Compassion in the Classroom during COVID

Dr Emma Battell Lowman, University of Leicester

This blog is based on a presentation at the EMC History Teaching in the ‘Age of Covid’ workshop which was held in January 2021. It was also posted as part of the History UK Pandemic Pedagogy series.

I’m a big fan of Dr Theo Gilbert’s work on the importance of compassionate practice in Higher Education. Here, “compassion” isn’t an emotion, like empathy, it’s a “psycho-biologically mediated motivation/an intention to notice, not normalise, one’s own distress or disadvantaging, or that of others, and take action to reduce or prevent it.” Theo’s practices build connections in the classroom that reduce stress, improve achievement, and support wellbeing for staff and students. By fostering connection and mutual support, they help us to push back against the fear, uncertainty, and doubt saturating the individualised, marketized, neoliberal, UK university sector. 

Some of our employers seem to be conveniently ignoring the fact that we are currently in national lockdown and almost a year into the devastations of the COVID-19 pandemic. But this isn’t normal, we’re not Ok, and neither are our students. And yet, we’re still here – professional and academic services staff – working however, whenever, and wherever we can to continue supporting our students and each other. We don’t need lunchtime wellbeing webinars, we need strategies that help us pool our efforts so we can get through this.

“Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility” are “the 4 Rs” of Indigenous education and research identified more than 30 years ago by Cree educational expert Verna Kirkness. The work of critical Indigenous researchers and experts directly informs my pedagogy and politics, and the concept of reciprocity is particularly important here. Compassionate practice in the COVID classroom isn’t just about noticing distress or disadvantage impacting students, it’s also about making space for reciprocal care.

We want and need to support our students, and I see colleagues doing so in creative, kind, and expert ways. But we’re missing something crucial if we limit this to a one-way relationship of care. I admit to my students when I am not well, not just because I do sometimes need to adjust activities or availability, but also so that students who might be struggling see honest communication and self-reflection as acceptable and encouraged in our educational environments. One day I was struggling because a friend was assaulted, and I had a full day of teaching. I let my students know, we checked in for a few minutes then went into our activities. Consequence? They stepped up in class, and several reached out via email to extend care to me and share their own stories. The reciprocal care helped create learning relationships in the class with high levels of trust despite the challenges of our first online semester. These gave rise to strong positive supportive interactions around skills and content, and a remarkably successful semester, in these difficult times.

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