This post was written by NCTE member Sarah Elizabeth Smith Carter.
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted higher learning in ways still unaccounted for. It will be years before we can begin to piece together everything that has been lost, yet there are also gains: teachers and professors across the country have been forced to reevaluate best practices for teaching and facilitating learning in and out of the traditional classroom.
In addition, the pandemic has encouraged those in academia to question what had previously been deemed best practices, now that everything has been flipped, tossed, and run-over. As I sit here preparing for the spring semester and reflecting back on fall 2020, I am thinking about the amount of empathy and grace I offered and allowed my students. I wonder: Was it enough? Was it too much?
I have been teaching in and out of the traditional classroom since 2009, with a variety of both traditional and nontraditional students, and although I have offered and allowed grace to my students before, I don’t think it has ever been to the extent I offered last fall.
Over the last weeks of the fall semester, I began talking with colleagues and advisors and realized that there is a great divide between what some find an acceptable amount of grace and others find too much. I found that for some teachers who have never before offered grace to students, the fact that this semester was unlike any other caused them to reconsider approaches to how they respond to student requests and issues. For the first time, these instructors considered the significant impact the external environment has on student success.
Some professors I spoke with wondered if they were doing enough for students. These professors carried some guilt and felt the weight of the current climate in America, and how this climate has been impacting student growth and development.
Some instructors allowed students to turn in late work without penalty, were glued to their email accounts, and when students did not turn in work, sent out personal emails checking in on those students. This might seem excessive to some—to those who would argue that too much grace could inhibit students from becoming successful members of society—but in this unprecedented year, how can we know how much grace is enough or too much?
How can we move forward this spring without first considering the changes this pandemic has brought to our pedagogy, classrooms, and lives? We must consider the grace that some of us have been afforded. Some of us were able to keep our jobs and were able to decide if we wanted to teach in a traditional classroom or virtually. Others of us were not given the same grace and were forced back into classrooms to try and maintain a safe environment for ourselves and our students. How is it that grace is afforded to some, but not all? Where is that fine line again?
Considering the current climate of our country, the diverse needs of our students, and the inclusion of all students in our courses, we need to set a precedent for moving forward in the spring that will allow and offer an understanding that teaching and learning right now are shifting, as are the needs and issues of our students.
2020 has ended but has left our state of education in an uproar. The teaching pedagogies that were transformed in the fall of 2020 will lead to curriculum and programmatic changes that will carry through 2021. No matter how much some may fight the change, it is here. In order to move forward we must accept that this pandemic has left its mark on academia.
I am not sure there is a perfect answer for how much grace should be offered now and in the future, but I do believe we should offer some, and possibly more than we normally would.
Students that entered into higher education in 2020 were the guinea pigs of our adjusted pedagogies; we used these students to figure out what worked and what needed to be adjusted for our spring plans. It is in everyone’s best interests to recognize that we are still refining and perfecting our plans for teaching in this ever-changing environment. We owe this grace to our students and to ourselves.
Sarah E.S. Carter is a third-year rhetoric and composition PhD student at Georgia State University. She also teaches for Campbell University and the University of South Carolina.
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