Learning requires focus, and focus requires attention to what is being studied, thought about, formulated, and written. It is a process that occurs with intent and conscious involvement, and cannot be rushed no matter how much any student would like for it to be. Yet as any instructor knows, being enrolled in a class, especially an online class, is rarely the only responsibility a student has in any given week. For many students, classwork is often viewed from the perspective of what can be accomplished in the least amount of time, with the least amount of effort, and with the least interruption of all other required responsibilities. In other words, classwork is not always a top priority.
During pre-pandemic times, many students could balance their lives, careers, family, other responsibilities, and classwork in a fairly productive manner. While there were always exceptions to the rule, I knew I could count on my students to submit their work in a timely manner and receive fairly substantive discussion posts and written assignments. There were students who occasionally had work or life issues, along with time management challenges, and those who seemed to experience a sense of stress. Yet that was often the exception rather than the rule, and usually felt at deadlines.
Now since the pandemic has set in and taken hold, there is a general unease that has seemed to settle in. Now an ability to cope with even the most basic of tasks has become challenging for many students, with classwork seeming to compound the intensity of emotional reactions experienced. Even with the best intention of having a future goal, it isn’t always enough to stay motivated and calm when challenges arise. Then if anything occurs during the course of a term, such as receipt of a grade less than expected, it could be the last proverbial straw that completely upsets them. This is why instructors, more than ever, must be prepared to interact with students in a calm and soothing manner.
Instructor Stress: It Cannot Be Ignored
The sense of unease I’ve talked about for students applies not just to students, but to instructors alike. It seems a rare few have been affected by the long-term effects of the pandemic, though over time some of us have acquired better coping skills than others. I know it took me time and effort to reach a point where I felt a sense of calm, and this had to do with uncertainties about my health and job, the health of my family, and the loss of a family member from Covid. This has only made me even more empathetic with my students, because I know whatever they are going through, I have experienced something like it. In other words, instructor stress is real and should not be ignored.
The challenging part of experiencing stress as an instructor is not showing this to your students. Now I’m not talking about sharing your experiences with students, as that is something different. I let my students know what happened when I lost a family member, so they were aware of the fact I am a human too and can relate to them. But what I don’t want them to see is someone who is stressed out, if I should ever feel that way. What this means is that being calm is a matter of feeling the turmoil inside but showing a sense of calm on the outside. It’s a balancing act and one that takes time and practice. This is also very similar to emotional intelligence, being able to control your emotional reactions effectively.
Student Stress: Please Understand It
Prior to the pandemic, when a student would send me a message and seem to be under stress, I would recommend time management strategies or whatever was appropriate for helping them. Typically, there was one of a handful of reasons for their stress and the solution was not too intensive. Since the pandemic, I can only wish for the stress to be a matter of an easy time management solution. Now it seems that a significant majority of my online students are feeling the pressure of their careers, children at home and/or going back to the classroom, and the list continues. For many, their lack of attention has increased, along with an inability to write with complete thoughts and in a cohesive manner.
I’m observing less of an effort being made by many, and yet the expectation for what the outcome should be for a grade, is still the same as if they were working at their best level of performance. Then one incident in the classroom, be it a low score, plagiarism incident, or missed deadline, can be all it takes to create a major feeling of crisis. There is no question students are feeling an unprecedented level of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty now. I know those who are enrolled are trying to persist and continue on, whether to fulfill their goals and dreams despite conditions, yet their struggle is real. As an instructor I have to be aware of it and willing to understand their perspective. If I’m not willing to help, they will fail.
Four Strategies to Become Calm
The strategies I’ve developed to create a calming presence has come with time and practice, and personal experience feeling anxiety during this stressful time. I do not claim to be perfect, yet I believe I’m at a place now where I can work with some of the most frustrated students and help alleviate their sense of stress, at least to some degree. Perhaps my approach to remaining calm can help you as well.
