“One day it’s fine and next it’s black”
The song lyric from The Clash: “one day it’s fine and next it’s black” might describe what happened at all levels of education when the COVID-19 pandemic began. People who had always taught only in the classroom needed to make a very quick change to teaching online.
Those of us who had taught online for many years also experienced challenging times, particularly about deciding how flexible we would and wouldn’t be regarding deadlines for students to submit course work.
The Great Resignation
After the worst period of the pandemic passed, I definitely reached a point at which I would have retired immediately if I had been old enough to do so. I didn’t wind up becoming part of The Great Resignation, which would have resulted in needing to become part of The Great Rehire after experiencing The Great Regret.
I am finishing my 36th year of teaching, and the cumulative buildup of dealing for so many years with students who did not succeed in following instructions, as well as a significant increase in requests for deadlines to be extended, made me wonder why I was still teaching.
Safe place and whole self
I learned during those years of working that teaching is an essential part of my identity. I’m not my whole self if I’m not teaching. And although I was facing new pandemic-related challenges, the classroom—even the online asynchronous never-in-person classroom—has always been my safe place. I hadn’t taught in person in a classroom since December 2012 and had taught online since 2001, so I was thankful that I didn’t have to make a quick pandemic-induced transition to an unfamiliar mode of teaching.
Not in person but not impersonal
Teaching only online since January 2013, I found that no longer needing to deal with students in person actually resulted in my being somewhat more understanding. Since most of my communication was done through email, I had time to think and choose my words carefully. For me, the online-only teaching and learning environment has resulted in my interacting more meaningfully with students than I did while I was in the classroom. Many students who might not have said anything out loud in an in-person class submit excellent discussion forum postings in my online Medical Terminology classes. Also, I respond to everyone’s first forum posting, which I hope encourages students to communicate with me.
We don’t know if we don’t ask
During the height of the pandemic, I did my best to let students know that if they told me what their circumstances were, I would do everything possible so that they could continue with class. I added a discussion forum topic “How are you?” and was surprised when more than a few students mentioned that was the first time they were asked that question in a college class.
When students were affected by an extended power outage after a winter storm, were without heat, and did not have internet access at home, they made the extra effort to email me and to do work for class from a neighbor’s house. Reading their stories in that “How are you?” discussion forum reminded me how important it is to ask that seemingly simple question. I continue to include the “How are you? discussion forum in my online classes, usually at the midpoint of each term.
I also need to remember to ask myself “How are you?” and regularly take some time for myself to do something non-academic. I find it particularly worthwhile to do some yardwork. Seeing a pile of weeds that I have pulled up reminds me that sometimes real-world piles can be dealt with more easily than the piles of work that we make for ourselves in the virtual world.
The devil is in the deadlines
I was very flexible about extending deadlines for a while. After the worst of the pandemic was over, several students would still repeatedly request that deadlines be extended. Keeping track of those requests and making the extra effort to extend deadlines in the LMS and in courseware was a nightmare. I didn’t want that to be my dreaded “new normal.” Granting more extensions in one class than I usually would have—pandemic or not– made me want to retire. After that class was over, I asked myself if granting all those extensions wasn’t simply creating unnecessary extra work for myself.
My answer to that question was yes. I knew that I both needed and wanted to continue teaching. Even with all the frustrations, I wasn’t ready to leave higher education.
Adding the magic words
I asked my Program Director if it would be worthwhile to add a statement to my syllabus specifying that one―and only one―extension would be granted to a student.
This is the wording that we decided upon:
“Instructors don’t know what might be going on with a student unless we ask or unless you tell us. A single exception to a single deadline for one assignment (not the last deadline) may be granted only at the instructor’s discretion should an extreme emergency situation arise that is beyond the student’s control. Requesting an extension does not mean that it will be granted.
Appropriate verifiable written documentation (obituary, confirmation of urgent care visit or hospitalization, etc.) must be submitted with the extension request. After this single exception has been granted, there will be no more, so please do not ask.
If a student experiences repeated real-world circumstances that prevent them from completing required course work on time, it might be best to withdraw from class. Dropping a class is not admitting defeat. Withdrawing from a class could actually be the best way to remain academically healthy and preserve your grade point average. Dropping a class may affect financial aid and other things, so please check on those before withdrawing.”
Caring—too much, too little, or just right
The wording above is now included in all Medical Terminology course syllabi at my school. I hope the statement makes it clear that we instructors truly do care—that it is important for students to communicate with us—and that sometimes it is truly best to withdraw from a class.
I learned long ago that caring too much isn’t healthy. The de-personalized online learning and teaching environment helped me arrive at my own “just right” level of caring—not so much that I experience compassion fatigue—not so little that I seem to have ice water in my veins—but enough so that I can give each student a chance to succeed.
Adding that statement helped me significantly reduce how much extra work I was creating for myself, leaving me with enough energy to continue teaching. I wouldn’t be teaching in higher education after all these years if I didn’t truly believe I still have something to offer. I will continue trying to ask students and myself the right questions, especially “How are you?”
About the author: Timothy Jones is an Adjunct Instructor of Health Professions at Oklahoma City Community College
The rapid changes in higher education continue to have faculty wondering, “should I stay or should I go?” Timothy Jones discusses his decision in “Why I’m Still Teaching in Higher Education: Calling the Tune.” Here he explains, “Teaching still makes me happy.” Explore his article now.