Our responsibility to our students and to each other

March 20, 2020 | | Principled Innovation

The other day I received a text message from my oldest daughter who is creating her best life in New York City. She’s an emerging adult who is living independently in another state for the first time. She’s young, strong, and kind of my hero – doing things I never would have had the courage to do in my early 20’s. She’s also experiencing a worldwide crisis for the first time in her independent life. And, for the first time as a parent, I’m experiencing the uncertainty of my “children” being away from me during a crisis.

Her text message included phrases such as “…they’re shutting down the city”, “…there’s a chance of mass panic”, and “I’m stocking up on food/water/cash because these things might not be readily available”. As the mama bear inherent in me awakened from hibernation, I had to take a pause. I knew this was not the time to vocalize irrational fears. Instead, I took a deep breath and simply responded, “Stay safe and calm, and know you can call us if you need human connection. I love you!”.

Within an hour, I received a call from my other daughter who is away at college. She shared her concerns about succeeding in classes that are now completely online, her disappointment about the abrupt ending to club sports and being unable to compete in their national tournament, and worries about how she is going to pay for rent and food because her employer has cut her hours due to campus shut downs, and now restaurant closures. My reply to her included, “You’ve got this and we’re here for you. I love you.”

They both needed a calm response in this time of uncertainty, and I’m grateful I was able to provide that for them.They also needed to know that their feelings are valid, and that I trust they are capable of surviving this new, uncharted territory. I have no doubts that this experience will contribute to their “becoming” and their ability to be resilient. It made me wonder, though, about what I need as my kiddos are navigating this new challenge (my responses were as much for me as they were for them), and what is my responsibility to others in this time of pandemonium?

As a parent of emerging adults, these are the moments in which I feel powerless. Sure, I can honor their feelings, send money, and provide a calm and steady voice through their moments of anxiety and fear. But there’s still that delicate balance of how much I can and should do for them, and how much they need to learn to navigate on their own. I can only hope that the people in their lives, the mentors, and the educators whom we trust with our children, the adults with practical wisdom that only comes from experience, are prepared to provide the type of support that will recognize the common humanity and social and emotional needs of our young adults who are experiencing this type of crisis for the first time in their independent lives. As these people are making decisions in this volatile time that will affect the lives and learning of those who are new to adulthood, are they doing everything they can to consider the needs of these young people and how they may respond to the changes? And, am I doing everything I can to support the community of young people around me who may be away from their support system for the first time as well? This led me to think about how we might use the 8 practices of Principled Innovation to honor each other’s humanity during this time of fear, change, and ambiguity.

We often think about principled innovation in the context of systems change. The need to respond to the Novel Coronavirus pandemic has demanded systems change. To name a few, universities are moving face to face courses online, travel practices and regulations are changing, and people are being asked to work remotely. These changes to our systems will hopefully result in the intended consequences that will help to “flatten the curve”, but there are unintended consequences that can actually cause harm, and are creating challenging situations for our young adults. While we would hope decision makers engage the practices of PI before taking action, we are seeing the complexity of these situations. The probability for unintended consequences, or at the least challenges and great disappointments, exist. By engaging the practices of principled innovation, we can reduce our risk of unintentionally harming others with our decisions and actions, and increase the possibility of being helpful to others by considering their needs in times of difficulty.

a collage of multi-colored hands

Let’s think about our students whose classes are now completely online. What does that look like for them? In the past, my daughter has been more successful in face to face courses than in her online courses. She is concerned the move to online courses will put her at a disadvantage, possibly resulting in a lower grade in the course. If her grade point is affected it may hinder her chances at securing the internship that is necessary for her to complete her program and become certified in her desired profession. As if that’s not enough, let’s not forget the stress that accompanies the loss of income, social isolation, interrupted structures, and difficulty obtaining nutritious food.

As educators, we can use the practices of PI to help us understand the needs of our students and respond to them in an intentional and compassionate way. We can do this by engaging in reflective practices and answering questions such as:

  • What information and data can I gather about my students to help me understand their past experience with online learning?
  • What adjustments might I need to make to my own teaching style to meet the needs of my online learners?
  • What are some things my students may be concerned about in this time of uncertainty, and how might I be helpful to them as they navigate this new experience?
  • What are my own biases and fears that are affecting my response to my students? To this situation?
  • What can I do differently to best support the needs of my students?
  • How would I want someone else to respond to my child in this situation?

By asking ourselves these types of questions, we are better able to engage empathy and understanding for our students. We can put ourselves in their shoes and move forward with compassion so we are being of service to them as they walk through this new experience.

Now, how about us as educators? What is our responsibility to each other and to ourselves during uncertain times? Principled Innovation can help us navigate these questions as well.

  • How might I stay centered and available for others when I feel the fear and panic of the world around us?
  • When we are faced with the level of uncertainty that is caused by a global crisis, how do we keep our common humanity at the center of our decisions?
  • What are the feelings that are coming up for me during this pandemic? How can I honor my feelings and be kind to myself during this time of uncertainty?
  • What can I do for myself today that will help me to be a more compassionate friend, parent, co-worker?
  • How can I use this time to support the needs of my coworkers?
  • What is something I can take away from this experience that will enhance the way I approach the unexpected?
  • What can I do to shift my thinking from anxiety to curiosity?

The questions we can ask ourselves are endless. They may even result in more questions. The beauty of reflection is that we can always revisit it. Our answers today may not be the same tomorrow, but they will lead us to tomorrow’s actions. We can make a practice of pausing and contemplating our actions before we lean into them. It’s in that pause that we listen for the next right thing to do for that student who is away from their support system for the first time. And it’s in the gratitude within the pause that I thank those who are there for my emerging adults as well.