Forging Connections During the COVID Crisis

Reaching out to students.


September 1, 2020

Experiencing flop sweat hadn’t always been part of my experience teaching English in a large North Texas community college. During most of my 24 years as a professor, teaching felt like hosting a lively, interactive talk show. But several years ago, to my dismay, I started feeling uncomfortable in class more often. Students frequently didn’t look at me when I talked, and my friendly questions (“How are you all today?”) often went completely unacknowledged. In those moments, I could feel my cortisol level spiking. I feared the generation gap had finally gotten too wide; I was now boring, washed up.

I should know better than to take students’ unresponsive behavior personally. In the past decade or so, my college has enrolled a higher percentage of first-generation and/or academically underprepared students. Articles and even students’ comments have taught me that, especially in these populations, what can look to a professor like a lack of interest can turn out to be fear of appearing not smart or just general nervousness about college. Using strategies to encourage engagement helped me liven things up, but especially reticent classes still made me want to run abruptly out of the room, Napoleon Dynamite-style. I started feeling self-conscious and inhibited in class, the opposite of how I wanted to be and how I encouraged students to be.

Because I’d feared distance learning classes would make connecting with students even more challenging, I’d avoided them; however, after the COVID-19 crisis hit in March, like instructors everywhere I leaped into adapting to online teaching. I simplified the remaining major essays, made some pitifully low-quality videos of myself explaining assignments, and set up discussion forums and a simple video/phone conference system. Concerned about my students’ physical and mental health and finances, I urged them to be safe and take advantage of college services. “If you’re feeling stressed, that’s a good reason for an extension,” I kept repeating. I emailed reminders to take time to relax and go outside that included photos of my dog playing and napping under a tree. It turns out connecting online wasn’t any harder than connecting in person. Under the scary circumstances, communicating more felt simple and natural.

Luckily, most of my students didn’t drop, and I was happy when they started reaching out to me more often. Some of them thanked me for making our newly online class manageable and for being concerned about them. In a videoconference, an international student told me he’d flown back to Korea right before the situation got bad in the U.S.; he gave me a virtual tour of his quarantine room. When a young woman emailed me with questions about an assignment, she included a picture of her cat. A few students asked for stress-related extensions. My instructional videos never lost their shadowy, film noir lighting no matter how I set up lamps and fiddled with window blinds, but no one seemed to mind, so I quit worrying about it. I was touched when students replied to my emails to say they hoped my family and I were doing all right.

Working together during a pandemic helped me and my students see each other much more clearly. We were all just regular people doing the best we could in a stressful situation. It’s hardly a new idea that people are more than their surface appearances and behaviors, and I wish I’d never lost sight of that. Still, part of the upside of being middle-aged is accepting that the simplest-sounding life lessons, often the same ones I teach my students, are often the hardest to live by consistently: trust that the mess of ideas you spill onto a page can be gradually transformed into a coherent essay. Be kind even when it isn’t easy. Make the first move to be vulnerable.

Like everyone else, I fervently hope the pandemic will end as soon as possible. After it does, teaching won’t suddenly be a breeze. When I look on my early days as a professor with less nostalgia, I can recognize it was never easy. Anything as complex as teaching will always be challenging. I can’t fix all of my students’ problems or make everyone happy. What I will do is keep being open with my classes even when I feel like I’m bombing. It turns out that most students want authenticity in class as much as I do; many of them are just waiting for a wholehearted invitation.

Haven Abedin was raised in Dallas, Texas, and teaches English full-time at Dallas College. She loves things many English professors love: reading, watching great movies and TV shows (Better Call Saul and Schitt's Creek are two current obsessions), and helping students learn to trust that they can write.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Back to Top