I have given away over 700 books to college students in the last 11 years. Usually I hand them out in our last class session. This afternoon, I had to mail the books to my students as I have not seen them in person in a month. In each book, I write an inscription that tells students what I appreciate about them, how I have seen them grow, and what I hope for them as they move on from our class. This semester was more challenging as they are scattered across the country, but this was more important than ever—certainly, for me and maybe for my students.
For me, this is how I bring closure to a semester. When each new class begins, I always wonder if I am going to appreciate the students as much as I did the previous class. Twenty-four years of teaching at all different levels has taught me that I will, but it is typically not until I write the book inscriptions that I realize how much I appreciate the individuals in my class and the class as a whole. Not being able to by physically present with them this month has been harder than I expected—writing was particularly important for me this semester.
For students, this is more needed than ever. Most of my students are seniors. They are entering an incredibly uncertain job market. They have lost internships, job offers, and commencement as a rite of passage. When we meet via Zoom for class, they are logging on from houses with seven siblings and a sign on a shared bedroom door that informs others, “Do not enter, in class.” They are living with grandparents who need care. One of my students asked for prayer for a father who is still waiting to confirm that he has cancer to determine if he needs to start treatment—they will not know until after COVID-19’s impact is blunted. Still others are living alone in apartments where roommates did not return. They are working in hospitals or making ends meet by re-stocking grocery shelves or making deliveries. They are lonely and anxious. They need encouragement. They need closure.
In these unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that we, as faculty, help students finish well. We can do that in three ways: engage students’ minds, maintain expectations, and communicate gratitude.
Engage students’ minds
My students are the best part of my week, and classes feel more normal than anything else right now. Classes are an oasis where we can collectively engage our minds on leadership issues grounded in good readings and the responses students share online before we gather on Zoom. My classes are typically discussion-based and not large, so they transition well online. For others types of classes, this transition is certainly more challenging. However, the imperative to engage students’ minds is no less real. Whether we are teaching face-to-face or virtually, the imperative has always been that we must engage students’ minds.
Whether we have recorded lectures, created additional assignments, or are teaching synchronously or asynchronously, we need to adapt in order to engage. For example, in our leadership capstone course, we had to completely transform our semester-long leadership projects on which students had implemented an innovation and had been collecting data from their own organizations because that was no longer possible. We pivoted the project to study the way leadership occurs in this extraordinary time in our history. The essential component of this transformation is that we had to re-design the project together to make it meaningful for them. We were all engaged.
We start each virtual class with two simple questions: How are you doing? What do you need? This is our acknowledgement that students have a range of needs in this unique time. That does not mean I have lowered my expectations for their work. I am simply acknowledging their reality so I know how to support them as we strive for the expectations we have set over the course of the semester. There is comfort in the consistency derived from steady expectations supported by grace.
While we had to pivot, our expectations for each other were not diminished. We have spent the semester building relationships with each other as we worked hard to better understand different perspectives on leadership and applied theory to practice. These are the last class sessions that we will have, and these are our last chances to grow as learners and leaders. We keep collecting data, reading, writing, discussing, and preparing for essay exams that require us to apply what we have learned. Certainly, life has disrupted our time together, but we can continue to gather expectantly for what we will learn from one another.
Finishing well means reflecting on the things for which we are grateful. I am more grateful for my students this semester than I have ever been because I see how precious our time together is. We should always communicate gratitude to our students in any way we can whether corporately or individually. Students are the reason why we are able to work as teachers in the profession that makes all others possible. They give life to our ideas and meaning to our work.
By taking a few minutes to write to each student, I am able to communicate truths to them that I would otherwise not be able to share. In those moments of reflection, I can think back to our first class sessions together and see how we have grown. For them, I can offer them a small measure of encouragement. For me, there is an acknowledgement that our relationship is changing from professor and students to professional colleagues. This is bittersweet, but that is what makes for a good finish. If you don’t already, take a few minutes to share your gratitude for your students before the semester ends. Let me know how it goes (@eckertjon). It is the best way to finish well.
Jonathan Eckert is the Lynda and Robert Copple Endowed Chair for Christians in School Leadership and Professor of Educational Leadership at Baylor University. He has been learning with some of the best educational leaders in the country for years and is author of The Novice Advantage and Leading Together.