Empathy and Flexibility in the COVID Era

By Dorota Silber-Furman and Andrea Arce-Trigatti
SUMMER 2021

We cancelled classes last Tuesday and Wednesday to serve and volunteer. More than 1,000 students, faculty, and staff joined the 2,500 plus volunteers over those two days and since to help in any way possible. (Office of the President, 2020, par. 4).

Navigating the spring 2020 semester was challenging. Not only was the unprecedented situation of the COVID-19 pandemic on the forefront of our professional and private lives, but our community faced tremendous devastation from a Category 4 tornado just weeks before. It was a time of heightened stress, trauma, and grief for not only our students and their families, but also for faculty and staff at our university.

As faculty in the College of Education, our primary work responsibility is to prepare preservice and in-service teachers. During the spring 2020 semester, many of our students were working with their own students at the Pre-K to 12 level and facing the same challenges of the online teaching transition that we were facing at the postsecondary level, while also processing new experiences of stress, trauma, and grief.

In our shared struggles, instructors and learners had to develop mutual empathy and flexibility to successfully navigate the new reality of our academic worlds. Below, we reflect on a few of these cases and how strategies of empathy and flexibility supported student learning as well as facilitated effective teaching during difficult times. 

Surviving the Storm

Eighteen fatalities, 88 injured, over 500 buildings damaged, over 100 families lost homes. Five families lost precious children and some children lost both parents. The numbers are staggering. The stories of survival are moving; the stories of loss are heartbreaking. The numbers are staggering. The stories of survival are moving; the stories of loss are heartbreaking (Office of the President, 2020, par. 1).

The effects of the storm were evident in the trauma, stress, and grief experienced by our students and their students in the aftermath. Many of them not only lost belongings or access to technology and electricity, but also lost a loved one or had someone close suffer an incredible loss. This feeling of emotional chaos led to decreased engagement and motivation, which increased the need to open venues of communication to continue learning.

Surviving COVID-19

On Monday, we all begin teaching and learning online together (Official University Correspondence, 2020, par. 1).

After the storm, the COVID-19 pandemic hit our community, requiring a massive transition to online learning in the Pre-K to 16 grades. It’s safe to say our students’ level of stress, trauma, and grief were exacerbated; they lost contact with one another and the on-campus support that they relied on after the tornado.

Many were also still without access to electricity and Internet, which heightened the anxiety associated with not only online learning, but also that of their children via homeschooling. Meanwhile, the virus became a reality as it began to infect our local population, students, and their loved ones.

Surviving Teaching and Learning

Students, let me reassure you that some things haven’t changed. Your faculty members are ready to help you through the challenges. They will deliver the quality education you expect. Plus, they stand ready with patience and understanding (Official University Correspondence, March 28, 2020, par. 2).

In the midst of these tragedies, it is important to remember that we are only human. Through empathy and flexibility, we can better serve students’ needs while still attending to our families and communities.

Empathy: Not everyone is an online learner, and not everyone has the bandwidth to be attentive (let alone awake) in the few hours they can dedicate to schoolwork while juggling five other jobs. Acknowledging this reality, it was OK to let the beginning of courses become pseudo group therapy sessions. It was OK to have family members come in and take notes in an online session for a relative still without electricity. It was OK to extend deadlines and work with our students’ proposed schedules.

Flexibility: For our teaching, this translated to a departure from the norm and a large overhaul and re-adjustment of several items, including homework, deadlines, project formats, course content, and collaborative expectations. Critical questions were asked: What topics rise to the surface? What lessons will resonate with our students? How can we give them tools that have immediate benefits?

Concluding Thoughts

Take care of each other and finish strong (Official University Correspondence, March 28, 2020, par. 5).

At times our students disengaged (due to lack of electricity, technology, or motivation) but we did not give up on them. Through multiple modes of contact, community “grapevines,” and rallying our College’s resources, we tried to create an avenue for success that worked for them and provided a space to cater to an ever-changing reality. With all of our actions, at the forefront was the mantra that in teaching, there is care; and where there is care, there can be learning.

Dr. Silber-Furman is a Lecturer in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Tennessee Technological University (TTU). She currently teaches courses related to multicultural education, culturally relevant practices, and ESOL. Her research interests are connected to literacy, international education, culturally relevant practice, multicultural education, ELLs, and critical theory. She was the co-advisor of the Eta Nu Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi at TTU.

Dr. Arce-Trigatti is the Director of Institutional Assessment and Accreditation for the Office of Institutional Effectiveness at Tallahassee Community College. Her research interests are interdisciplinary and connected to cultural studies, social justice in education, educational policy, innovation-driven learning, and engineering education. She was the co-advisor of the Eta Nu Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi at TTU.

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