My last vivid memory of seeing my students in person was just before quarantine, the day when we left campus at lunchtime and pressed into a packed subway train on our way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were aware of the virus. One of the students even grew up in Wuhan and gave us updates. But we still pushed our bodies and unmasked faces into the shoulders and armpits of strangers, naïve to what was about to happen to New York, that we would all soon flee, never to return to our classroom.
After we quickly and clumsily converted to online learning, I was immediately made aware about the diverse challenges of my students’ lives. Through Zoom screens, I learned that some contracted the virus and cared for sick relatives too. Others became caretakers of young siblings. Most international students were couch-surfing and intensely homesick. One student joined class from a chair in the bathroom shower of her family’s cramped apartment, the only place she could find the quiet needed to focus. Many would not turn video on at all, their identities and struggles receding into the abyss of New York’s cruelest month.
We adapted as teachers too: shifting expectations, rewriting assignments, recording new resources, mastering new platforms. But still most of us were “putting existing courses online.” We tried to extend the in-person rapport we had generated throughout the semester. Hey, these Zoom seminar discussions aren’t so bad! Pretty good for a pandemic, we said to ourselves. We gave A’s and B’s and even degrees.
But summertime reflection has shown that most of us teachers have a lot to learn about educating in these new modes. We performed a kind of triage on our spring semester, not proper care. What will it take for us to be excellent educators with flexible methods and, as the Jesuits say, cura personalis?
Analogies for the act of teaching abound. Metaphors animate our very words for teaching: instruct “builds in”; educate “draws out”; pedagogy “leads a young person” along. Some still think of teachers as transmitters of information, as banks or ATMs of knowledge that get placed into students’ brains. In his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire criticized this “banking model of education,” in which the teacher “makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat,” in order to show that their brain receptacles are full. Sadly, our schools’ current recommendations about “instructional delivery” during the pandemic surreptitiously propagate this inadequate theory of education. Its deficiency was criticized differently centuries ago by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus in his Enchiridion (“Handbook”): “Sheep don’t show the shepherds how much they’ve eaten by bringing them the grass; rather, digesting their food inside, they outwardly produce wool and milk.”
A better analogy for the in-person act of educating is the athletic trainer, an idea I owe to Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. Here we inherently understand that the primary responsibility for fitness lies with the student, who is not passive but active. Still the trainer (or teacher) plays many crucial roles: creating an appropriate environment, inspiring enthusiasm, designing structured activities for individuals and groups, demonstrating proper techniques, providing correction and encouragement, explaining effectively the benefits and drawbacks of various exercises, utilizing appropriate and up-to-date technologies, offering one-on-one attention with struggling students, and detailing what students can do on their own to continue their development.