Engaging Students beyond the Traditional Classroom Part II: Pedagogies of Presence, Kindness, and Care

By: Erin Rentschler

Our last post in this series examined the theoretical value of engaging students through a learning community. This week’s post explores the role that pedagogies of presence, kindness, and care can play in creating such a community.

In Small Teaching and a previous essay for the Chronicle, James Lang reflects on the sometimes transactional nature of teaching, admitting that he was sometimes  “focused not on connecting with individual students but on the material, on the passing of the hour, on what was next in my day.” Considering the value of that human connection and the role it plays in helping students stay motivated and engage, Lang  calls for a “pedagogy of presence.”  For Lang, a pedagogy of presence ultimately means exactly what it sounds like – being fully present with and for our students, being attentive to who they are, and the ways in which they’re waiting for us to take notice of them.

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While this is always important, it is particularly important now during a pandemic and when our world is also once again experiencing frightening political and social unrest. It is important when our students’ (and our own) hearts may be heavy with loss from the pandemic and the relentlessness of racism and violence in the news and perhaps in their neighborhoods; when anxieties and unknowns distract them from their learning; when statements, open letters, and images on social media feel like broken records or endless loops; when life happens, in its often unpredictable and troubling ways, but also in times of joy and peace — these are times to be present for our students, and for each other.

In Small Teaching Online, Flower Darby reiterates the particular importance of human presence in the online class environment: “Like us, they are not just names on a screen, although sometimes it can feel that way. Our students are living, breathing people. They come to us with hopes and dreams, pressures and concerns, competing demands on their time” (96). In teaching remotely, even if teaching synchronously through videoconferencing, we must be intentional about humanizing the learning experience and creating spaces where our students feel connected rather than distant. Experiencing a sense of belonging, a feeling they are welcome and accepted for who they are in the current moment, can motivate students to participate and engage in class.  Kevin Gannon (author of Radical Hope) posits “a pedagogy of care [that] welcomes students on their own terms, includes them for who they are, and–most importantly–commits us to doing the type of work to maintain that climate and approach.” Students need to know that they matter and that there is a purpose for their own presence in class when the world around us is on fire. This isn’t to say that we need to counsel our students and break boundaries that we may have set for our interactions, but we do need to be attentive and practice kindness. Cate Denial, practitioner of a pedagogy of kindness, assures us that “kindness as pedagogical practice is not about sacrificing myself, or about taking on more emotional labor. It has simplified my teaching, not complicated it.”

At the core of these pedagogies of kindness, care, and presence is really a focus on trust and thoughtful communication. Building on Gannon’s pedagogy of care, for instance, Darby posits that “enacting scalable and authentic demonstrations of caring and support, can truly help to establish trust. As we know [trust] is a crucial element of creating community in online classes. Therefore, it’s worth considering how it might be done in your online classes, or indeed or face-to-face and blended classes, which could of course also benefit from this kind of outreach” (Flower 101).

Clearly articulating the purpose, task, skills, and criteria involved in your course and assignments is a relatively simple way to build trust with students. This method is included in the Transparency in Learning and Teaching initiative, a known inclusive practice that reduces barriers to learning and benefits all students but especially those who may be at-risk or under-served. Teaching with transparency signals pedagogical caring by reducing students’ cognitive load, especially when their social and emotional loads may be too much to bear.

colorful cutouts of the word purpose
Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Reminding students about and pointing explicitly to the purpose and goals of your course now might help students understand why you continue to teach through this turbulent time and encourage them to reflect on their own sense of purpose, whether for the course or in the world beyond it.  In a recent piece for Inside Higher Ed, Mays Imad reflects on this sense of educational purpose, underscoring the role it plays in helping students navigate our troubled times.

Some other methods you can try to engage students that incorporate practices of presence, kindness, and care:

  • Make time to talk with students.
    • Pose simple questions to your students about how their learning is going, especially if you notice a trending disengagement and especially when the world around us has been distressing. Encourage them to identify any obstacles they are facing or have faced in the past.
    • Provide an opportunity for students to check in with you, the class, or themselves about how they are caring for themselves physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Be attentive to the answers. Provide resources for support.
    • Reach out to all students individually, even if with the same message, when your class size allows you to do so. Reach out to students who seem to be struggling, who disappear, or who might be facing obstacles to their learning. Follow up by phone or video conference to those who might benefit from vocal interaction.
    • Address current events directly, but do so with a clear plan, protocols for difficult conversation, and well-articulated goals about the purpose of the conversation.
  • Seek feedback on your instruction. Consider an early course evaluation, and make adjustments to the course as you are able. Address changes you’re not able to make and explain why. Asking for and implementing feedback during the course not only demonstrates that you care about your students and trust them, it empowers them to take responsibility for one aspect of how their learning happens.
  • Be aware of microaggressions, and confront them.
  • Offer an “Oops Token,” that students can turn in “for a no-questions-asked deadline extension, the opportunity to revise and resubmit an assignment or otherwise make up for an unexpected challenge or honest mistake” (Darby 99)
  • Encourage students to support one another academically (and socially as well if that’s comfortable for you) and set up spaces in your course site to facilitate peer support (perhaps a “Phone a Friend” discussion board with different topics). Doing so helps some students feel supported while helping others feel needed.
  • Communicate frequently and intentionally about the plan for learning. Carefully organize material, regularly emphasize to students the most important concepts or skills, and explicitly discuss how to prioritize the work in your course.
  • Provide time for metacognitive reflection, especially after assignments and exams. Consider using wrappers to provide such a metacognitive pause. Practice reflection on your own instruction, too. It will help you be more present.

Practicing a pedagogy of presence, caring, or kindness might mean that you wander off script, which can be scary. After all, we know the value of being intentional about our teaching and we plan carefully to help our students meet the learning goals we set out for them. Deviating from the plan creates a bit of uncertainty in an already uncertain time. But there is also tremendous value in knowing that someone cares about you.

Additional Resources
(many of the suggestions above have been adapted from these resources)

The Human Work of Higher Education Pedagogy

How to Humanize Your Online Class

Closing Class amid National Rage and Sorrow

Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now

Higher Education’s Role in Promoting Racial Healing and the Power of Wonder

Bending the Arc: A Social Justice Newsletter for Educators

Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Students We Wish We Had

Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning

Best Practices in Online Learning for At-Risk Students

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