Visions of Hell

I want to start this post by saying that I’m not really a fan of those trite sayings that simplify complex ideas into catchy witticisms. You know, something like:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Sayings like this might make a great T-shirt or a snarky meme, but they don’t really capture how complex things can be. I’m also sure if one were to look in the DSM-5 for the psychological classification of insanity they would actually find a different definition. But that’s not really the point of this post.

I heard another saying recently that has bored a hole into my brain and I’ve been mulling it around a bunch since hearing it. And I’m not a person who is typically prone to these sayings. But here goes…

The definition of hell is on your last day on Earth, the person you could have been meeting the person you’ve become

I’m not a really religious person so the concepts of heaven and hell aren’t ones the typically resonate with me. But for some reason, this quote has stuck around. I did some googling and the quote seems to be much more pervasive than I initially realized. While it was the first time I’ve heard it, the quote has been shared a ton of times on Twitter, Goodreads, and other places online. I’m sure someone somewhere is sporting a motivational T-shirt with it.

But, here’s where my brain has been going. Is there an educational version of this phrase? What does a vision of “hell” look like to an inspired, critically reflective educator? So, I did some workshopping. I started by replacing “person” with “teacher” to create something like…

The definition of hell is on your last day on Earth, the teacher you could have been meeting the teacher you’ve become

I’ve been teaching for 28 years and while my edited phrase is still moving, it loses some of the punch. So, I thought what could be a little more “hellish.” So, I tried:

The definition of hell is on your last day on Earth, the teacher you wanted to be at the start of your career meeting the teacher you’ve become

But again, this lacks some punch. I also recognize that people’s visions of teaching changes over the career. So, it might not actually be “hell” for every teacher. So, I went back to my mental drawing board and thought about hell some more. I thought about what we do as educators and what would torment me in the afterlife. So, here’s why I landed…

The definition of hell is on your last day on Earth, you meet all of the students you could have inspired and reached but didn’t

And that’s a vision of hell that is pretty terrifying to me.

Comfort Food

In times of emotional stress, many people run to comfort food. For some, it’s a big bowl of macaroni and cheese. For others, it may be a plate of chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven. For me, comfort food has always been a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of tomato soup. Regardless of the food, we seek out the foods that nourish us while also feeding our soul.

But what about professional stress? While I’m sure comfort food can help us navigate difficult professional times too, I find that returning to some foundational readings helps to comfort me. With this being such a challenging semester for so many of us, I thought I’d share a handful of quotes from one of my favorite “comfort reads” – Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. I’ve referenced Parker Palmer a bunch of times over the years and have used his quotes to support some of the points I was trying to make at the time. This week, I’m going to deviate from this a bit. I’m going to share a few Parker Palmer quotes and let you do the heavy lifting of finding meaning and comfort in them. Enjoy.

“Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique,- good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

“Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.”

“As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied: the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart—and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be.We became teachers for reasons of the heart, animated by a passion for some subject and for helping people to learn.”

“Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see: in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.”

“The personal can never be divorced from the professional. “We teach who we are” in times of darkness as well as light.”



Mixed Emotions

Like many educators working in collegiate environments, I’m currently feeling a mixture of emotions. Under normal circumstances, we’d be gathering for commencement ceremonies and saying goodbye to students we’ve supported as they’ve navigated their undergraduate and graduate programs. Instead of the pride I’d normally be experiencing, I’m feeling a palpable sense of grief as I come to grips with the missed ceremonies of success and the canceled rites of passage that would have typically marked the ends of my students’ academic journeys. Sure, I understand the nature of this pandemic and recognize that these ceremonies needed to be canceled. But it doesn’t make the loss any easier.

In addition to the grief and loss, I also feel a sense of relief and accomplishment. My colleagues and I survived the semester. While there were certainly some chaotic moments, I’m proud of my colleagues for rising to the challenges and providing the best educational opportunities for our students that we could. Working together, we accomplished something unimaginable six months ago. For better or worse, our institution moved all of our academic programming online and by collaborating with one another, we tackled something unthinkable.

As I work through these emotions of grief, sadness, relief and pride, there’s also a feeling of uncertainty as I look ahead to the fall and to the next academic year. I work at a public university and I’ve read predictions like those from Bryan Alexander who writes that COVID-19 “will change faculty life forever.” Alexander identifies as an “educational futurist” and is a really smart guy. I’ve seen him speak a bunch of times and I’ve always left his presentations with my mind reeling. The possible changes that Alexander predicts may occur to our academic institutions and professional lives are staggering.

And then there’s the reality of scheduling for the fall. Recently, Inside Higher Ed outlined fifteen possible scenarios for the fall semester.  Some of them seem pretty unlikely. While currently many institutions seem to be planning for in-person classes, I don’t expect institutions will be “back to normal” in the fall. I also don’t foresee many schools moving their fall semesters to spring or only bringing first year students to campus next year. While some of the other scenarios that Inside Higher Ed presents may seem more likely, they would require significant professional development to prepare for the pedagogical and technological transitions that would be required for successful implementation. For example, I don’t know how many educators would be able to transition to a HyFlex model without some significant training and support.

So, here I am, amidst a sea of emotions. Grief. Relief. Pride. Uncertainty.

But let me add one more emotion into the mix… Optimism.

Yes, despite the uncertainty for the fall semester and the dark future that people like Bryan Alexander predict, I’m still optimistic that things will be okay. Like this past semester, I trust that my colleagues and I will rise to the challenges we face this summer and this fall. While things are uncertain, I know that we’ll collaborate to do the best we can for our students. Our classrooms and role may look a little different than we’re accustomed, but we’ll be as effective as we can under whatever circumstances we face.

