Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus
David Jacobs; Math Instructor

One of the things students want from instructors is leadership, and this is likely to be even more true during these unusual times.  As we transition to online teaching, they will likely have additional or magnified fears and concerns:  Can they and will they succeed in this new format, full of possibly unfamiliar technological and logistical challenges.

It occurs to me, however, that few of us are intentionally taught leadership skills.  Yes, most of us know the critical basics:  Help our students succeed; listen to what they need and support them as best we can, given available resources.  Yet what might our leadership need to “look like” at this particular time, as we’re transitioning to teaching online?

I don’t pretend to have all the solutions, but I do want to offer some suggestions and perspective, based on some extensive training I’ve had in small group leadership. The intention is to make more conscious some things we may already “sort of know,” and to help us more skillfully and confidently support our students.

The topics of skillful leadership I want to touch on are:

  1. Managing the group so it both accomplishes tasks and maintains its well-being;
  2. Flowing with the group;
  3. Trusting that the group contains all the resources needed to meet challenges; and
  4. Tapping into the resources within the group in a way that empower its members and helps the group succeed.

I intend to offer this in 2 parts (assuming the “powers that be” allow), since there’s a lot on my mind to share, and I don’t want to overwhelm anyone.  So let’s start:

1. Managing the group so it both accomplishes tasks and maintains its well-being

Right this moment, this is probably the most critical topic to discuss.  As much as we might not want to hear it, our leadership is not just about ensuring that students do the work and keep on task; it’s also about fostering an environment where they have the best chance to succeed.

Our regular environment has been disrupted, and moving to a new, less familiar environment will likely challenge most of us.  And if we have concerns as instructors, imagine how concerned some of our students may be, and how those concerns might interfere with their ability to succeed.

In light of this – and maybe even before I figure out how next week will work and email out the details (two sections of Math 110) — I’m also planning to contact my students  in a separate email this week and ask them to “check in” with me around the following:

  • What are their current concerns?
  • What changes have occurred in their lives and schedules, if any, as a result of current circumstances? (e.g., Do they now have kids at home? Are they available for brief conferences during regular class time or not?  ).
  • What else do they want me to know about what’s going on with them and how I can support them?

Note that the intention is NOT to commit myself to solve all their issues or address all their concerns.  The intention is to:

a) Increase my awareness of what’s going on in the groups I’m leading; and
b) Help my students feel heard — and even feel empowered to influence how we move forward

Even if I don’t utilize any suggestions they have, or address all of their concerns immediately, they are still likely to feel empowered and less fearful just by being offered a chance to give input.  (This is analogous to how I suspect many of us reacted to the faculty meeting that Janice, Scott, et al held on the morning of 3/16.)

And importantly, any information students share with me might be valuable in tailoring my plans to meet the needs of my groups and help them succeed.  (This is an aspect of “Flowing with the group,” which I intend to address in a future post).

The bottom line is this:  When students know that their instructor cares enough to ask, and that they are being heard, it can often make a HUGE difference in outcomes!

A couple logistical notes:

  • I’m NOT going to require that all my students check in with me – just the ones who are moved to do so (I don’t want to overwhelm myself with emails).
  • It is essential that communications at this level be kept private. In fact, when I do this, I explicitly assure students that anything they tell me is private and will be kept strictly confidential.  This is about building and maintaining trust.  If we destroy that trust, they will stop letting us know what they need — even to the point where they stop asking us important questions about the course material we are teaching!

That’s enough, I think, for the moment.  I will hopefully return in the next few days to share around the remainder of the topics.


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