One of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far this year is the power of the benefit of the doubt. This is a year where school expectations and processes have changed in a way that makes it more difficult than usual to really know what students are doing, thinking, or feeling. As teachers, a typical part of our job is to hold students accountable and try to find ways to do so effectively. This year, trying to strategically let go of that to some extent has been a unique challenge and worthwhile.
When this year began, I tried to keep it at the forefront of my mind that I don’t know what my students have been going through and that I should try to be understanding and overall make instructional decisions that allow flexibility and understanding. I tried to be conscious to always use a positive tone with students, assuming the best of intentions, even if on the inside I thought they might be checking out or trying to get away with something. Of course I am not perfect, but this has been my mindset. First semester it made me think sometimes that I was being too lenient, letting them off the hook for things, maybe contributing to a lack of effort by my students. Here and there I would hear about other teachers marking kids absent if they didn’t respond to their name being called two times, or something like that. When I had a student not respond, I would privately chat them through MS Teams and say something like, “Hey, is everything okay?” Students seemed to respond well to a question like that and most of the time I would get a response within a few minutes, so I was able to find out that they had reset their router or went to the restroom or had to grab something for a family member, etc. I can’t know that students were always being honest with me, but most students responded very positively and enthusiastically thanked me for checking on them and making sure they were good. I would try to end it with something positive like, “Make sure to let me know if you do need help,” or possibly try to avoid it happening again by saying, “Awesome, glad you’re back; next time let me know ahead of time, if you can.” I got positive responses from students and almost never had the same issue with the same student multiple times.
I kept doing this, not feeling confident if it was really the right thing, but have since had some really positive feedback from both students and parents. We did parent-teacher conferences virtually this year and, more frequently than a usual year, I had so many parents making a point to explicitly thank me for what I was doing and how I treated their child. Some parents were thanking all teachers and just trying to be appreciative because of the pandemic, but I had multiple parents explicitly say that they knew and appreciated my patience and understanding with their children. They also mentioned that they did not have the same experience with other instructors. I also know someone with children enrolled at our school and she told me how stressed out her kids were; the multiple layers of accountability that they experienced had them in constant fear of moving away from the screen; they feared an attendance mistake or a loss of participation points for the day. With all this feedback, it was really reassuring; it confirmed for me that my approach was sound. I may have some students who are able to “get away with” things in my class, but that’s OK if it means that overall no one is having unnecessary stress added to their life because of the way I’m running my class.
Another thing that I have made a point to do this year is to give students a break during class time. We have 90-minute class periods so I give a 5-minute break each day. If students are participating synchronously from home, they just get a 5-minute break at home. But if we’re on a hybrid schedule and I have students in-person, then we go outside and it gets to be a mask break also. It was something that a lot of teachers talked about doing at the start of the year, but many teachers at my school never fit it in or intentionally didn’t do breaks because they were focused on getting through their content. Again, I have had so much positive feedback from my students about taking the breaks that it has been worth it. It’s literally only 5 minutes and my students appreciate it so much. I sometimes find myself realizing it’s time for a 5-minute break only because students are asking fewer questions or I can tell they’re disengaging because they’ve been sitting too long. So the breaks have been helpful to drive the content forward because it can be a pick-me-up for the class as a whole. My favorite is when it gets to be a mask break outside with students who are there in-person. It has been a saving grace to get to know some of my students this year. I chat with them about whatever comes up, we get to spread out and feel “normal” for a few short minutes, and again, everyone is grateful for it and is happier because of it.
I know that this year is different and that I have had to take different approaches with my teaching. I find that the pressure (perceived or real) to get through course content and hold students accountable is weighing heavily on me as a teacher. But I’m trying to be conscious of my students’ needs as I continually remind myself to show grace and find time for whatever small breaks or socialization I can provide. The balance is worth it.