Teaching Strategies

Cura Personalis & Community Building

Navigating the return to the typical in-person classroom will likely require some trial and error, especially given that some of us may be experiencing heightened and unexpected responses to our physical environments in light of the grief, trauma, and anxiety caused by the pandemic. 

Additionally, shifts to policies and cultural norms that occurred during the pandemic—including things like inviting students to more readily share barriers they were experiencing to learning or responsibilities that impinged on their role as students—gave many of us more insight into the many complications and distractions students experience during and beyond the pandemic. Many instructors invested even more deeply in cura personalis, or care for the whole person, in their relationships with students. Though for women, people of color, and parents, that additional investment sometimes came on top of what already felt like untenable workloads.

In the section on cura personalis, you’ll find teaching approaches that can help you prioritize your own wellbeing while providing students with the environment and resources that can help them learn as they experience grief and loss. 

Teaching remotely and in socially-distanced classrooms also required instructors to more intentionally develop relationships with and between students. The section on community building will help you think through some of your options for retranslating those approaches back into the typical classroom.   

Cura Personalis 

For many instructors, the full personhood of their students became more blatant during the height of the pandemic, as all of us experienced uncertainty, grief, and the limits of our own control together. Course policies and protocols, the use of class time, and assignment types shifted to account for the extremity of our context. Many instructors also found themselves pushed beyond their limits trying to design and deliver courses and support students. 

In the coming year, such a focus on human-centered instruction will likely continue to be salient, even if it looks slightly different in practice. For some instructors, valuing cura personalis in their teaching may mean investing in their own well-being by selecting some easier-to-administer policies (like returning to a more traditional absenteeism policy). Cura personalis will also likely include reflections on what students are bringing into the classroom—their excitement and desire for connection as well as grief, anxiety, and uncertainty. A number of the strategies that worked over the past year and a half can be translated into the more typical in-person learning environment, including:  

  • Deciding how much space to make for grief: As many of us continue to grieve the loss of loved ones or grapple with a fundamentally disrupted understanding of the world, we’ll be bringing that experience into the classroom with us. In your course you might decide to: 
    • Acknowledge the diversity of experiences and responses in the room, normalizing all kinds of emotional responses (anger, anxiety, grief, numbness, etc.) 
    • Encourage help-seeking and indicating support options available on campus and in the community.
    • Provide a model, as you’re comfortable, for talking about grief, anxiety, loss and the healthier coping strategies that work for you. If you choose this route, keep in mind how much you want to disclose to your students about your own experience and your purpose for sharing with them. See an example of an instructor disclosing her own grief and linking it to learning
    • Create (optional and/or anonymous) spaces where students can share about how they’re doing, talk about how they’re adjusting to more typical campus life, whether that’s an anonymous survey or occasionally holding ten minutes at the end of class for students who want to stay and share about how they’re doing.
  • Providing options for how students reflect on their experience of the past few years. The risks of classroom disclosure might be too high for many students, but some might benefit from the choice to process some of their experience of the past year in conversation with course content. 
  • Experimenting with trauma-informed educational practices that enhance emotional safety can help you decide how you want to make space for students to discuss their experiences of the coronavirus, whether in a scholarly or personal mode. 
  • Interject levity and humor into class periods by bringing in content-relevant memes, video clips, etc. and inviting students to suggest options. 
  • When possible, giving students more ownership over class by allowing their initial small group brainstorming or analysis to structure the rest of the class period, taking pressure off your planning and giving students more voice over course work. You can also have peers take more responsibility for absent students’ catching up by using mechanisms like shared or collaborative notes or utilizing support teams in class.
  • Using a course workload estimator to double check how much you are asking students—and yourself—to do.
  • Practicing modeling boundaries and self-care for students by only responding to messages during communicated standard work hours, talking about ways you take care of yourself, etc. Adding a note to your syllabus or Canvas course page that clarifies how quickly students can expect to hear back from you, what they should do if they don’t hear back in that time, and when you are regularly unavailable by email can help you maintain boundaries while maintaining transparent and predictable communication with students. 

It’s worth noting that during the last eighteen months many previously-established boundaries eroded as students and instructors invariably had more access to each other’s lives, seeing into bedrooms and getting glimpses of family life. For some, this opened up an opportunity for more genuine relationships and clarified the collective and particular experience of the pandemic. Many people also experienced an even more pronounced sense that it was necessary to be responsive to students at all hours and felt occasional pangs of over-exposure. As we head back to more typical classroom settings, it might take some time for instructors and students to calibrate their expectations for and rebuild appropriate boundaries. 

Community Building

Teaching in remote and socially-distanced settings required more intentional approaches to building class community. Some students really benefited from those practices and were able to express themselves more easily when provided with more structure and with more options for communicating (e.g. having the choice to speak up or put a contribution in the chat). Because COVID protocols made some more typical social interactions more difficult last year, more local students also spent more time at home, finding support and community with their families. During the last school year, classes were also one of the few on-campus opportunities students had to meet people and socialize. 

As we return to the in-person classroom, in an environment where more students might still be spending time at home than was typical for BC pre-pandemic, some of the more intentional community building approaches we learned over the past 18 months can translate back into the in-person classroom.

  • Start with an intentional check-in: Spend several minutes at the beginning of every class period checking in with how students are doing or asking about events or conversations happening on campus. Polling software can help get the conversation started and provide an alternative for students who really appreciated being able to communicate via chat. 
  • Set up regular assignments that promote collaboration: Having students regularly collaborate over Persuall annotations, or engage in a course-related Twitter conversation, or sharing relevant memes in a Canvas discussion thread allows students to bring their own interests to course content and relate to one another in a more exploratory and experimental environment. While using the communication mediums that many of our students are native to can be beneficial, there are also potential drawbacks. Students from historically marginalized backgrounds, especially Black women, are more likely to be on the receiving end of abusive online behavior and may choose to avoid the platform. 
  • Communicate regularly and in a consistent medium: Sending a message every week at a regular time in Canvas or via email that gives you a chance to say hi, review and/or set up course content, or share some collective feedback can help foster a sense of connection and keep everyone on the same page.  
  • Schedule communal study hours as an alternative to office hours: Schedule some of your office hours remotely or in a larger space and bill them as communal study hours where students can come in and get help from you, a TA, and one another. 
  • Put students in persistent small groups working on tasks that require their collaboration. For more examples of small group configurations and the research in favor of it, see Hodges 2018
  • Rearrange the furniture so that students are more likely to see one another. 

Share Your Reflections

As Fall 2021 unfolds, please share with us what you’re learning about teaching in this particular moment by dropping a note to centerforteaching@bc.edu. We’ll keep collecting your good ideas and sharing them out via the CTE newsletter and other resources.