The academic term-to-end-all-academic terms will soon be finished. It included a pandemic, a nation-wide economic crisis which touched nearly all of us, and changed how most of us in higher education, worked. Other than that – it was business as usual, right?
Classes—be they extended due to weeks for transitioning to online delivery or not—are about to be completed. First off—congratulate yourself. You did it—the ways that faculty and staff have pulled together in this extraordinary time have been inspiring to witness. Congratulate your students as well; many of them stayed with classes because classes provided one of the few stable patterns in their chaotic new “present.” But that inspiration and perspiration have also created exhaustion, incredible stress, and a myriad of emotions, for everyone.
So let’s talk about one of those emotions: saying goodbye to your students this term. I confess; I never felt that I did the “last day” very well. After going over grades, I tried to sum up key concepts and engage with students about how they could use those concepts in their professional and personal lives. But often, it was clear that students just wanted to be “done” and were very happy when I dismissed the class for the last time (save for the final exam, to be taken only by some of the students).
How you end an academic term where, for many, more life experiences have been shared than ever before? This term, those “final moments” might be even more interactionally difficult: they perhaps will be on software like Zoom, where many are on at a time and so the moment has to be public in a way that a face-to-face interaction might not be. Or they might be embedded in an asynchronous posting which not all students might even read.
It might be more difficult this term because their grades might not reflect what all has happened to them, to you, to the class, and to our world. It could feel awkward awarding the grade a student earned, given all that you might have learned about her or his current situation. Prioritize kindness and humanity right now, whenever you can. So what to do in your last time with your class?
Be honest—something I hope you have been doing throughout this pandemic’s new pedagogy. Tell them if it is difficult to acknowledge that in a few days or weeks, you won’t see them regularly and will worry about them, their health, economic security, and that of their families too. Acknowledge their worries about you and yours as well.
Do you have to say “goodbye” though? I ask because you might want to understand fully the limits of the software you have been using. Will the Zoom “room” allow a student to continue to log in and talk with you after the semester is over? Can you prevent that from happening, if you want to/need to? Or if you are using your institution’s learning management system, do you understand how long the class page will stay active? If you are like me, I would “hide” my past classes and only keep current class pages visible, but that means it would be more difficult for you to notice if this term’s students checked in with you via the learning management system. They may need that ability to reach out to you and hiding the class will complicate communication. Will you encourage students to contact you via your school email? Again—some of this just involves understanding thoroughly the tools you have been using. And sharing that knowledge with students, so that they know how to stay in touch if they wish to do so (and you concur).
What about advisees? Especially those who are about to graduate? With most public moments to celebrate canceled, there will be fewer opportunities to congratulate them, wish them well, and celebrate their successes. Can your department or program host a virtual party and invite them to attend? Or can you do a smaller one for your advisees? Could you start an official Facebook (or perhaps Instagram) account which would allow them to choose to follow you? There you could post job announcements, link to articles about job hunting (in general or in the post-pandemic job market), and would allow you to encourage and support them in the days and weeks ahead. It could also create a social network for them to connect with each other as they spread out across the country.
One of the things I did the moment it became clear that our country (or most of it) was headed for shelter-in-place guidelines was to buy a large number of blank cards. For the price of a stamp (which helps out the US Postal Service—an organization that desperately needs our support), I can stay in touch with former students and graduates who I know are on the job market. I’ve offered to review/edit resumes and be a reference. Most importantly, I’ve offered to just listen as they game out their job search.
It won’t be easy, no matter how you and your students say goodbye. Give yourself time to process your feelings, time to decompress from what has happened, time to just breathe. Celebrate their successes, and yours. Next week will come and it might mean time to begin to prepare for summer or fall classes.
But Spring 2020 will be one for the history books. You made it. They made it. You all persevered. Give yourself permission to have mixed emotions as it ends. Have them, feel them, reach out, and share them. Know your students will not soon forget you, how you pivoted to face the pandemic and how you taught them—and not just the academic content. You taught them and learned from them what being human is all about—the good, the confusing, the anxiousness, the fear, and the ability to focus, even if it was for just a few minutes at a time.
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