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Important Lessons: Flexibility and Vulnerability

I was a freshman in high school, having just moved across the country to a wealthy suburb of Washington DC, where many Pentagon officers lived, when the 9/11 attacks happened. Most of my fellow students had some connection to the government or military through their parents’ jobs. Many parents at my school worked in the Pentagon; my own father had years before, when we’d lived there the first time in the same house, but now he had a different position in the Department of Defense.

The next day, in English class, Ms. Kettler tossed out our planned curriculum. I don’t remember what we were supposed to be studying at the time. It didn’t matter anymore, and she knew it. Instead, she threw together a quick lesson on the psychology of grief. She explained that we would probably need to understand something about grief, because even if we ourselves weren’t grieving, our classmates certainly were, and we needed to learn to be gentle with them.

I don’t have the heart to find really relevant illustrations for this post, so please enjoy some cats I’ve used before.
All images via StockSnap, as usual.

That lesson stuck with me. I remember that lesson. Whatever we were supposed to learn about literary devices, whatever we were supposed to learn about composition… none of that was as important or as useful as understanding grief and the many colors and shapes it can manifest in.

And now, when I know that when I get back to teaching in the fall, I will have grieving students, I’m remembering that lesson. If you are throwing out lessons you’d normally teach and replacing them with lessons more relevant to the current moment, I respect your decision. Please continue doing that.

I often advise other teachers, who worry about maintaining professional distance and a veneer of “having it together,” that the best lesson we can teach is that we, ourselves, are human, and humans need to be gentle with each other. I’ve written about this before here. Yes, we need to keep some professional distance from our students, because we simply can’t expend the emotional labor to be entwined in their lives in intimate ways, and because there are boundaries that should not be crossed. But we also, sometimes, need to let the veil slip and show that we’re truly, achingly human. When we do this, we’ll see better results.

When we are “just a teacher” to our students, we are the enemy, an authority to be outwitted into “giving” them an A. The game is to see what you can “get away with” as a student. It’s us versus them. Guard versus prisoner.

But when we show we’re human, when we let our griefs and our joys show through, we can become allies with our students. Teammates. Mentors, even. Sometimes, it’s ok to tell them “I didn’t get this done because something happened…”

And in this moment, when we’re preparing for classes (or teaching summer classes) that will necessarily involve more distance than we would normally use, perhaps we can make some deliberately vulnerable moves to make sure that the humanity isn’t lost in our classes.

I’m sure that Ms. Kettler was uncertain about her decision to change a curriculum that had probably been planned well in advance, one she’d used for years (I know for a fact she reused lessons a lot, because I had her for more classes after that, and also because she was a clever teacher who knew how to manage her workload pretty well). It was a moment of vulnerability for us and her.

But I’m also sure it was the right thing to do at that moment. And I’m sure that right now, this moment as we figure out how to move forward from an interrupted semester into possibly several semesters of planning for uncertainty and instability, the moment calls for similar actions. I’m hoping that, as a teacher in a time of crisis, I’ve been at least half as effective as Ms. Kettler was.

One strategy I used in the online half of spring semester was to send my students a weekly summary email (details in a previous post). I had several students thank me for these emails. I suspect not so much because of the “what you have done” and “what you will do” sections, although I’m sure those were helpful. In each email, I tried to include something useful for the moment: a discussion of how media literacy matters when sorting out new information about safety protocols and risk factors, a link to a face mask pattern and research about the utility of masks, an update on CDC guidelines, or something else useful. Sometimes it was just encouragement—just some kind words such as “I know you’re going through a lot. It’s ok if this class isn’t your #1 priority right now. Your safety and well-being are more important.” When I started conversations with students who requested video chats, I opened with “How are you? Are you in a safe place right now?” I’m sure I could have done more, but I am pleased that I did at least that much to let the humanity into my, well, humanities course.

How do we plan for the unexpected? How do we plan to be human?

As you plan for your upcoming classes, or teach your current online courses, make space for lessons about how to be humane to ourselves and each other. Make space for vulnerability and invite in care.

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