Humans are fascinating social animals, fragile alone and powerful together. We’re wired to care deeply about how others perceive us, so our learning opportunities are shaped by our sense of belonging (Gilbert, 2018; Hammond, 2015; Steele and Aronson, 1995). In order to learn deeply and stretch intellectually, people need to feel safe, both physically and socially. When we feel threatened, we switch into fight or flight mode, so we don’t have the cognitive resources or “bandwidth” we need for learning and development (Hammond, 2015; Verschelden, 2017). As Hammond explains, “The brain experiences social pain—not connecting with others or being rejected by them—in the same way it experiences physical pain.” In contrast, trust and security “free up the brain for other activities such as creativity, learning, and higher order thinking.” In other words, the trusting relationships we cultivate with our students, and help them to cultivate with one another, make learning possible.
Maintaining a learning environment in which all of our students feel respected and able to learn can be tricky work; it’s more challenging than ever in this harrowing semester. Our most marginalized students, especially, may be feeling unsafe both physically and socially, with hate crimes in the news, and hate saturating social media and political discourse. Students of color, LGBTQ students, students with varying immigration statuses, Jewish students, Muslim students, and others may be carrying burdens that are invisible to us right now, but affect both their health and their learning. We design and oversee their learning experiences, so we must do our best to protect the the conditions in which our students learn; when the outside world is fraught, it‘s even more important that our classrooms are welcoming.
It’s hard to know how best to support students right now, but we don’t have to have all of the answers in order to do something helpful, and support can take many forms. It might involve taking a moment of class time to acknowledge what has happened this semester, or inviting students to write down their thoughts and feelings about the recent violence or the outcome of the election. Validating their concerns is an important gesture. Support might mean making space for students to process and interpret events through class discussion, especially if it will help them connect what they’re learning in class to the outside world. If that sort of class discussion wouldn’t be appropriate in your context, or you don’t feel able to facilitate what could be a difficult conversation, support might just mean being understanding when students ask for an extension or have to miss class. Showing care and empathy for students can go a long way; they appreciate it when we are willing to listen.
If you would like to develop strategies for supporting students that suit your course and your own teaching persona, email us for a consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to working with you.