SIP 13.3 Navigating Constant Moral Decisions while Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic

Students and faculty alike are tired from the daily value prioritizing and moral negotiations required for pandemic life. From the simplest decisions to the most complex, our values and priorities are being questioned and tested; it can even feel like these decisions define our worth or standing within our communities.

Decisions that normally didn’t take much energy or thought, such as “Can my mom come over for dinner?” are now big choices with moral weight and with consequences real and imagined. Then we have the bigger decisions of seeing family or not, showing up for someone in crisis, getting a vaccine or wearing a mask. These questions not only weigh on individuals but may feel as if the decision is about loyalty, betrayal, belief in science, faith, public health and belonging in our communities.

Every day, all of us – students, staff and faculty alike – are making these decisions, prioritizing our values and searching our moral compasses, which can impact our personal and work environments. The same is true with our academic lives.

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Students have had to decide whether to enroll in classes or put their education on hold; students, staff and faculty are balancing job expectations with caretaking responsibilities. Instructors are deciding whether to change course requirements and/or delivery due to online learning. Departments are figuring out how to schedule fall classes balancing class-size pressure, student safety and the unknown. And students are negotiating whether to read required materials, complete an assignment, take the extra needed shift at work or just get some sleep. These constant value negotiations and conflicts can result in feelings of exhaustion, inadequacy, anger, guilt and shame.

Students singing in a choir class while distanced and wearing masks.Students have shared that they have felt guilty, embarrassed or “wimpy” for asking their professors for alternative assignments or extensions due to health problems or political unrest. Other students had requests and needs but didn’t even ask, feeling ashamed and not knowing how to approach their instructors. Some students and faculty didn’t want to share their Covid-positive status, afraid of potential judgment or stereotyping from their peers. These feelings can lead to actions, including students failing assignments, not learning, not attending class or dropping out, and faculty members suffering alone, tension in faculty meetings, peer relational stress, canceling classes and more.

As we begin spring semester 2021, we are all in this national crisis together. So what can we do to get through this crisis and maybe learn a little as we do?

Take a SIP of This: Navigating Moral Decisions while Teaching and Learning

  • Work together with your students: Very rarely do we find ourselves experiencing the same crisis with our students, so work together. Talk about the struggles, choices and decisions present in your course. Include student voices and give them control in a world that feels out of control.
  • Include a statement in your syllabus, make an announcement and share your philosophy of teaching during Covid, racial injustice and political unrest. Acknowledge the difficulty of facing what feels like numerous moral and ethical decisions every day. Include clear policies about attendance and doctors’ notes and mention Covid.
  • Link to Covid resources on campus (in your syllabus or Canvas course) to help reduce stigma and to give students choice in how they get help and support.
  • Be careful in your own language and course content to not create shame for students in their choices and behaviors or around contracting Covid.
  • Younger students (17 to 28) are still developing moral reasoning and executive functioning. Use the dilemmas that you and your class face to teach about decision-making.
  • Look at your class and decide what is and what is not negotiable based on your major requirements, department culture and your own well-being. How can you be flexible? It is easier to think ahead than to be faced with this weighty question every time a student approaches you with an extension request.
  • If you are struggling with how to be flexible in an online environment, consult with the Center for Teaching, Learning and Design; the Auraria librarians; and the writing and tutoring center to see what is possible in your class.
  • Faculty members, talk with your departments to know the priorities and expectations around working from home with children, illness, changing course expectations, canceling class and more. Make sure these expectations and norms are explicit. Making departmental expectations and norms explicit helps ease the weight and moral feel of all the decisions we are navigating. It is essential that these norms and expectations are clearly communicated to our Cat II and affiliate faculty as well.

Valuing academic rigor, your students’ educational and personal well-being and your own health and well-being is no small task. This is going to take all of us working together, being flexible, offering creative solutions, taking risks and a large dose of kindness. No one should have to feel alone or shamed in making decisions about their academic lives.

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