By definition, teaching is nurturing. Universities have long recognised that the essence of education is the ability to let each student's potential blossom, to inspire them to think critically, ask questions, and be driven by a desire to learn. In and out of the classroom, this teaching-learning dynamic has always relied on contact between students and teachers, as well as students with students. This academic community also develops a lot of things that are important for each student's overall well-being.

Everything changed in 2020 with the unprecedented COVID- 19 pandemic. Teachers and students were compelled to transition to online modes of instruction from the traditional on-campus courses. This meant not only mastering a new set of tools and technology, but a massive change in pedagogy itself. Most higher education institutions moved swiftly to introduce e-learning support and to train both teachers and students to cope with the transition. But have these measures been adequate

Adapt and adopt

The virtual learning space is exciting, no doubt, but one cannot deny two major areas of difficulty. First, across geographical regions, there is unequal access to the virtual platform. Connectivity is often difficult. Additionally, for many, lack of financial resources and a home environment not conducive to e-learning is a major challenge. For those with easier access, the ambience of a classroom is replaced with a computer screen on which the faces of peers and the teacher appear as virtual entities. One cannot deny that there is no satisfying online substitute for eye contact in a classroom; for the subtle nuances of gesture and facial expression that communicate understanding. Yet, in the virtual classroom, both teacher and student are striving to achieve that critical connect. Is it surprising that e-learning is likely to accelerate stress and anxiety?

In her Annual Oration in October 2020, Oxford Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson reflected on the fact that “we have missed the subtle ecology of academic life, where chance meetings in the dining hall or the hallway can lead to significant initiatives”. One of the great challenges of a virtual academic life is that there are no such things as “chance meetings”. Meeting times are predetermined and links to virtual platforms are sent ahead. In this situation, while it is essential to focus on high quality e-learning experience for students, it is also important to acknowledge that the rules of academia have changed and teaching amid this crisis calls not just for comfort with technology but also for kindness and empathy of a different order.

It is crucial for teachers to look upon this COVID period as an interregnum. This is a time when greater accommodations need to be offered to a student than those that would be required in normal times. Without lowering the academic bar, more needs to be offered to students in the form of options and extension of deadlines. There will be other measures that will depend on the situation at hand. When life returns to normal and campuses are filled with students and teachers again, we will return to the old guidelines. But much will have been learnt not only in the form of technology but also in terms of a deepened understanding. Meanwhile, for the cognitive ability of students, this acknowledgement of the COVID situation as an interregnum that demands the primacy of compassion would be a game changer.

Academic spaces play a definitive role in the lives of young adults. As we await a post-COVID world, we need to recognise the unique responsibilities of our times. Educators need to find that delicate balance between academic rigour and the psychological and emotional needs of students to mediate through the negatives that this crisis has thrust upon us. Inspiring the belief that what they are learning through their online coursework is valuable and helping them map it against their individual goals and aspirations, therefore, become two of the key responsibilities of a teacher. Teachers need to integrate greater pastoral care into their teaching strategies. During this pandemic, with its personal distancing and online communication, survival for all of us depends on building verbal bridges through virtual platforms. Yeats’ phrase “magnanimities of sound” with its dual signalling of reach and compassion resonates for all of us but, most of all, for our young students.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in The Hindu. The original article can be found at https://www.thehindu.com/education/be-a-compassionate-teacher/article33888948.ece.)