‘A pedagogy of kindness’: U of T faculty find creative ways to support students, learning during COVID-19

U of T Assistant Professor Fabian Parsch, who sings in a barbershop quartet, re-created the warmth of his classroom environment by saying goodbye to students to the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in a video performance (image via YouTube)

His students could no longer attend classes in person because of COVID-19, but as the academic year drew to a close Fabian Parsch was determined to give them a heartfelt send-off from afar.

The assistant professor, teaching stream, in the department of mathematics in the Faculty of Arts & Science – whose hobbies include singing in a barbershop quartet –  put his a cappella skills to work in a video in which he says goodbye to his students and thanks his teaching assistants, all to the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

He adapted the lyrics for the occasion. “In the summer, the quiet summer, the teacher takes a break,” sings Parsch, who was part of a U of T campus ensemble as a graduate student. The video was screened on Zoom in the last lecture of MAT187, a calculus course for engineering students, then reposted to social media where it reached a broader audience. “This is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” one viewer said on Reddit.

For Parsch, the video was a way of re-connecting with students and re-creating the warmth and friendliness typical of his classroom environment – after weeks of social distancing.

“The classroom is the nucleus of the experience you have in university,” he says. “You find your friends in the classroom, you talk about your classes and so on. I felt I had to give them a nice social experience.”

While not all U of T professors are as musically inclined, many have demonstrated a similar flair for improvisation under challenging circumstances, seeking to deliver a U of T education from a distance while doing what they can to lift students’ spirits.

Many have used online forums or email to check in on their students. “Above all: my priority in this enterprise is YOU, your health and well-being,” Alexandra Bolintineanu, an assistant professor, teaching stream, in medieval digital studies, told her students after U of T suspended in-person classes. “Let me know how to support you. I will do my human best,” she wrote. The course, Getting Medieval: Place and Spaces, covers the plague – a topic she told students she wished they didn’t have to understand “quite so experientially.”

Bolintineanu had been looking forward to bringing homemade “medieval gingerbread” to the last class. But this year all she could do was share the manuscript and recipe online.

“A student took up the challenge and shared pictures of the prettiest medieval gingerbread they had concocted at home,” Bolintineanu told U of T News. “My heart grew three sizes at least.”

As for Parsch, he has held drop-in hours over Zoom, where his conversations with students have often veered far beyond calculus.

“It’s crazy sometimes the situations that they’re in, with travel troubles or family issues brought on by the pandemic,” Parsch says, noting students who weren’t able to complete their work on time because of COVID-19-related disruptions were granted extensions.

The move to online classes hasn’t been without obstacles for instructors, Parsh adds, since many professors had to learn on the fly how to adjust homework and teach classes without the usual visual cues that signal when students have lost focus.

U of T Assistant Professor Fabian Parsch says his Zoom conversations with students have extended beyond coursework (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

“If there was ever a time for a pedagogy of kindness it would be now,” says Fiona Rawle, who has been helping her fellow faculty members navigate the challenges associated with teaching remotely.

“It’s so easy to focus on the pressures that are right in front of you and easy to forget about the pressures and stresses in front of other people.”

An associate dean of undergraduate studies at U of T Mississauga and an associate professor, teaching stream, in biology, Rawle partnered with staff at the campus’s academic skills centre and library to host lunchtime teaching and learning exchanges, where faculty can swap notes on course design and teaching in an online environment.

In effort to bridge the professor-student divide created by social distancing, Rawle took to social media to ask students what they want their professors to know, and vice versa.

“You realize your worries overlap and we have a lot in common,” Rawle says of the many professors and students who responded by expressing sympathy and support for each other. One user, whose Twitter handle identified her as a U of T student in molecular biology, replied: “I want my professors to know that while students are struggling, most of us understand that profs are struggling too.”

Associate Professor Fiona Rawle took to social media to ask students what they want their professors to know, and vice versa, prompting responses from many students and professors (photo by Lucas Rawle)

Some professors have gone to extraordinary lengths to give students a quality experience in their course – even if it can no longer be taught in exactly the same way.

Randy Boyagoda, a professor of English in the Faculty of Arts & Science, teaches a St. Michael’s College seminar on faith and ideas that takes about 30 first-year students to Rome for a first-hand look at how the Catholic Church and the Vatican have shaped public life.

With a two-week trip to Italy out of the question during the pandemic, Boyagoda says he and university staff worked with site partners in Rome to postpone the trip until next spring, when the students in this year’s seminar will presumably be able to travel with next year’s class.

In the meantime, he has invited students to take virtual tours of the museums they would have visited and has put his class in touch with former students who had gone to Rome, to give them an idea of what this year’s class is waiting for.

Boyagoda, who is also principal and vice-president of the University of St. Michael’s College, has invited students to take virtual tours of the museums they would have visited and has put his class in touch with former students who have travelled to Rome for the course, to give them a better idea of what awaits them next year.

Randy Boyagoda, principal and vice-president of the University of St. Michael’s College, has invited students to take virtual tours of the museums they would have visited during an annual class trip to Rome that was postponed this year because of COVID-19 (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Maintaining personal connections with students has also been central to Joe Wong’s approach. The Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and political science professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science has kept up with students in the Munk One program through new bi-weekly seminars held over Zoom he started since COVID-19 forced students off campus.

He has also addressed students’ concerns in one-on-one conversations over email.

When Katie Kwang, a psychology and economics student from Singapore and Lester B. Pearson Scholar, worried about the consequences of the pandemic - not just for her own future, but for people around the world already in dire straits - she emailed Wong, who provided reassurance and guidance.

“I’m amazed by the resilience she showed just getting home,” says Wong, who is U of T’s vice-provost and associate vice-president, international student experience.

Although professors can no longer meet with them in person, students should know that they remain part of the U of T community and can get help from their professors, peers and university staff, Wong says.

“It’s important for students to feel like they’re continually engaging the university and that they have that sense of community.”