Presence as Priority When Teaching in a Pandemic

a table stands empty, rolled napkins at the ready, should anyone call on its services

Students deserve our presence, and they deserve our care. When we teach, we need to be there, in the moment, wherever there may be and in whatever moment the course transpires. This becomes challenging — and ever more important — when classes exist online, distributed across platforms, delivered asynchronously. When a class lacks a classroom, when a physical space no longer defines the boundaries of what is or isn’t included, we must work to make our presence known.

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks challenges us “to teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students,” she doesn’t give us a pass when our courses shift online mid-semester due to a global pandemic. When she calls us to “provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin,” she doesn’t exempt online learning. Quality education allows no exceptions on account of delivery mode.

Presence at a Distance

When gathering is forbidden and two meters away is still too close, how do we let others know we’re here for them? How can we use digital tools to create a sense of presence in times of distance, togetherness in times of isolation?

Zoom, for all it simplifies live, distributed meetings, turns class sessions into the opening titles of the Brady Bunch, with each person in a square of their own. Engagement tends to be one-at-a-time, available only when the teacher permits. Indeed, Zoom goes to great lengths to offer restrictions and control for those hosting meetings.

I compare that to the feeling I had yesterday when an Italian friend of mine clicked the “love” reaction to a worried post I put on his Facebook timeline. My friend is okay. He’s still there. That’s all I needed to know, and I felt his presence half a world away from a silly little heart icon. Knowing that he clicked that silly little heart icon assuaged my fears and gave me the peace of mind I needed.

As our classes transition to all-online spaces, the people in those classes will start to feel distant, separated, isolated. We need to find ways to show we’re still here, to provide the connection we need as social creatures. And we need to ensure students can be there for each other, too. Teachers alone cannot provide all the human interaction of a class, but we can set up environments that allow for and encourage participants to productively engage each other. In the midst of a global pandemic, we need to take a global perspective and help students make connections — no matter where they are physically.

Lives in Transition

This semester, one student in my class went home to a Caribbean island to spend the remainder of the semester with family. Another student in that same class joined her sister in the upper midwest because her home country barred all incoming flights. Lives are in upheaval. We hold nostalgia for normality. If we carry on “business as usual,” we run roughshod over those souls hooks tells us to respect and care for. If we try to make the rest of this semester run like the first half of it, we ignore reality and miss opportunity.

At the same time, a little routine, a little normalcy, can go a long way. Just seeing familiar faces from classes last week boosted my mood. We spent most of our time checking in with each other and expressing exasperation over the craziness of the past two weeks. Having familiar people to share space with — to be present among — rejuvenated many of us. We didn’t need to focus on content; we needed to focus on ourselves first.

The Turn to Us

COVID-19 will serve as the defining watershed moment of students currently in school. Yes, this pandemic will change the nature of schooling going forward. But in the here-and-now, students need guidance, and they’ll turn to us for it. We need to be present for students as they cope with the ever-changing reality we now experience.

For the generation before this, the moment was 9/11. Anyone who taught on that day doubtless can recall the pleading looks on the faces of students as we all struggled to make sense of what we saw unfolding — unraveling? — before us. For many folks my age, especially those in Central Florida, it was the Challenger disaster. Friends of mine watched the incident live from their school playgrounds, unmediated by television or newscasters. Those friends remember watching their teachers begin to cry while the students still struggled to understand what they had seen.

During events like these, our presence becomes more valuable. Students look for guidance, for models, for examples. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we do need to be open and honest, showing students how we navigate this uncharted territory. Showing which priorities and values guide our decisions will reassure students and show them our process of adaptation, which will help inform their own.

As the virus outbreak enters its third week of full-scale disruption of life here in America and its fifth month of global disruption, we need to keep connected with students and honest about our thinking. Our classes can serve as points of contact amid ever more drastic distancing. We must be present in our classes, now more than ever.