Tyll Zybura

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Keep contact to your students in this time of crisis

Tyll Zybura, 19.03.2020

This is a call to teachers and supervisors to take proactive steps to keep in (virtual) touch with your students in a time of crisis.

One of the side effects of the current Corona crisis in Europe is that student stress levels go through the roof.

Many students worry about how their exams, their deadlines, their classes, and their credits will be affected by the increasing shutdown of social life. We, as their lecturers rarely have any more information and can often reply to the frantic emails only with “I don’t know, keep calm, wait and see”, which is not wrong but also not helpful.

Emails from university officials are also rarely helpful, because they focus on facts and regulations, and they are often written in a formulaic, impersonal, bureaucratic, and even admonishing style that does nothing to transmit confidence and calm.

We as individual lecturers cannot speak officially for our institutions’ policies in this time of crisis, but we can be the human face of our institution for the people in our immediate care. We can adopt mindful ways of communicating proactively, even when we don’t have all the answers or an immediate solution.

One way of doing that is by writing a personal email to all the students whose written work you’re currently supervising, or to the students who are currently enrolled in your classes. 1 The emphasis here is on personal. Spare your students yet another bureaucratic routine call. Here are some suggestions for this email:

  • Acknowledge that your students have just experienced great disruptions of their education and their lives, and that this may legitimately go along with overwhelming stress for some of them.

  • Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers and solutions, but that you’ll try your best to help with any questions your students may have.

  • Tell students a bit about the changes that your own work had to suffer, for example how your home office works – to make them see that you also have to cope with a new situation.

  • But don’t complain, don’t admonish, don’t apologize – it’s not necessary or appropriate.

  • Instead, be kind and be patient. State that you don’t expect everyone to deal with the situation the same way: While some students find high levels of productivity in their social isolation, others fall into depression and feel paralyzed by anxiety. Give encouragement and empathy toward both.

  • Tell your students that you are well, if you are, or share a little about how you are not – they usually care and there is no shame in showing your own vulnerability.

  • Tell your students what you can do to help them if they need it. Be specific! For example, offer individual consultations by phone or via online services at specific times during the week. Create access and regularity for them.

  • Repeat and summarize for them the most important policies that your faculty has adopted to facilitate ‘social distancing’, which are relevant to their current work (like allowing digital submissions only and via which services, or under what circumstances exam deadlines can be extended, etc.). Also point them to the people who are responsible for giving answers where you cannot, like the examination offices. Try to apprehend the information your students might be needing, and be extra helpful.

You might think that all this goes without saying, or that it can be looked up on your website, or that it was already dealt with in that one email among twenty that someone important whose name your students probably have never heard before sent around to the entire faculty yesterday at 5pm.

But we live in a state of exception for now, and it is important to reaffirm lines of communication and personal connections from positions of care and responsibility where we can. Even if we don’t feel authoritative at all, we’re still perceived to represent the institution, and we are the ones who students look to for help.

Alleviating the feeling of insecurity and lack of agency that many of our students suffer from doesn’t take much, but I think it goes a long way in an extraordinary situation.

  1. Yes, depending on your technological setup, compiling lists of emails may a bit of work, but it’s important work – if you have a secretary, they can help; also: put their emails in the BCC field so not everyone can see everyone else’s adresses. ↩︎


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