Relationships and Routines: Michelle Grue 5-6-2020

Wednesday, May 6, 2020
When I feel upset, worried or disappointed, I can list with images
Education and Applied Psychology in a Time of COVID-19

In my last entry, I discussed metaphorical grieving, but over the last two weeks I’ve been grappling with how to teach through actual grief, my own and my students’. I already use a pedagogy rooted in care, but I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it all. Students have lost family members of COVID-19, I’ve been worrying about my friends who were on the brink of hospitalization for COVID-19. Other students are dealing with loss of their family’s income, increased relationship problems, the ordinary heartaches of life, and the long-drawn out process of seeking justice after far too common sexual assault.

Yet, here I am recording lectures on Afrofuturism and grading their work.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that I have to keep teaching this class. Heck, I want to keep teaching this class. It’s been in the works for over a year. But I was coming up against the wall, trying to figure out a balance that felt right between academic expectations and the deep compassion I feel for my students, especially during this time.

I am grateful that I have wonderful colleagues here at GGSE. Erika Felix, one of our CCSP professors, was immediately willing to Zoom with me to discuss teaching during traumatic times (it’s one of her areas of research, after all).

It’s so important for us to have these cross-disciplinary conversations in low-stakes environments. We generated some great ideas for teaching and learning at the graduate level, too, simply because we had an opportunity to talk and get to know each other, which, even as members of the same college, we haven’t had a chance to do before. It was so life-giving.

I wanted to share here, both for myself and for anyone who reads this, some of the highlights of my conversation with Erika.

The core of what we discussed centered around how students undergoing trauma (and the people who teach them) need both relationships and routine.

Relationships:

  • As educators, we need to build connections into our remote courses. This wasn’t news to me, and I’m sure it isn’t to you, but it was great to have it affirmed. Building connections can include having Zoom office hours at different times and in quantities than you otherwise might not offer, to allow for more person-to-person interaction. I’ve found the Perusall software I mentioned in the last entry far more generative of discussion than Nectir or GauchoSpace.
  • We can also make sure our communication is worded relationally: “we’re in this together” or  “I care about you, but I also care about your learning.”
  • When we communicate with students who have fallen behind, we can say a variation of “Here are my expectations, but I’ll be compassionate about how we get you there,” or, “As long as we stay in communication, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a way for you to catch up.”
    • These phrases can help students who feel like they’re so behind that they may as well give up, because there’s no way to catch up. It gives them hope, and wow, don’t we all need hope these days.
    • It’s also helpful to ask “what’s happening with you these days” or “how have things been lately” instead of asking what’s wrong. It can be hard to articulate what’s “wrong” and it adds both negativity and blame when most often, the circumstances are outside of the student’s control.

Routine:

  • Being able to follow a routine and having that structure (assignments, discussions, lecture, etc.) can provide a source of stability in otherwise unstable times.
  • But, that routine should have flexibility built into it. For example, I hold our lecture and discussion at the same time each week, and am available for office hours at the same time each week, on the same Zoom link (with password and waiting room enabled). Yet, I also record and subtitle my lectures and share them on our course GauchoSpace page, because I know that many of my students, due to entirely understandable changes in circumstance, cannot attend the regular course time anymore. I also am available for additional office hours by appointment.

Additionally, we discussed how the stress of the time and the lack of structure is putting a mental load on people. Our students (and ourselves) may be managing their emotions in a way that is overcompensating in one area (lots of exercise or cleaning or Netflix binging) or avoiding a thing that they otherwise may have been able to handle (course work, writing, etc.), but can’t bring themselves to start. Checking in with students and providing suggestions for how to do the next right thing can be helpful (thanks Disney+ for endless entertainment of my child, so I, too, can do the next right thing) as well as helping them break tasks down into manageable bits and prioritizing tasks.

I have a couple of students I reached out to because I am concerned by their current lack of participation in the course and what that might mean for what is happening in their life right now. Erika suggested reaching out to Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) if the students continue to be unresponsive. They have mechanisms for discreetly checking in on them and, of course, have the resources to help them. 

We need to take care of ourselves, too. We’re stressed and going through trauma at this time, too. I’ve been asking myself what are reasonable expectations given this environment? My course prep doesn’t need to be perfect. I can give grace to myself, as well as my students. Breaks are important; I plan to incorporate more walks and silly time with my 5-year old, more journaling and reading for pleasure, more meals when I’m not multitasking.

I most appreciate and greatly affirm Erika saying, “It’s okay if you’re tired. Let yourself rest. Take a nap if you can. Try not to be too self-judgmental. This is preventative maintenance; know your needs and take steps to meet them. It’s okay to ask for help.”

Michelle Grue is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Education, working toward a doctoral emphasis in Writing Studies while serving as the Writing and Literature Fellow at the College of Creative Studies. A proud #ScholarMom, Michelle is sheltering in place with her active, inquisitive, adorable, and at times exhausting five-year-old and her very patient (introverted) husband in Ventura County, CA - about an hour south of UCSB. She is practicing shelter-in-place self-care through journaling (personal and professional), arts (painting and singing) and crafts (macramé and preschool silliness), and taking walks (face covering on).