In early March, my university administration informed me that I had a week to transition my University of Virginia course Books Behind Bars online. This is a class I’ve been teaching for the past decade, where UVA students meet regularly with incarcerated youth at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Richmond, Virginia to explore questions of meaning, value, and social justice through conversations about of Russian literature.
At first, I thought I’d be able to salvage the core of my class—the powerful interactions between the university and correctional center students—through virtual Zoom or telephone meetings. But then COVID struck in the correctional center, eventually infecting one-eighth of the youth population there. Facility-wide medical lockdowns followed, making any communication between the two groups impossible. My class, it seemed, was dead in the water.
The semester is now over, and I was never able to bring back the face-to-face meetings between UVA and Bon Air students. Nor was there any hope of resurrecting the student relationships because of the facility’s “no-contact” policy preventing outside volunteers from maintaining contact with correctional center residents after a program ends. This is not what I’d envisioned for the tenth-anniversary iteration of my class.
But if I had dwelled on what was gone, I would have lost my ability to harness what was still present.
In a time of crises, such as we’re in now, we are all students again in a sense, trying to rebuild the broken ship of our lives while sailing on it toward an unknown destination. Full-time working parents are taking on second full-time jobs as homeschool teachers for which most have no training. Front-line healthcare workers confront COVID’s catastrophic toll, while sometimes forced to make heartwrenching decisions about who gets life-saving treatments and who doesn’t. Religious institutions, government agencies, nonprofits, corporations, and private individuals are doing what they can to alleviate human suffering amid fear and uncertainty and without any rule books to guide them.
None of us are experts in navigating these unprecedented waters. We’re a community of learners facing the unknown together.
So, how can teachers best support students in this process? Or parents their children, healthcare workers their patients, all of us one another? The answers to these questions are more similar than we might think. As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week this May, it’s a good time to remember that all of us are teachers in one way or another and have an important role to play in each other’s lives, now more than ever.
Whether you’re a tenth-grade biology teacher or a parent homeschooling your four-year-old, the content of your teaching matters far less in this moment than the attitudes and values you’re modeling and life skills you’re helping the students develop for themselves. Important life lessons are all around us: in the quiet heroism of healthcare workers risking their lives to save others, of grocery store cashiers managing a cheery smile from behind the Plexiglas shield, of actors performing monologues from living rooms to audiences they cannot see.
Shortly after my class as I knew it had been gutted, I had to face the realization that it was no longer about what I thought it was about. It became a course now on how human beings caught in extraordinarily difficult circumstances can still practice empathy, summon imagination, and maintain hope.
John Dewey, an educational philosopher and one of the foremost proponents of experiential education, said that “all genuine learning comes through experience but not all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.” As the pandemic wreaks havoc on our world, we all have been thrust into one of the most challenging experiential learning classes of our lifetimes.
Whether this crisis becomes an opportunity for personal growth—”educative,” to use Dewey’s word—or simply a tragic memory years from now, will depend on the meaning we make out of it and the lessons we take from it.
My students have taken inspiration from the examples of people creating human connection in the midst of fear and isolation. Many students developed videos of themselves sharing personal thoughts about life and literature, imagining the correctional center residents were still sitting right next to them. Other students wrote heartfelt letters to the residents, correspondents they know they will never see again. Still, others honored the memory of the relationships they’d built through social action projects advocating for incarcerated youth.
Students in Books Behind Bars knew all along that their relationships with the correctional center residents would end at some point. But none of us could have predicted just how abruptly and unexpectedly that end would come. Not having had the chance to say goodbye, my UVA students feel sad and incomplete. They continue to worry about the residents and wonder whether they’ll be ok. They’re learning a hard lesson about the finitude of relationships and life itself, a lesson I could not have taught them in ten lectures on Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
My task as a teacher through this rupture was not to lecture, but to listen to and support students in their process of making meaning out of what seems to them a meaningless, terrifying moment. I’ve long viewed my role as a college teacher less as a purveyor of expert knowledge than as a facilitator of student learning and personal growth.
I learned from my best instructors over the years that good teachers start with the student, not the subject. Never has this mindset been more essential.
Some of my most influential teachers never worked in any kind of formal classroom. They were the people I encountered growing up who were concerned with my well-being, listened to me, encouraged me to take risks, and taught me valuable life lessons not by words but by example.
Students don’t need me to be a perfect teacher right now. They need me to be honest and human, to let them know that I, too, have never been here before and that we’ll figure this out together.
Students, like the rest of us, have been traumatized. They wonder what this all means, and when it will end. They have connectivity issues. Some are cooped up at home in unhealthy relationships with parents or caring for ailing relatives. Others are scrambling to find work just to stay afloat. High-school and college seniors have been robbed of the rite of passage known as graduation.
Academic learning isn’t their top priority right now. Nor should it be.
Five years from now if my college students, or my four- and seven-year-old sons, take nothing from this school year than the knowledge of how to care and be cared for in a time of national trauma, then I will consider my teaching to have been a success. The same could be said for all of us.
Originally published in Newsweek.