Meeting My Students Where They Are

Issues of inequity in the classroom—such as access to the Internet and private spaces, as well as the demands of caring for family members, or, in the worst cases, grieving for them—were dramatically magnified during the COVID crisis,  

Joanna Stalnaker
July 08, 2020


This is part of a Columbia News series, titled Lessons Learned, which invites the Columbia community to reflect on the pandemic and the insights, personal and professional, they have gained from their COVID-19 experience. These essays speak to the innovation, creativity and resourcefulness we have witnessed during this period of unprecedented challenge, as well as some of the silver linings in the actions we have had to take by necessity.

I have learned many things from teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, but one lesson stands out: how vital it is for me to meet my students wherever they are—literally and figuratively—in order to create a productive learning environment for all.

At the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester, with no sense of the disruption that lay ahead, I decided for the first time in my teaching career to survey my students about any concerns they might have about my course and how I could best support their learning. Little did I know how prescient that gesture would prove, and how many more student questionnaires I would write during the months of confinement and online teaching.

Prior to the pandemic, in my role as Chair of Literature Humanities, I had become increasingly aware of issues of inequity in the classroom, notably around accessing course materials and activities. But these issues were dramatically magnified during the COVID crisis, at a time when some students lacked adequate Internet service, had no private space to work, were caring for family members, or, in the worst cases, were grieving. It was no longer possible for me to assume at the outset of every class that everyone was doing O.K. and that we could just dive into discussing To the Lighthouse or whatever work was on the syllabus that week.

In retrospect, I realize that I never should have made that kind of assumption even in ordinary times. For me, being attentive to students’ circumstances and needs does not mean asking intrusive questions. But it does mean making room for students to bring more of their whole selves into the classroom and having the empathy to imagine the widely diverse circumstances in which undergraduates learn and grow.

When I resume in-person teaching in the future, I will not forget how much more my students and I learned from each other when the realities of their lived experiences outside the classroom became an integral part of the learning process.

Joanna Stalnaker is Paul Brooke Program Chair for Literature Humanities and Professor of French.