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The Earnheardts | Lessons from teaching

Whether or not you’re a teacher by trade, we're all working toward the same shared goal of regaining normalcy. We're going to learn lessons and be changed, but we can also be alright if we approach it constructively.
The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie, and Ella.

I've been a college professor in one form or another since I was 24 years old. I'll never forget the first day I stood in front of a classroom. After preparing for weeks, I still felt deeply insecure about what I should do and how I should do it. Nevertheless, I delivered a lecture.

I was so green you could have spent me. I was just a few years older than my students and I felt more like one of them than someone able to deliver on the promise of education. I was terrified.

After a few more weeks, I started to feel comfortable and trust my abilities. The initial magic had worn off and it felt like a job. I found that I really liked my students. I enjoyed guiding them and listening to their insights. I surprised myself by being able to answer the questions they asked, and loved when our talks would continue out of class.

In many ways, I believe teaching has helped me create a skill set that is essential during the pandemic.

Teaching is leading with compassion. It's about much more than the information listed in books or delivered in lectures. When you walk into a room filled with expectations, it's your job to meet each person where they are — in terms of intelligence and skill — and help them fulfill their potential.

Many people think of a class as a one-size-fits-all experience, but it's much more complicated than that. Sure, I help to create a common experience that we share, but that's the global view. Inside of this common structure are dozens of individual relationships. I tend to each of these separately. There's the personality of the class as a whole as well as the personalities of each individual student. I need to be an authority on the information I use to reach a predetermined set of learning outcomes, but I must also forge a path that works on the micro-level (i.e., to try to reach everyone).

It's this skill, the ability to toggle between the big picture and the individual while working toward a common goal, that makes me believe teachers have what it takes to survive the pandemic.

The big picture is painted with all the various information and changing expectations that are necessary to keep up with COVID. Aside from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, I can't think of another event in my lifetime that has consumed the entire world for months in such a single-minded way. There's daily information distribution and we all need to pay attention so we can take care of each other and make it through this. But, on the other side, we have a lot of individual relationships that have to be maintained and cultivated.

It's a strange time because, as each person in my life is going through the same life-altering event, they are all reacting to it differently. My brother is dealing with unemployment and the fear of starting over when he’s supposed to be thinking about retirement. My youngest child is missing the structure of participating in summer sports and the excitement of getting ready for second grade. 

One of my coworkers is stressed about changes to our day-to-day work environment and the long-term consequences for our profession. I must meet each of these people where they are because I care about their well-being.

If I spend too much time thinking about how my own life is being altered, it overwhelms me and makes everything seem hopeless. However, if I approach it the same way I do my classes — by focusing on the needs of the people who matter to me —I feel more in control.

Whether or not you’re a teacher by trade, we're all working toward the same shared goal of regaining normalcy. We're going to learn lessons and be changed, but we can also be alright if we approach it constructively.

One of my best qualities is that I really listen to what people are saying. I’m a reflective listener. Sometimes the actual words don't clearly express what they’re feeling, but if you really tune in, you can figure it out with them. Paying attention and acknowledging what they’re saying (with nonverbal gestures) goes a long way to show that I’m listening. Asking open-ended questions that reflect their concerns often gets us to the essence of the issue.

In short, being heard makes people feel better, and it helps to build trust. And it doesn’t hurt to have more people in our lives that we can trust, and that trust us in return.

It's a fairly easy way to help the people you care about. It can benefit you as well. People repeat themselves until they feel they've been heard. So if you’re frustrated because people in your life keep saying the same thing over and over, take time to reflect with them, to problem-solve with them, and to help them feel heard. It’s good for both of you.

After more than two decades of teaching, I've found that there are some students who get stuck in this way — that feeling of hopelessness as if no one is listening. We make great progress as teachers by listening to those students, by being there for them. If even for a few moments, even if they don’t need us to solve their problems, it helps both of us to just sit and listen.

Listening builds trust, but it also builds hope for those who need it most. It’s a great way to help people progress because it encourages them to set attainable goals. 

When we teach, we determine each small task that prepares students for larger goals, such as completing assignments or acing exams. This same technique can be used anytime a situation feels overwhelming. If someone close to you is stressed, you can help them through an hour. If that seems to long, help them through a minute. If that's too much, focus on each second. After 60 seconds, you'll have the minute. After 60 minutes, an hour. Reducing large, overwhelming stresses into discrete moments is a way to help us progress.

That’s how we survive the pandemic. We take our larger problems and chunk them into digestible moments or tasks or conversations. We overcome these problems by leaning on those closest to us, and by being there to listen to those around us, to lean on us when they’re in need.

— Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor in the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University where she advises student media. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo. 

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