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I teach students enrolled in our Ph.D. social work program how to teach. This required course covers soup to nuts from adult learning theories to setting up a syllabus to managing email response time and office hours, both virtual and face-to-face. The course includes handling difficult classroom and Zoom conversations centered on race, gender and sexual orientation, as well as how to deal with the garrulous, the absent and the failing student. One assignment requires students to observe three other classes and to evaluate how the instructors promote evidence-based learning theories and use a range of teaching techniques -- mixing lectures with PowerPoint, setting up role plays, showing and narrating videos, monitoring small and large group discussions, and so on.
In the students’ observations over the years, one theme has emerged, however, that has not been given much attention: the all-important check-in. The check-in usually, though not always, occurs at the beginning of a class, when the instructor asks students if they have any housekeeping needs concerning assignments and any questions related to the previous lecture’s contents.
In some classes, particularly those in the human services professions -- like social work, psychology and education -- the check-in often also focuses on students’ emotional well-being in relation to societal events. For example, an instructor in a school of education might have checked in with budding teachers about school safety after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook, regarding how secure they and their students felt in the classroom where they were interning. I took the pulse of my classes after the explosion of the Challenger in 1986, the Sept. 11 attacks and, with greater intensity, the 2015 death of Freddie Gray a few miles from where I teach in Baltimore.
What is emerging from Ph.D. students’ observations is the sense that well-being check-ins are more important than ever, are lengthier and have the potential to derail the class if not managed properly. Being on Zoom, having an increased awareness of societal inequities and living in the middle of a pandemic is pushing students and faculty into new nooks and crannies in their learning environments. On the one hand, if an instructor wants to help students connect more deeply with the content of the course, particularly in the human services, some classroom format has to be available to process what students are experiencing in their social context. But on the other hand, in a professional school, discussion should not happen willy-nilly and replace teaching about, for social work students, health-care policy, how to run a support group for traumatized children or how to interpret statistics. While the class cannot become group therapy (content I teach in another class), public policy, children’s needs and research must be placed in a social context at times through the personal lenses of the students.
As always in education, the need to “meet the students where they are” has to be balanced with covering content. Why is content so important? As one of my colleagues wisely quipped to her students about missing lectures and not doing the reading, “So, you go to the dentist and he tells you a cavity needs to be filled. You say, ‘OK, but I want Novocain,’ and he replies that he blew off the Novocain part of his education.” Professions have content connected to a license to practice.
Given the necessity for faculty members to be responsive to students and cover content specific to the learning objectives for a course, I have a few suggestions and options for managing check-ins.
Be clear what you are doing and what you are asking. If you want to go beyond a check-in that covers housekeeping and questions from prior classes, put on the syllabus or announce at the beginning that each class will start with a check-in to gauge people’s well-being and see how they’re doing. If you do not want that structure, you can announce de novo that you want to start a particular class with a check-in, given that a seminal event (see above from 1986, 2001, 2012 and 2015) has just occurred. With the current uptick in COVID diagnoses, the pandemic could spur a check-in, as could holiday plans that might be getting shelved.
Be aware that if you have not had this type of discussion in your class, it might feel dissonant to students. Once you open the class up, be clear what you are asking for and how long this part of the class will run. A possible script would be, “A lot has been going on recently in the news that might be affecting you and your academic work. [Note the embedded emphasis on their student role and your role as the instructor, not a therapist.] I would like to use the first 15 minutes of the class to check in before I start the lecture at 2:15 p.m.” Here you are limiting the discussion and also signaling that, for those who want to get the Novocain lecture, it will come.
You can further design the check-in so that people do not talk for too long with, “For those who want to speak, take a minute and say what is going on, but I want to keep your remarks brief so everyone who wants to talk has a chance.” At 2:13 p.m., remind the class that you will take one or two more comments and, if people feel like they have more to say, you can either save time at the end of class (easier to do with a three-hour class than a 75-minute class) or start the next class with another 15-minute period. Remain flexible: some important topics need to be processed well past whatever time constraints you’ve initially proposed.
State at the start of class that you want to preserve time at the end to check in with students. You could say, “We have some important content to cover today, but I want to save time at the end of class to check in with you about what is going on for you as students during the pandemic.” This alternative to beginning the class with a check-in puts an absolute limit on the discussion, and students who do not wish to engage around the topic can leave at the end of class. Those who want to stay can continue to meet with you, if you have time, or with each other. This preserves the presentation of content without a beginning discussion flooding out the opportunity to learn it later. That said, with rapidly emerging news -- for example, the Challenger explosion occurred at 11:40 a.m., and I taught class the same day at 2:00 p.m. -- waiting for an open discussion may not be advisable.
Ask them to put it in a chat. If you are teaching through Zoom or some other platform, another option is to ask students to describe in a few words on the chat function what they are feeling. You could also ask them specifically to list a few words that describe what they have been thinking about since the last class. This focuses students more in the cognitive realm. You can then read aloud some of what people are saying and comment about it before moving on to the day’s lecture.
Link it back to the profession or major. For those teaching in a professional school, asking students how what has been happening affects their clients, their fifth-grade students or the parents of those fifth graders can tie the pandemic or other event to them as professionals. Immediately following the 2016 election results, students wanted to share feelings about the winning and losing candidates. I set aside the first 15 minutes to talk about their own feelings and then asked them to think about the impact on their clients and how they might work with someone who had voted for the candidate the student did not support.
Be aware of time since the event. When dealing with an impending or newsworthy situation, like the Derek Chauvin trial, timeliness matters. If an event happened five days before and the students have talked about it in other classes, the need will not be as pressing and they may be ready to move on unless you or your class content offers a distinct perspective on what’s occurred.
Offer solutions or next steps. Using reflective listening is often a good first step in a classroom, but -- depending on the level of angst expressed by students during a check-in -- be aware of campus support services that are intended to assist students with their emotional health and their academic adjustment. You can list contact information about these services on a PowerPoint if they might be needed.
Checking in with a specific student after class and mentioning campus services can be an effective way to offer assistance if something has happened during a discussion that has raised an alarm. Depending on the event, students may be motivated to participate in social action as a response. Not only can you encourage them to take individual or group steps, but you can also connect them to existing campus groups that may already be engaged in similar causes.
In sum, when checking in is sincere and well-defined, it can go a long way toward supporting students’ learning and well-being while preparing them for the future.