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Connections During a Crisis

Updated: May 16, 2023

University at Buffalo

Teaching is part knowledge and part heart. I’ve always been told that sometimes I put a bit too much heart into it, which I don’t believe can ever be the case. Building connections with students is an essential part of teaching. These connections are often built upon a foundation of trust, the trust that you will guide students through academic challenges, or the trust they can tell you when things are challenging, knowing you will be flexible. 

As an educator, I take pride in the fact that students often turn to me when they are facing challenges or adversity. Sometimes it’s just listening, other times is providing resources, and encouraging them that “this too shall pass.” Throughout this dramatic shift, we are all facing, it can be easy to just keep pushing on, grading papers, creating modules, sending reminder emails, and just trying to stay afloat. 

But in times of crisis, sometimes these connections we have built and foster over the years are crucial to student success and health. In many best practices for distance learning, you will read about how students must be able to connect with you; personally, I created a Google voice phone number for students to call and a text messaging service through the Remind app. 

Over the past week, I’ve fielded questions about using discussion boards, how to format a reference, and questions about grades, the regular communication with students.

Yet, there has been a shift in some of these questions from the typical content and course-related questions to the real-life challenge’s students are facing.

From “Can I have extra time to turn in a paper?” to “I lost a family member, and it’s tough to mourn alone, do you have any resources to help me?” I’m thankful my students feel comfortable with me enough to share some of these challenges, and I typically feel well equipped to answer many of them by sending them university resources that have moved help online. 

I’ve heard of other faculty having students diagnosed with COVID-19. As a public health professor, I know the probability of this happening to one of my students. I’ve thought about how to respond to students' worries and even changed my signature line from the traditional “Best” to “Be well.” Today, I got the phone call from a student that shook me to my very core. A quite nervous voice came over the phone from an otherwise not quiet or timid student. I had known this student was having some health issues, as I had reached out to all my advisees about a week ago to just check-in. They said, “You have always given me good advice, what should I do…”

This was not an ask for academic advice, career choices, or project assistance, but the choice of when to seek medical care. 

We talked and I followed to CDC and local guidelines on the next steps if someone believes they have COVID and are experiencing severe symptoms. But that moment when a student’s voice cracks and says, “I’m afraid to die” is something I could never prepare for. As tears flowed down my face, I tried to hold it together to reduce the student's worry. *

The connections we build are more robust than the subject matter we teach or the flexibility we create in our courses. They are essential for students personal and professional growth and even more critical in these challenging times.Teaching is more than knowledge. Now more than ever it takes heart, bravery, and compassion.

Make it a point to regularly, check-in with your students, check-in with your colleagues, and check-in with yourself. 

* As an update, at the time of this post the aforementioned student has made a full recovery.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can you work to make connections with your students?

  2. In what ways can you check-in with students during this challenge?

  3. How have you practiced self-care during this time?

For Further Reading

CDC Coronavirus Disease 2019 US Department of Health and Human Services

Henry, K. Supporting Students Experiencing Remote Teaching and Learning. Scholarly Teacher. April 9, 2020. Schwartz., H. Authentic Teaching and Connected Learning in the Age of COVID-19. Scholarly Teacher. April 2, 2020.

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