Column: Faculty deserve recognition for teaching through the pandemic with empathy

During a year of anxiety and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, my professors have been empathetic, flexible and understanding of the pressures facing students. My professors’ dedication to our wellness, mental health and academic careers manifested through simple acts like extended deadlines, which helped mitigate stress and enhanced my college experience. While I didn’t expect them to be so understanding and caring with their busy workload, I’ve appreciated their kindness this school year more than they’ll ever know. More students should recognize the difficulties of teaching during the pandemic and thank their professors who have done so with effort and empathy.

The pandemic sent classes online from March 2020 and for the rest of the following academic year, damaging students’ academic experience and aggravating their anxiety. During a time of heightened anxiety, remote learning led to Zoom fatigue and less socialization. Much of the pandemic-related stress persisted even after GW’s full campus reopening. Balancing COVID-19 safety with new relationships on top of coursework, internships and jobs made students like me feel more anxious than past years. Many students still feel overwhelmed despite widespread vaccination and a return to in-person learning.

This academic year, professors had to adapt to balancing students’ health and safety with in-person classroom interaction. Professors and students navigated a University mask mandate that has remained in place for the entire school year except for the first week in April along with shifts in testing and visitor safety protocols and a move to virtual classes after winter break. Despite these changes in COVID-19 protocols, my professors were still excited to teach us and remained masked all year to protect themselves and us.

Knowing that professors understand the pressures of being a college student, especially amid a pandemic, can make students feel less alone. Even with COVID-19 restrictions and classes with hundreds of students, my professors have created an open dialogue and discussed aspects of student life like daily stresses, current events and University news to show that they can empathize with students’ struggles. At the start of each class this semester, my history professor asked students to share any good or bad experiences from the days when we didn’t see each other. She showed interest in our lives and welcomed all answers, no matter how big or small.

My professors also always offered office hours, encouraged us to reach out if we felt overwhelmed and asked us for our opinions on deadlines, assignment content, exams and more, which all eased my nerves. During weeks of midterms and final exams, my professors acknowledged how busy we were and one professor shared an article about managing stress outside of class. During the online period at the beginning of this semester, my professors taught with excitement, constantly asked and answered questions and worked to make classes as interesting as possible despite the difficulty to lecture to a screen for more than an hour.

Extended deadlines were another major way in which my professors eliminated stress from my COVID-19 college experience and showed that they care about workload. My professors sought to grade our best work instead of a paper completed during a stressful all-nighter. One professor reminded me of her two-day deadline extension policy for papers and finals after I asked her about my paper after class. I had three important meetings the day of the paper’s deadline and felt stressed all day about submitting my best work. Before I even told her that my week was extra busy, she could tell I was anxious and would benefit from an extension. She even told me to get some rest during the busy exam season – she truly cared about me as a student and a person.

Faculty’s dedication to students’ well-being has helped them navigate pandemic-era education with less stress than anticipated. An October 2021 report from a University-wide task force focused on GW’s learning environment found that a “culture of empathy” between faculty and students has been key to students’ academic success during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, we as students ought to show empathetic professors that we appreciate their kindness. Whether through a simple “thank you” or time spent on a course evaluation, we can show professors that their behavior makes a difference, especially during this past school year in which students felt anxiety and uncertainty about public health.

It cannot be easy to foster an empathetic environment and make connections with students during a pandemic – we’ve all grown accustomed to less socialization and more stress. But my professors’ genuine empathy and flexibility during a difficult year can provide a model for other faculty members who may not have demonstrated such empathy and flexibility. Feedback and appreciation can encourage more faculty to become better educators for their students and themselves. Widespread adoption of this empathic approach is essential as the University community continues to deal with COVID-19 and the stress it causes.

While fluctuations in COVID-19 cases caused stress this academic year, I’ve also felt joy meeting new friends, professors and exploring D.C. GW’s community has seen changes in COVID-19 guidelines within a city constantly focused on concerning and polarizing political news and controversies all while attending classes. We sometimes forget our professors experience stress daily, too. I want to thank all of my professors for consistently facilitating my education and creating an empathetic environment.

Mia Adams, a freshman majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.

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