As an educator, you are the one your students are looking to for guidance and a sense of purpose as they attempt to engage with the course. What this means for you is an unwritten expectation of being prepared, and that means knowing the class materials, having relevant knowledge about the course topics, and most important of all, having a temperament that is calm enough to address students when they are happy or frustrated.
For you, establishing a proper temperament requires knowing your mental setpoint and only becoming available when you know you can reach this state of mind. If you have Office Hours coming up then you need to give yourself a break ahead of those hours, to mentally prepare yourself for interacting with students. What you need to do is to collect your emotional state of mind so that you can be focused on the needs of your students, rather than feeling scattered.
Once you have developed a sense of being emotionally collected, or having a sense of becoming focused on requests made by your students when needed, now you can become more alert to classroom conditions. When you feel you are centered, then checking in on your online class will not feel like a chore or cause apprehension and anxiety. You are observant and alert to even the most subtle of changes in student behavior. You’ll also be ready to help those students who are not doing well, especially those who are not speaking up to ask for assistance.
This is one of the most important aspects of establishing a calm disposition, being able to sustain a sense of emotional stability. Where you’ll find this to be invaluable is when a student sends an email, or contacts you directly, and they seem to feel confused, uncertain, frustrated, or any other form of emotional reaction that may tend to trigger a naturally negative response within you.
What you want to be able to do is to absorb what they are stating to you and then help them to reset their frame of reference. You can accomplish this goal by listening first to them, more than you speak. You take in what they are stating, without giving back to them the exact emotional response. This doesn’t mean you have to accept improper behavior, rather you just don’t return it in kind. Approach them in a level-minded manner, and then help them by addressing their questions, concerns, or requests.
The final strategy is maintaining a sense of internal balance to become mindful of students. When I refer to mindfulness in this context, I’m suggesting to consider first their perspective and what they might be experiencing. Even if a student is in the middle of a plagiarism incident, I still want to speak with them. There may be something I can teach them, along with something I can learn about them. Perhaps they had more than usual stress going on that week and in the midst of it they didn’t remember to follow all required steps. No matter what the case may be, try to understand them.
The second aspect of mindfulness is being aware of how you can be perceived, primarily through your tone with an online class. This is directly connected to being aware of the student’s perspective. If you are uncertain of how a message or post might be perceived, try reading it aloud. There are so many other ways in which being mindful can extend to your students, and it can occur when you have an opportunity to speak with them. I know it is becoming less important to online students to have actual verbal contact with their instructors, and yet, when I receive a call from a student, I take time to listen, engage, assist, and teach. There is so much you can learn about your students during a call, and when you do, you can build meaningful connections with them.
When Your Students Feel Better, You Feel Better
It doesn’t matter how your students contact you, or the state of mind they are in when they do, except if they are acting inappropriately or overly aggressive. When your students are seeking assistance, or they have a question, they expect you to be available to assist them in a calm and rational manner. It is understandable you are going to be experiencing the same type of stress they are feeling, especially given the circumstances work and life has presented since 2020 ushered in a new era. Yet you have to be one who rises above all of it and have a steady approach to maintaining the classroom and your relationships with students. If you don’t, it won’t be long until many students become unable to handle the stress.
While you may find it a tall order to keep yourself emotionally balanced for your students, consider the effect it can have overall. Instead of thinking about yourself first, start with your students. When they find you are calm and easily approachable, they are going to have a positive experience, which in turn will allow you to feel at ease. I notice this now with my students. If a student calls me and I can sense they are experiencing stress, I will attempt to diffuse it by building rapport and establishing a connection with them. Then I can address the issue they’ve called about in a calm manner, which helps them understand I’m trying to help and support them.
You’ll find the more a student feels an instructor’s supportive presence, the more they’ll stay focused and engaged in class, which is absolutely critical for distance learning. It’s not about ignoring the stress you or the students are experiencing, rather it’s a matter of creating a humanistic and caring approach to teaching that helps you and them flourish. There is no certainty when the pandemic is to end or life will become stable. But what students need to know now is that one person, their instructor, is able to be the calm in the middle of the storm that may be their life at times.