What the Pandemic Has Taught Me

As we recognize the one year anniversary of the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I invited readers and colleagues to share what the pandemic has taught them about teaching and learning. I shared three brilliant posts over the last few weeks. This week, I share my own. Note: If you’re interested in submitting a reflection on what you’ve learned from teaching during the pandemic, email me at oliver.dreon@millersville.edu.

As I’ve thought about what I have learned about teaching and learning during the pandemic, I keep returning to an unusual incident that happened earlier this year. While the story may seem unrelated to global pandemics and education, I promise that it relates.

A few months ago, I went to reheat a cup of coffee for a mid-afternoon jolt of caffeine. As I opened the microwave, I was surprised to find a breakfast sandwich perched on the carrousel inside. Removing the breakfast sandwich, I could tell that although it may have been cooked at some point earlier in the day, it was no longer hot. Since my teenage son is the primary consumer of breakfast sandwiches in our house, I figured he was the culprit. But, how did a cold breakfast sandwich end up in the microwave at 2:00 in the afternoon? I set out to find some answers.

Talking with my son, he seemed confused. He thought he had eaten breakfast but looked at the sandwich and began to doubt himself. As he retraced his morning, he definitely remembered putting the sandwich into the microwave but then started thinking about his schoolwork for the day. His school has been running a blended schedule with half of the students attending physically on some days while the others participate virtually. The schedule changes with holidays and breaks, so he remembered reviewing the schedule for the day. He also remembered thinking about which classes the teachers were planning synchronous meetings and which ones the teacher has assigned asynchronous work. He had a big test coming up, so he thought a little about how he could fit some studying into his day. As he navigated his memories from his morning, he said, “I guess I forgot to eat breakfast.”

If you’ve ever lived with a teenage boy, you’ll realize how remarkable that statement is. My son forgot to eat. He was so preoccupied with the educational expectations and changes in his school day that he simply forgot to remove the breakfast sandwich from the microwave and eat it. While this forgetfulness could be attributed to his developing adolescent brain, I think it also showcases some of the indirect cognitive impacts from the stress and chaos caused by the pandemic. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll remember that Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book The Spark of Learning resonated with me when I read it a few years ago. While the book mainly focuses on the positive impacts that emotions can have on learning, this pandemic has shown the negative impacts that emotions can have, too. For my son, it was forgetting to eat breakfast. For other students, the impacts may be more significant. This pandemic has created job loss, food insecurity, homelessness, illness and death. It has also created a specter of fear and stress that permeates almost every aspect of life. And that emotional toll is impacting learning.

I guess I’ve always known this to some extent. I remember giving extensions to students who had experienced a death in the family or who have been ill. But this pandemic has shown these emotional impacts can happen on a large scale, too. And that requires educators to reconsider our roles and our expectations.  I’ve been preaching “Lead with empathy” for a while but this pandemic has prompted me to wonder whether empathy is enough. Not just during a global pandemic, but always.

Scrolling through Twitter last week, I came across a colleague’s educational expectations for his classes. Chris Hoadley is a faculty member at New York University where he teaches in the Educational Communication and Technology Program. Chris taught one of my doctoral classes when he worked at Penn State and he served on my dissertation committee. In his expectations titled “It’s okay to not be okay,” Chris writes:

As far as our class goes, I want to state my priorities. People first, learning second, rules/bureaucracy last.

If you’re wondering what Chris means when he says “people first,” he explains it clearly later in his expectations.

(Y)ou are enough. For many of us, academia makes us want to prove ourselves worthy but we’re already worthy. Quoting from writer Erin Bahadur: ‘You are enough. There is no goal that you could ever achieve that will convince you that you are enough. If you don’t already believe it before you get there, you still won’t once you do.’ Even when you are not okay, you are enough.

The pandemic should remind all of us that education is a human profession. Beyond the syllabi and the lectures and the exams, we’re working with people who may not be “okay” and we may never know it. We may not always find a forgotten breakfast sandwich and realize that someone is overtaxed. The impacts aren’t always so obvious.

And that’s the problem with empathy. As Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy, discusses in an interview on Vox,

Empathy’s design failings have to do with the fact that it acts like a spotlight. It zooms you in. But spotlights only illuminate where you point them at, and for that reason empathy is biased.

As teachers, we don’t always know when empathy is needed. The “spotlight” might not show us the student who is living in difficult conditions or the one who may need some extra help or a deadline extension. For every disparity and inequity illuminated by this pandemic, there are still so many that have gone unrealized. Through this, the pandemic has forced me to consider the roles that equity, justice, and compassion play in my teaching, in my classroom, and in education more broadly.

And it’s also taught me that I still have so much more to learn.

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