What I Learned From My Students This Year

Staying resilient in the face of a pandemic is a challenge.

Posted Dec 16, 2020

To say that this academic year has been a challenge is an understatement. As I reflect on this semester winding down and the eventual preparation that will go into another remote semester for the spring, I wanted to take a moment to share what I learned from my students this year. Despite the difficulties, I was able to observe great engagement and participation from many of my students this semester, who demonstrated grit and determination.

To put it bluntly, many of my students demonstrated great resiliency this semester. Resiliency is the ability to recover or rebound after difficulties or failures. We are all in a situation where we are drawing from our inner resources in any way we can to try to endure this difficult time. Resiliency is a critical feature of the larger quality of emotional intelligence—an aptitude that went mainstream this fall, thanks to a particularly popular confrontation on The Bachelorette. So, what can we do to cultivate resiliency during this time?

What I have found is that the way we approach challenges oftentimes can impact our capacity for enduring them. Framing setbacks or challenges as part of a bigger picture in our lives that we can get through step by step on our path towards whatever goal we have set makes them more manageable than if we approach them as indicators that we will fail or are not up to the task that is before us. Indeed, taking small steps on our path towards achieving larger goals is a way to develop grit and endurance along the way and can also enable us to savor small accomplishments on our journey.

I found that the students who did well this semester were those who followed along through remote instruction and kept pace with the course. If they stumbled or had setbacks, those who did better were the ones who let me know what was going on that was interfering with their ability to complete work and sought out my support. In those situations, I was able to work with them and offer appropriate accommodations to help facilitate their learning and hence academic success. Seeking out support during this time is critical—we all need to recognize that even if we are socially distancing and spending a lot more time with ourselves or a select few in our bubbles that there are larger systems of support in place that can help facilitate our success. Indeed, social support is consistently identified as a critical feature that enables resiliency (e.g., Kane, 2018).

We offered support to one another this semester during our live sessions. I found myself checking in more with students in class and over email and the surprising byproduct of this is that students were willing to be vulnerable and share with one another what they were going through. They were also more prone to actually check in with me as well and seek me out to ask how I was doing.

I shared my own vulnerabilities this semester, and this created a positive and safe space for students to commiserate with one another and to offer support. For instance, most of my students this semester knew that I continue to be in the process of grieving a significant death in the family, and sharing this with them helped to create an open environment for all of us to recognize our shared losses and struggles. I was extremely grateful for the outpouring of kindness and compassion demonstrated by my students when I shared the loss our family has been enduring during this difficult time.

For higher education to resonate with students, it is important to offer them the real-life implications of what they are learning in their classes. The pandemic has offered in real time the opportunity for my psychology classes to explore how one’s mental health and well-being are being impacted by the disruptions and threats that we have all been facing. By directly integrating these realities into pedagogy, I found that students were able to engage with course material and theories in a way that resonated and could be applied immediately to their own lives. For instance, a lecture on research methodology seamlessly breached into the process of undergoing scientific inquiry and the stakes that come with it when what a research team is studying can save lives—as has been the case with the vaccination trials.

Students demonstrated an ability to integrate these events with class material with great enthusiasm and dedication. Indeed, many students actually shared that they found our live sessions a balm for the other stressors in their lives, as well as an opportunity for them to engage with information that they felt was helping them to understand what was happening in a way that helped anchor them.

Such demonstrations also hint at another important feature of resiliency—namely, feeling power or agency over one’s life. One of the reasons why this pandemic has incited such anxiety among many of us is that it has stripped us of our sense of control in our own lives. The adage is true—knowledge is power, and for many students, the more they learn about the world around them, the better able they are to feel a sense of agency over their own lives.

Even under the best of circumstances, no semester is perfect. Despite all the challenges that come with teaching remotely in higher education, I have found that there are opportunities to thrive in such an environment when the realities and stressors of the moment are openly acknowledged and dissected with students. This semester felt more collaborative with students than any other one—there was this palpable sense that we are all in this together, and the only way we would get through the semester was as a collective.

An apt metaphor, it seems, for the bigger picture of this pandemic, and what it will take for us as a society to endure and thrive during this time—and eventually, we all hope, to contain the virus and move forward in a post-pandemic world.  

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2020

References

Kane, S. (2018, October 8). 11 Ways to Cultivate Resilience. PsychCentral. Retrieved on December 16, 2020 from: https://psychcentral.com/lib/11-ways-to-cultivate-resilience/