19 and creating a safe space where we could talk about it openly, my students felt safe and listened to, and they were able to connect with one another even though they were miles apart.
“I struggle with terrible anxiety that affects me mentally and physically,” Joanna told me. “So being able to talk to other people, read what’s happening in their lives, and listen to new music was a stress reliever that I’m really thankful for.”
These discussions also made it easier to present lessons and assignments, because my undergraduates were able to view schoolwork as “an escape from what was going on in the real world,” as Joanna put it. This leads to higher rates of engagement and retention and better grades.
Make Your Classes Interactive
Parents send their kids to school so they can create meaningful relationships with their peers and teachers. The main problem with teaching during Covid is our collective inability to socialize in a meaningful way.
Sam Morim is a junior at LIM College who is 100 percent online and Zooming in from Orlando, Florida. She transferred schools in the summer of 2020 and had trouble connecting to her new community. “I think my biggest problem was feeling very isolated and not being able to meet up with my peers for study sessions or go see my professors in person for office hours,” she told me. “I definitely struggled, in the beginning, to get used to online learning."
When I asked her what she struggled with specifically, she said, “sometimes I find myself totally disengaged and slightly bored when I'm staring at my computer screen for over an hour,” which is true of many classes that function like podcasts rather than collective learning experiences.
- Remind your students to type in the chat. Most telecommunication platforms have chat boxes and emojis that participants can use to express themselves. I structure my lectures with many yes or no questions so that people can respond with a green checkmark or a red X. I also ask lots of discussion questions so that anyone can speak or respond in the chat. I can then read those comments out loud.
- Ask questions, but ask that participants raise their hands before speaking. A major pitfall with online learning is when individuals talk over one another, so an easy fix is to ask them to click the “raise hand” button and to wait to be unmuted.
- Don’t force anyone to turn their camera on. You don’t know what the other side of the screen looks like, so trust that those with their cameras off have good reason to do so.
- Be friendly! Let your pupils know that you are genuinely interested in the topic you are presenting as well as their thoughts on the material. If you show you care, they will too.
Sophia DeFonce is also a Junior at LIM College who took one of my online classes last fall. She said that one of her biggest challenges was “the lack of motivation I felt to stay on top of assignments.” Without the feeling of handing assignments in in person, she felt she could get away with doing the bare minimum. “Working hard or even excelling was out of the question. The only goal was to scrape by.”
When I asked her which of her professors was the most helpful in motivating her during this time, she said “Professor Valenzuela,” as in, me, “was hands down the one professor who was exceptionally helpful and supportive during the pandemic. Her friendliness towards her students, felt even through Zoom, made me want to turn on my camera and participate,” and that “her passion for teaching made me want to actually try in her class.”
Plan Your Classes
Most people in school today were born in the late '90s or after, so they connect with modern forms of media more so than traditional ones.
- Integrate many types of media into your course material. Try pairing a short text with an animated lecture or a Ted Talk. Use podcasts and clips from movies or documentaries, or ask them to analyze the lyrics of their favorite song. If students are having trouble focusing on your content, offer them something that speaks to their interests to get their minds back in the classroom.
- Allow students to turn in work in different formats. Thanks to the pandemic, teachers have discovered tools such as Flipgrid and Voice Thread, which allow users to record themselves speaking on a topic or responding to a prompt. In addition, try to create assignments where they present information in PowerPoint slides, rather than in paragraphs in a Word document.
- Use soft deadlines, not no deadlines. Students need structure, but they also need compassion, so make sure you give them clear due dates and a lenient extension policy.
- Create breakout groups, group assignments, and group presentations. With online classrooms and socially distanced learning, we are not able to organize groups in any of the traditional ways, but if kids can connect with one another in your class, that’ll provide one more reason for them to look forward to it.
Change the Way You Think, Change the Way You Teach
American culture is, as my colleague and fellow millennial Scott Wordsman put it, “hyper-individualistic, so we're literally (for the most part) not wired to empathize with or see other people as an extension of ourselves.” But with so many of us losing connections with friends, taking care of family members, working dangerous jobs to support our families, and having to reimagine our futures, we need to try harder to work through this together.
“Everyone's really lonely and depressed now,” Wordsman said, “so I'm trying to put the effort in to make people's lives as good as I can. I think that's what a good teacher should do regardless—be a good moral and friendly figure.”
While it's unclear how much longer we will be living under the influence of Covid-19, what is clear is that online teaching, and the emotional effects of 2020, will be with us for years to come. Let us take this moment to reimagine our educational system so that human connection, creative lesson planning, technology, and compassion are at the forefront.