The most important question

Like many of you, I’m neck high in grading this week. I thought I’d dig through the 8 Blog archives to find a lost post that could deserve revisiting. There’s this one from May 2015. Considering our current pandemic state, it’s probably more relevant than ever.

It’s the end of the semester and things are getting a little crazy on campus.  It seems that finals week always brings out odd requests, tales of hardship and hopes for opportunities of redemption.  Some students ask for an incomplete grade to continue working on class materials.  Others will request extra credit assignments to boost their grades.  A few desperate students will beg their instructors to overlook a semester full of missed classes or tardies with a last ditch attempt to pull out the proverbial fourth quarter comeback.  This is that time of year.

When I first started teaching, I always had trouble weighing the requests.  I originally took a hard stance and just said “no” to every student, regardless of the situation.  While I consistently applied my “Just say no!” strategy, I realized that wasn’t actually being fair to students in need.  Let’s face it.  While those of us who work in higher education like to think of ourselves completely as academics and scholars, we’re really in the people business.  We work with students and they often need our empathy and support.  With this in mind, I’ve come up with the most important question that guides all of my decision-making when considering any instructional course of action.

What is in the best of interest of the student?

It may not be that groundbreaking or revolutionary but the question firmly places our focus on students’ needs.  Before anyone suggests that it means giving passing grades to all students or reducing expectations, I don’t apply the question that liberally.  Like me provide a few examples.  During a recent winter session, I had a student who was struggling financially.  She was taking an online class and had some of her utilities shut off during the course.  Considering her economic situation, I chose to give her an incomplete at the end of the semester so she could have a little more time to make up her work.  I felt the economic impact of an F would not be in her best interest.  She was a bright student and ultimately received a B+ in the class.  The incomplete was absolutely in her best interest.

But let’s look at a different situation.  I worked with a student a few semesters ago who was absolutely in the wrong program.  Although he was an intelligent young man, he wasn’t passionate about his major and his performance in class was lackluster.  I gave him the grade he earned (an F), even though he had requested some leniency.  In his situation, he was forced to consider whether his chosen major was right for him.  The failing grade motivated him to switch directions and find a program in which he was more passionate.  In this situation, the failure was absolutely in his best interest.

More recently, I had a student who I believe was dealing with some mental health issues.  She missed a bunch of classes and always had some drawn out excuse for her absences.  Despite her requests for an incomplete, I graded her on the work she submitted and gave the student an F.  It wasn’t an easy decision.  I hoped that the failing grade would provide some opportunity for a family intervention or maybe motivate her to seek help on her own.   Since it was relatively recent, I’m still waiting to see how this last scenario plays out.  The student was upset and said I was being unfair.  But I know that my heart was in the right place.  I made the decision with her interest in mind, whether she recognizes it or not.

Award-Winning Online Practices

As the semester comes to a close and the pandemic crisis continues, I know that many teachers are still in “triage mode.” Despite their best efforts, they’re maybe a day or two ahead of their students. They’re working long days grading papers and providing feedback. They’re finding creative ways to create lessons and assessments. They’re working overtime on behalf of their students.

If these observations resonate with you, I want you to know that I see you! I see your work! I know that you’re probably working harder than you’ve ever had before as a teacher. Remote and online learning is new territory for so many teachers and you’re feeling your way through it. And I know that many of you are closing your eyes at night and wondering if you’re doing enough. Or whether you’re doing the right stuff. Let me provide some comfort.

I came across a research article that was published in Online Learning in December 2019. The researchers examined the instructional practices of eight online teachers who had won awards from different distance education entities (Online Learning Consortium, Association for Educational Communications and Technology, etc.) since 2015. Through interviews with these award-winning online teachers, the researchers found five practices that were consistently employed. As you review these practices, I’m sure you’ll see a lot of overlap with the strategies you’re employing in your classes.

Authentic and relevant course materials that connect to practice.
The researchers found that the award-winning online teachers intentionally made connections between their course content and their students’ lives. The online instructors also chose materials that were appropriate for the online environments in which students were learning.

Use of multimedia resources.
In their interviews with award-winning online teachers, the researchers found that various multimedia resources (videos, podcast, infographics, etc.) were used to help students build their understanding of course content. This variety of resources helps attend to the multiple modalities of learning that online students’ needs.

Student creation of digital content individually and collaboratively.
With the variety of tools available to online students, award-winning online teachers saw opportunities for their students to create content and collaborate with their peers. Whether it was through creating digital stories to document their learning or it was through communicating with peers in FlipGrids and Voicethreads, the award-winning teachers found opportunities for their students to be create content in their online classes.

Students’ reflection on learning.
Beyond the creation of digital content, award-winning online teachers also provided opportunities for students to reflect on their learning journeys in their classes. Writing about this, the researchers write that this practice helps students:

understand ‘their own value of learning and how far that they have come’ and help them ‘assess their learning and helping (the teacher) understand the degree to which they have achieved learning outcomes in the class.’” (Kumar et al., 2019, p. 169)

Explanation of purpose.
While different instructional strategies can support students’ success online, the award-winning online teachers felt that providing clear explanations that outline the purpose of assignments, activities and assessments helped to make the learning process more transparent for students. Some of the online teachers reported that they recorded introductory videos for each module to introduce students “to the work, why it’s included, what are we going to with it.” (Kumar et al., 2019, p. 169)

As you review these award-winning practices, I don’t want you to worry about the strategies you haven’t incorporated yet. That’s a conversation for another day when we’ve returned to calmer times. Instead, I want you to focus on the strategies you have employed. Considering the academic situation within we’re all working, I consider incorporating any of these practices to be award worthy.

Kumar, S., Martin, F., Budhrani, K., & Ritzhaupt, A. (2019). Award-winning faculty online teaching practices: Elements of award-winning courses. Online Learning, 23(4). doi: