HealthMay 15, 2020

Showing sincere care: Acknowledging the elephant in the room

By: Amber Welborn, RN, PhD and Meredith Gringle, PhD

As the semester of crisis surrounding COVID-19 is coming to a close, educators are looking to summer and fall... leaning into a new perspective, where life and teaching occur against the backdrop of an ongoing viral threat. Now is a time when many of us finally have the mental and emotional bandwidth to reflect on our experiences and feelings over the past few months as they relate the concept of care.

Marketing tactics emphasizing care have been abundant. Every major retailer, educational institution, and service organization has told us how much they care. Some have gone further to change business practices to demonstrate the care of which they tout. We dare say, however, that very few businesses and organizations have shown that they care through tangible, meaningful efforts. How well has your institution of higher education backed their claim that they care about faculty, staff, and students? Have you felt truly supported as an individual and a faculty member during the past few months? Have you considered how your students perceive the “care” that your institution probably can’t stop talking about? Has anyone even bothered to ask them? It almost doesn’t matter; would students and new graduates even be comfortable being honest in a survey through your organization’s digital platform?

As faculty members and recent PhD graduates, we (these authors) find ourselves possibly more in touch with the reality of student life than others who haven’t been in the student role so recently. The student role inherently sits in a position of vulnerability. During crisis times, this vulnerability is arguably increased. Faculty, staff, and administrations hold a position of power as they are: afforded access to inside knowledge of changes in policy and protocol before students, control the structure of courses and can implement changes, and evaluate students and their work with a grade that impacts degree completion. This hierarchy of power is situated within additional hierarchies of the larger institution and educational system at large. In this way, faculty are working within a power structure themselves; the administration may have additional insider knowledge and resources to which faculty don’t have access. Administration controls much of the structure of the university, and the administration makes choices about the distribution of resources that impacts how university work is conducted. Notions about what “makes” a student; a staff member; a faculty member; an administrator contribute to a kind of caricaturing that doesn’t necessarily reflect current embodiments and priorities. Ultimately, relying on stereotypes about the many roles within academia and the purpose of academic institutions themselves reflects a type of classism that hews to a notion of ACADEMY that doesn’t represent what we are and who (and how) we serve.

The elephant in the room is that the POWER HIERARCHIES OF EDUCATION IMPACT THE SINCERE IMPLEMENTATION OF CARE. It is not possible to claim “care” if we don’t engage with students in ways that acknowledge this power differential. Some students are working additional hours, some have been furloughed or laid off, some find themselves working in high-risk situations such as a nursing home aide or a grocery clerk. Many students are also worried about their parents and family members, managing households full of children with their own digital learning needs, and/or dealing with a spouse facing an uncertain job situation. Sadly, some students are now trapped in homes with domestic violence. 

These students may not be able to fully engage in their own education because of circumstances created by this crisis. Some students find themselves at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, struggling to meet basic needs. The circumstances created by this crisis may leave them unable to navigate the demands of school. We should not assume that our class is one of their most important life concerns. However, this does not mean that they have abandoned their academic pursuits; caring is being able to recognize this distinction. 

Anecdotally, we have heard from students loud and clear that they noticed the differences between a grand, yet potentially insincere gesture, and a small, albeit meaningful act of care, from faculty and administration. Overly polished, upbeat social media pieces may not have been as well-received as top administration had hoped. To some, maybe many, they came across as superficial taglines unscaffolded by sincere concern about students’ actual needs and well-being. 

Our overarching goal should be to decrease the distance between the stations of the hierarchy. Our role as faculty is to be open and available, warm and comforting, and sympathetic and empathetic. We must talk to each other, and particularly our students, as humans with real strengths, vulnerabilities, needs, and emotions. Now more than ever, we must resist the temptation to rely on caricatures.

There is no perfect way to approach this, but some ideas for caring for our students include:

Be proactive

  • Acknowledge this unprecedented and challenging moment
  • Help students understand how you’re structuring course content and activities and why they are important
  • Offer support early, before students struggle to meet current expectations
  • Reach out to struggling students or those with known personal concerns
  • Communicate frequently, especially around issues that are high-stakes for students such as thesis/dissertation submissions. 

Involve students directly

  • Ask students what they really need to be successful in the course 
  • Ask students what would be most helpful before you drastically change the course assignments or expectations. Some students may have worked ahead already
  • Be open to things you’ve never allowed before, such as open deadlines for assignments.

Don’t forget student employees

  • Talk to them as colleagues and ask how you can support them to work 
  • If possible, decrease their workload and offer schedule flexibility 
  • Communicate early and be clear regarding their compensation and any potential changes. 

Decrease the formality in your digital classroom

  • Be upfront about understanding that people may need to log in late or log off early
  • Consider a more casual look, and perhaps forgo the background of your fancy home office 
  • Laugh with students as children or pets photobomb your meeting.

Keep it personal

  • Offer a listening ear for personal crises. Be aware of and offer to connect students with campus resources when applicable 
  • Consider a recorded video instead of a group email. Let them see your face, hear your tone of voice, and make eye contact.

Acknowledge your own struggles

  • Share some of your own feelings, concerns, and experiences. It makes you more relatable, and human
  • Quickly admit when mistakes happen, or something doesn’t work out and offer to fix it without negatively impacting the student.

Offer compassion instead of consequences

  • Grace is key
  • Think critically about course standards; do your expectations reflect the current moment? If not, consider how to modify to accommodate these extraordinary times
  • Students may not have the time or energy to thoughtfully explain themselves. Do not “read between the lines” or hypothesize about student behavior
  • Remember nobody has the bandwidth to learn an extra “valuable life lesson” during a time of crisis; if issues arise, try not to opine or lecture at students.

As we move forward in this time of COVID-19 into a new academic year, we must engage in these unusual and sometimes difficult conversations. We must acknowledge that students, faculty, staff, and administration all sit with varying levels of resources and power. Ignoring these differences does not serve anyone, especially our students. How can we teach students to care for patients and families if we cannot demonstrate and implement authentic and practical measures of care to them?