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Wondering what your students need? It’s time to call them

May 14, 2020

Last weekend, I attempted to call nearly half of the students I am teaching this semester. I wanted to touch base with the ones who haven’t earned enough points to pass my class. I only succeeded in reaching about ten of them, but the challenges that students are experiencing now are unlike anything I’ve seen in the 11 years I have been teaching.

One student, a paramedic, was apologetic about the effect her increased hours have had on her class participation. Another disclosed that she has bipolar disorder that has worsened due to stress related to the pandemic. And another student, just as her studies moved completely online, accidentally spilled a glass of water on her laptop, rendering it inoperable, and has been trying to keep up with her classes using her smartphone.

Many of us feel impotent right now. And while we all have been affected by the pandemic, we know that some people in our communities are struggling more than we are. But I heard something that surprised me as I was making these calls. Multiple students told me they had never received a call from a professor. Their comments motivated me to continue reaching out to students. It quickly became clear that hearing from me mattered.

From these conversations, I wanted to share three insights for faculty and staff looking to engage students in the midst of the pandemic.

1. Students will need information from earlier in the term reinforced

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a typical professor. I experienced firsthand the precarious balance so many of our students face raising families, working, and attending college and realize that it is much more important for them to keep up in their English and science courses than in the college success skills class I teach. After the census date for my class, I typically announce to students that the deadlines in my class are recommendations to help them pace their work across the term, but they are free to work ahead or catch up as their lives demand.

One thing I’ve learned across my years of teaching (and it has never been more true than in the current term) is that it doesn’t matter how many times you think you’ve told students something, there is someone in class who didn’t hear the message. That is the case in any given term, even when there isn’t a global pandemic happening. While I shared my policy on flexible due dates both as an announcement and as an email to my students early in the term, it was news to many of the students I called. They would have missed this critical information altogether if I hadn’t called them.

We may feel like we are repeating ourselves, but now—more than ever—it is critical to reiterate important information across multiple channels used by students.

2. The personal nature of a phone call can help students open up

The second insight I gained from making these calls was the value of personal touch. Just as we know from our professional lives, there is a time for email, and there is a time for talking. In my conversations last weekend, students confided in me in ways that I doubt they ever would have over email.

One student told me she hadn’t submitted a high-point value assignment because she didn’t think she had an advisor to verify her transfer plan. I could hear the desperation and frustration in her voice. It was clear that she wanted to submit the assignment—but she didn’t know how to do it. By the end of our 10-minute conversation, she knew what she needed to do. Could I have given her the information she needed via email? Maybe. But during this extraordinarily difficult time, would she have felt that she had one more person on her side? I doubt it.

Another student told me her school-aged children are now at home all the time, and she has been trying to teach them while managing her own classes. She didn’t reach out to me because she thought emailing me about the challenges she faced would sound like she was whining about something that many parents are also experiencing. Instead, she had fallen behind and had resigned herself to the thought that her missed assignments would be zeros.

Our students are facing challenges they never anticipated, and our personal connections with them have never been more valuable. I understand that calling every student isn’t realistic for most colleges. This has to be a part of an overall communication strategy that involves email and text outreach, with calls reserved for those students who need personal outreach most. 

3. Be prepared to make connections to other resources and offices

Students will disclose problems that you aren’t the right person to address. I found myself reminded of a supervisor who used to tell us that, to our students, “we are the college.” They are still learning the distinction between faculty and staff and whose role performs which duties. And it’s not up to the students to know the distinction—it’s up to the leaders and staff to have coordinated network of support in place for students experiencing challenges.

When a student explained that she had spilled water on her laptop and it would no longer turn on, I couldn’t say with certainty whether the college had emergency funds available that could help. But she had been using her smartphone to complete her assignments in all of her classes and didn’t have the money to replace her computer. With a bit of searching on the college website, I was able to direct her how to find out whether there was emergency aid to help her get what she needed. If that didn’t work, we talked about how to find a loaner laptop. Again, I have no doubt that the college has shared these resources with students, but the information hadn’t been received.  

Similarly, the student who disclosed that the pandemic had worsened her bipolar disorder knew she needed help. She explained that she wished she had reached out to a counselor earlier in the term to establish a memorandum of accommodations to help her manage her disability. No one could have anticipated the twists and turns this semester has presented. However, additional time on her assignments and tests might have provided this student with the flexibility she needed to succeed. Now that she has been able to connect with a counselor, she will have the resources she needs to succeed in her summer classes.

For many of us, the pandemic has reinforced our desire to serve. It’s frustrating to sit on the sidelines as we see people in our communities struggle. Those of us in higher education have a unique opportunity to influence the lives of our students, but we must build those connections to better understand how we can help.

I can’t deliver all of the support that my students need. But for many of them, these phone conversations were meaningful, and might mean the difference between leaving the college after a series of challenges and a passing grade that inspires a student to return next semester.

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