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The 42%: Student Silence during COVID-19

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

On the eve of spring break--smack dab in the middle of the semester--we received word that we might not return to campus. Originally, most chalked it up to hearsay, but then a couple ivy league schools confirmed their transition to ‘distance learning’ to slow the spread of COVID-19... And we knew we would likely follow suit.

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After a spring break of converting the classes for my whole program to a virtual format, I felt confident that we could proceed with learning via the seamless use of technology. Still, what no one could have predicted was that WiFi had nothing to do with the types of challenges students and professors alike would face.


Each week there were fewer smiling faces on Zoom, and more follow-up emails asking, “Where were you tonight? Is everything okay? How can I help?” I scrambled to find funding for some students and devices for others, sent virtual condolences and had office hours, during which time students could simply connect with me and one another in an unstructured way. Focused on our collective limp towards the finish line, it was the very first time my thoughts were not consumed by student survey feedback and what it might say of my performance. 


Instead, I was immersed in planning virtual graduation ceremonies and compiling all I’d learned from remote teaching. I’d come to expect that we may not return to face-to-face instruction for some time. 


Then came the feedback:


“I like how we had practice immediately working with unit plans and lesson plans, as well as practice creating things like objectives with each other.”


Yes! Great--okay, more practical application. Continue small group work and feedback...


“The course as a whole is most meaningful in person and so I'm disappointed we got to miss out on that.”


Ugh. I have to further investigate how best to humanize this experience...


“Professor Austin makes me want to learn more than the class gives me the opportunity to. She gives us so many resources to bring into our classrooms and she is one of the main reasons I will be an impactful teacher.”


Swoon! If only you knew that your brilliance and criticality push me to continue growing every year, semester, class meeting, moment...


Response Rate - 58%.


58%!


You mean the opportunity to bash or praise, admonish or recommend, was not alluring enough to respond? Who were the missing students? Was the silence from the super grateful who wanted to walk into their professional lives without the hassle of further screen time? Or was it the disappointed lot who called out this viral thief for stealing the magic of live instruction while replacing it with a two-dimensional substitute? Could it have been the pragmatic population who checked the course off as ‘complete’ and found it more practical to shift their attention to more pressing matters?


Where were my students? Were they okay? Why did they remain silent? Had I done enough?


In an effort to model self-care and work within my ‘sphere of influence,’ I have committed to actually sleeping in lieu of succumbing to these unanswered questions with eyes wide-open in the wee hours of the night. Still, I am in full solidarity with K-12 teachers who have been experiencing this deafening student silence and cannot help but wonder what it represents. I will never know if nearly half of my students were struggling and did not think of me as a person who might help, or if they just walked away underwhelmed by the loss of their in-person graduation ceremony. It’s the not knowing...


I want to continue to grow into the type of educator who can account for her students. Some of my students are ‘essential workers.’ Some support themselves financially and have children of their own. Some are even well-off but, rightfully, suffer from anxiety and isolation as only this pandemic has shown us we might. This is all real suffering, and all of it--all of them--matter. I am proud of my 58% responses, but I will always remain concerned about the other 42.



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