Finding Emotional Closeness While Maintaining Social Distancing
Wednesday, July 15, 2020
If I am asked to define my experience with remote teaching during COVID-19 in a few words, I would simply call it a transition from having “emotional distancing with students while maintaining social closeness,” into having “emotional closeness with them while maintaining social distancing”.
Before the whole remote teaching started, the delivery of the course content and the engagement with students were quite well-defined for me: try to deliver the course content in the best possible way and be responsive as well as available when students need me. As an instructor within this framework, I have developed a teaching method and style that I have repeatedly used over the last couple of years. As such, the whole teaching experience was more like an automatized process for me. However, after transitioning into remote teaching, it didn’t take long to figure out that the same method would no longer apply. When I was teaching face-to-face, I could glance at each of my students frequently and catch their movements and subtle mood shifts instantly. If I realized a disengagement on their side, I could change the topic, start a new story, or shift into a more direct one-to-one engagement mode to gain their attention back and ensure that we still stick to the course plan. After COVID-19, the true eye contact was gone.
How could I deliver the same course content with the same quality without getting real-time signals from my students? From the very first moment I asked this question of myself, I realized that I needed to do more. I needed to do things differently. My solution was this: if you cannot get signals from your students, then think like them. If I could build empathy for my students, then I could try to understand, to some extent, how they feel with the whole remote teaching environment and come up with ideas to keep them engaged while ensuring the high-quality course content delivery.
This approach has motivated me to truly have empathy for my students before implementing anything new. The first thing I realized was that I needed to provide flexibility for my students. As I personally need the flexibility to function well in this unprecedented situation, so do my students. Subsequently, I have infused a lot of flexibility into my courses. Second, whenever I got an idea about a new technology to use, a new assignment format, or a new engagement style, I always asked myself “how I would feel about this if I were my own student?” a question that I did not ask frequently to myself when I was teaching face-to-face. As a result, I often found myself taking an extra step to make sure that the student experience was not degraded. Often times, I had to work with individual students to ensure that they have either enough resources to adapt to the new thing or a good alternative in case the resources are not available. Lastly, the technology; there are many available great technologies out there and I truly enjoy using many of them in my classes. However, I realized quickly that it is not the technology that can make the student experience great, it is how I use that technology and blend it in my course delivery that can make a difference.
Overall, despite the social distancing, I feel more connected with my students as I have more empathy for them. My overarching goal has not changed, I still aim to provide a high-quality learning experience. Yet, the way that I try to achieve that has changed immensely. In this new normal, staying emotionally close to my students is, and will continue to be, the key to achieving my goal.