Teaching Through Crisis: How to Be Human
When you’ve been in school your entire life learning becomes an integrated part of your life. Or at least that’s how it has been for me. I’m twenty-seven years old and save for a lost year at the age of nineteen, I’ve been in school since I was five. I’ve been in university for almost nine years- my entire adult life. I’ve gone through stages of loving and hating school. Over the years, I have recognized that compassionate and invested teachers have made me feel seen, challenged, and inspired. The current global covid-19 pandemic has forced me to reflect on a lot of things but primarily I have been asking myself how I can be a better teacher.
Reflecting alongside my Culture and Crisis Collective co-members, some other questions that have arisen are ; What if we knew more about our students and they knew more about us? What if we knew about their home life, their support system or lack thereof? What if we talked to them about their goals, interests, and hobbies that extended beyond the classroom? What if we saw them as individuals intimately connected to our expansion as teachers and humans, rather than a group of students that we must deposit information into? What if we cared less about grades and more about dialogue? What if we challenged the student-teacher dichotomy and hierarchy?
When I started teaching in my Masters as a teaching assistant for first year art history I was a nervous graduate student with a fear of public speaking. Most TAs have little to no training in education before they are handed a room full of undergraduate students. I had one weekend of training under my belt and for that first year of teaching I used my former art history teachers as models to guide my approach to teaching. In practice, this looked like preparing a powerpoint with notes and then lecturing for fifty minutes at my students on the slides and artworks that the professor had decided were key for that week’s session.
I was also struggling with imposter syndrome since I had just finished my undergraduate degree and felt more like a peer among these students than a leader. My own education having taught me that the teacher was the leader in the room, I assumed they knew everything. It wasn’t until I was on the other side that I realized how wrong I was. I felt like I knew nothing. Who put me in charge!?
Paulo Freire notes that the teacher-student relationship at any level has a fundamentally narrative character. The teacher is the narrating subject while the students are patient, listening objects. Freire remarks that “education is suffering from narration sickness.”(p44) As I have recounted from my own experience, the teacher narrates from the front of the classroom with the task of filling the students with their narrative.
According to Freire:
Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.(p45)
So what’s the alternative? Freire suggests that dialogue is the way forward and that dialogue between students and teachers can disrupt the student-teacher banking model. Through open dialogue, students become student-teachers and teachers become teacher-students wherein learning doesn’t function in a top-down hierarchical fashion but through reciprocal sharing, storytelling, and question asking.
This model requires educators to become fully human again, a task that is necessary during this particular moment of intersecting crises. A teacher takes on a huge burden in attempting to always appear knowledgeable, capable, trustworthy, and competent. Students can always see the cracks in this facade though. What if instead... we were just our messy human selves and showed up to teach as the flawed individuals that we are?
I have a particularly fond memory of my pre-pandemic life where I returned to teaching my tutorials after being away in Costa Rica on vacation. I was exhausted from traveling overnight and I sat on my desk at the front of the room and shared that I was just too tired to stand today. The students laughed while nodding and when I asked them how the midterm went while I was away they shared their discouragement, fears, and anxiety over it.
Two days later COVID-19 had shut down most of the country and the university announced that we had the weekend to move our courses online. That was nearly a year ago and I haven’t been allowed in my office since. I didn’t get to see my students again and even now teaching online I feel entirely disconnected from my new students because I’ve never met them face to face. While online courses are keeping things going in a sort of business as usual fashion, I can’t help but feel like we are failing our students in so many ways. The pandemic has left many of us drained, un-inspired, and technology-anxious robot teachers that are pushing forward with course syllabi as though the world isn’t shifting dramatically each day.
I can’t pretend to know what the solution is to this disconnect or when it will end. I do know that crisis demands our attention. Of course it’s easier to push on with our lives and convince ourselves that things will return to normal… or a new “normal”. Yet we have no idea when or if such a day will come. So what can we do as teachers to regain some of the student-teacher intimacy that we are missing? What can we do to help ourselves and our students through this pandemic?
I have arrived at a few simple things that may be difficult to practice…
We have to find ways to become more human. With over two million global deaths, we deserve time and space to grieve and mourn the collective trauma of a pandemic. The speed of our lives will never allow for this kind of pause so we have to fight for it on a daily basis in small ways. Becoming a more human teacher looks like… sharing struggles with your students, sending thoughtful emails, granting extensions, grading with compassion, admitting your mistakes, talking openly about mental and physical health, reaching out, being vulnerable and surrendering when you need a break.
In the same sense, we must honour the humanness of our students that are trying to complete a degree while the world seemingly self-destructs around them.
Let them be angry, scared, happy, avoidant, anxious, distant...
Let the conversation take turns that lead off track…
Let them show up as they are.
Let them be human too.
Maybe in this humble gesture…
we will find the human connection in teaching and learning that we so desperately crave.