A letter to my students- COVID doesn’t define your degree

I’ve been teaching for about five years. It was a large reason why I decided to pursue a PhD, I adore teaching, it makes me excited each and every day I get to have the privilege to do this work. It’s not that it’s an easy job, each class is widely different, different subjects, different schools (the life of an adjunct), different people all create variables. Some of these remain stable from semester to semester, some, are variables we can’t account for.

In these five years I’ve had classes that have gone through rough times. Whether it was how they were treated in the past by teachers, or emergencies and personal developments which have hampered their ability to succeed to their fullest ability. Most of the time that’s alright, a “B” won’t hurt anyone, despite what many students think. They can still gain something from the class. Some have needed to take a step back, take an Incomplete or withdraw for personal reasons but it’s not because they couldn’t it was just because they couldn’t’ then.

I’ve also had my share of struggles in classes. Students who feel they don’t have anything to learn and just want a degree, students who don’t mesh with my teaching styles, those who never wanted to take my class. That’s okay too. It’s rarer, and most of the time we can come to some sort of accord for them to move forward in a positive way, there are exceptions, but very few. And despite all of that, nothing has dampened my desire to teach, to see sparks of interest develop, see passions explored through writings and presentations. There’s nothing like leaving a good class. It’s a high, it’s energizing, and it’s a special bond between a student and instructor that I cherish.

COVID has changed all of that for them. I’m still here, but I’m strained, so I up my game so they don’t need to be when they’re with me. But it’s written all over their faces. I usually teach both online and in-person, now fully online and for some students that’s not what they signed up for. Even if it is what they signed up for, they didn’t sign up to take on classes in the midst of a global pandemic, they likes of which only a handful have ever seen before. And I want to tell all the students out there, it’s okay that you’re not okay. It’s okay if your classes aren’t okay. It’s okay if your work is not great or you face rejection. We all are. This situation isn’t okay.

You will not be defined by a less than stellar performance during a time when no one knows if we’ll come through this in one piece. You’re grieving even if no one you know has died. And you might be grieving even deeper if you have lost a loved one, or if you do. I remember getting a bit agitated when this all started. A colleague commented that “well we’ve taught through disasters before- the students did fine.” This isn’t like before, and I say that as a born and raised New Yorker. This isn’t 9/11, or a Hurricane, or a distant war. This isn’t an event, it’s a time. This hits every home, this is unknown, and no amount of “creating a sense of normalcy” will make this feel normal.

Social workers are amazing people. They’re versatile, resilient, adaptable, and patent. Social work students often has the same traits or are building them. But we’re in new territory and it’s exhausting, and terrifying. Whatever you’re feeling is okay because no one can tell you what’s normal- nothing’s normal. When you graduate, and you will graduate because this does not define you, you will be better social worker because regardless of your history, you have shared experiences with every single person you will now meet. You will have overcome our gravest test, and you will be ready to do the work. You’ll learn that there are groups that will support you, and groups that will try to pin you against each other for someone else’s sake. Choose support.

So, my job changed this semester from teaching you the material, to teaching you to stay grounded, to take in what you can and to realize that it’s okay if not everything got through. You’ll have time to revisit that in the future. You’ll have time to brush up on policy work, or that treatment modality. You’ll have time to process, to emerge, and to re-engage with who you are, because my job is to make sure you’re ready for that. Be kind to yourself and what you can and can’t do right now. I’m not going anywhere, so when you want to revisit that, I’ll be here to answer.

I’ll end this the same way I end all my classes. If you remember nothing from my class but this I’ll consider it a success.

Go out and do good.