Embracing Compassion: The Challenges of Teaching and Learning During Crisis

The view from the hospital room. It’s hard to think about regular stuff in a moment of crisis.

The past few days have been tough for the Foss house. Last night, my 11 year-old’s seemingly-mild sickness turned briefly scary when she became too weak to stand and too disoriented for easy conversation. We made the the tough decision to take her to the local emergency room, knowing that it would be a long night. I figured that even if the hospital admitted her, I’d still be able to run home for a toothbrush or a change of clothes. Wrong. Once we made it through the waiting room gates two hours later, the health professional team quickly determined that my daughter would likely need to be transferred for pediatric care. More than six hours after we entered, we left in an ambulance transport to the children’s hospital 40 minutes away. There, we sat in a temporary exam room through tests and waves of doctors for another seven hours until my tween was moved to a more permanent room a few floors up — the space in which we could finally take a breath (or a nap). With my daughter under the careful watch of the nursing staff (who reassured me that it was fine and normal to leave for a few hours), I got picked up by my husband. We drove back to the first hospital’s parking lot. He dropped me off at my car with my youngest daughter and got back on the freeway to the children’s hospital. She and I drove home, where I couldn’t just crash. We both missed each other and I couldn’t just ignore her to nap or get stuff done.

This weekend has been a reminder of the compassion we must serve our students when they experience such a crisis. We can’t assume that a visit to a clinic or hospital only took an hour or two. Nor can we expect that waiting time in stressful situations can or should be used for completing homework assignments. Like us, our students also face stressful situations, like health emergencies, but also job loss, family crises, and other issues that draw time from school and take an emotional toll on attempting to adequately produce work. Unpredictable issues disrupt the flow of everyday life — a night in the emergency room meant exhaustion plus the burden of completing tasks that would have been easily achieved in late evening or early morning in a regular day.

I am not advocating for accepting any excuse or regularly opening up Dropbox restrictions and taking late work. Rather, my reflection has prompted me to examine my expectations for students when they experience crisis. I would honestly write a terrible manuscript review right now, record a comically-bad lecture, or likely fall asleep on a stack of papers if I tried to grade them in this moment. In fact, the only reason I started this essay was to pour out the story of the last day and a half and because I didn’t want to lose $20 for my monthly writing challenge.

If/when we grant make-ups, are we building in enough of a window for our students to climb out of the crisis first before diving into another stressful situation? Are we communicating what needs to be done, acknowledging that in stressful situations, it can be more difficult to navigate through online platforms and instructions?

I started this post on February 13th. It has taken me more than two weeks to come back to it, just to finish up a blog post. More than two weeks. Would we have granted students that same grace period?

My child’s issues have shifted from crisis to our (hopefully temporary) new “normal,” in which the mundane is punctuated with “drop everything and HELP” moments. I am beginning to understand more and more how a person can do some of the regular stuff (tween is doing the distance learning classes), but may still need patience and flexibility in finishing the work. For now, I’m just trying to do my best, as a parent, spouse, and teacher — attempting to bring newfound perspectives to my students.

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