A faculty member considers why different professors succeeded or struggled during the pandemic (opinion)

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As the associate dean for graduate studies at a graduate school of education, one of my duties is to review course evaluations to identify and address any concerns that students have expressed. As most college professors can attest, this was a particularly difficult year. Suddenly, our in-person classes, the only format most of us had ever known, were halted, and we unexpectedly were asked to teach using tools like Blackboard, Panopto, Voicethread and Zoom. This is a format many of us at my institution, at best, didn’t understand and, at worst, had actively resisted. As it turned out, we would continue teaching fully online the following summer and fall semester as well.

I fully expected that my review of our course evaluations would reflect the chaos, fear and frustration most students and faculty were feeling as we all transitioned to this completely new way of teaching. While some faculty struggled, I was pleasantly surprised to see that not only were the majority of our course evaluations extremely favorable, but they had actually improved over all from the prior year, when we were nearly completely face-to-face.

There are many reasons for this successful transition, which include a lot of hard work by faculty members. We also have the luxury of having several national experts in online learning on our faculty and an amazing group of technical support staff who provided us with extensive training and support. These folks, and many others like them throughout the world, deserve recognition for enabling learning to continue during the pandemic.

Perhaps most important, however, I had the opportunity to speak with many of our faculty about their experiences during the transition. And I found that the faculty who thrived and succeeded in this new environment shared a similar attitude that appeared to be lacking among those who struggled.

Faculty who seemed to do the best described themselves as not only highly committed to making the online format effective, but they balanced this commitment with a spirit of understanding, patience and kindness with both their students and themselves. They recognized they would not be able to accomplish everything they might have wanted at the start of the semester, so they made realistic adjustments in their expectations. That included modifying their lesson plans; reducing lectures and, in some cases, replacing them with independent learning activities; cutting or limiting student assignments; and providing extra support to students who needed help.

They also provided space for students to share their experiences and frustrations with their transitions to online learning and established a collaborative environment that allowed them to work with their students to make adjustments as issues and concerns arose. They were clear throughout the process that they and their students were to just do the very best they could during an incredibly difficult situation. This attitude of acceptance and doing the best they could did not mean that they abandoned their grading standards; in fact, their student evaluations indicated that students felt the standards had remained high and they had learned a great deal from the course. Faculty members kept those standards, however, with patience, acceptance, constant adaptations and continual support.

The conversations I had with faculty members who struggled during the transition to online learning indicated they had very different perspectives. Like the faculty who thrived, they described themselves as working as hard or harder than ever to adjust to their new format. But they also talked about feeling an inordinate amount of pressure to get everything done right and to cover the same content in the same way that they would have during a normal semester. Given that maintaining the same academic pace was impossible, their exhaustive attempts at achieving it resulted in their feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. Efforts to quickly learn how to use the new technological tools to do the same things they did in person were frustrating. They also expressed annoyance with students who were not as engaged in class activities or who struggled to meet the assignment deadlines because of the pandemic. In essence, the pressure of trying to do everything perfectly became overwhelming, which caused such faculty members to feel defeated and, in some cases, to even become disengaged.

These contrasting views of how faculty adjusted expectations for themselves and their students are reminiscent of Donald Winnicott’s observations in the 1950s of effective and ineffective parenting styles. Winnicott, a noted pediatrician and psychoanalyst, observed that parents of well-adjusted children seemed to share a common approach to nurturing. While they were incredibly attentive when babies were first born by anticipating and addressing all their infants’ needs, they gradually allowed their children to experience and tolerate larger levels of frustration. They also provided their children with space to express their frustrations, including “negative” emotions like anger, sadness and jealousy. Winnicott termed these parents “good enough mothers” (the primary caregivers in the 1950s usually were the mothers), because they maintained reasonable expectations of their children. Perhaps most important, they also maintained reasonable expectations of themselves and provided an atmosphere of continual acceptance about things not going perfectly.

Winnicott contrasted the “good enough” style of parenting with a style he referred to as the “perfect mother.” Some parents, in contrast, strived to make everything perfect for their children and to never see them upset or hurt in any way. Yet since it is impossible to anticipate and eliminate all forms of discomfort for children, this effort resulted in exhausted and frustrated parents who only rarely felt as if they were doing a good job raising their children. Winnicott also suggested that this parenting style resulted in kids who were less able to tolerate challenges or experience and express negative emotions in healthy ways. In essence, perfect parents worked harder, enjoyed their parenting less and raised kids who were less adaptive and equipped for real-world challenges than parents who were simply “good enough.”

The Need for Patient and Reflective Practice

I admit that on the surface, encouraging professors to just be “good enough” seems akin to granting them permission to settle for mediocrity. Winnicott’s observations, however, actually demonstrate how the attitudes and behaviors that we sometimes associate with striving for perfection can actually be counter to the attitudes that are consistent with excellent teaching. In some cases, those expectations for perfection can overwhelm both faculty and students to the point they become so frustrated that they disengage.

That is why the notion of choosing “good enough” over perfection has caught on in fields such as business, medicine and technology. The field of information technology, in particular, has adopted the principle of “good enough” when developing and releasing new software. While developers always attempt to release software that works well, they also recognize that it is impossible to create something that works perfectly in all cases, since many of the looming challenges are unknown at the time of release. Rather than waiting until they create a perfect product, they release new software with a recognition that it will undoubtedly encounter bugs in some context that are yet to be imagined, and they prepare themselves ahead of time to adapt the software to these changing dynamics.

This principle of developing “good enough” software was described in 1997 by James Back from IT Labs, who wrote,

“Bear in mind that the real essence of Good Enough lies in the minds of practitioners, not in any practice. The paradigm is one of learning on the job, learning from failure, coping with complexity and coping with humanity. It encourages healthy skepticism by building in the idea that benefits always come with problems. Our task is not to blindly eliminate all problems, but to understand the problems and benefits of a situation well enough to eliminate (or prevent) the right problems and also deliver the right solutions.”

College faculty obviously need to plan courses carefully by selecting appropriate reading material, crafting meaningful assignments and developing innovative lesson plans for each class — to name just a few of the necessary skills of successful teaching. But one important lesson from the pandemic is that perfect planning in the classroom is not only impossible but also perhaps not even an appropriate goal.

Rather, Winnicott’s observations about the attitudes and behaviors consistent with “good enough” parents help us understand the value of setting reasonable expectations for ourselves and our students. We should also listen carefully to student perspectives about their learning experience and provide space for them to express frustrations and other uncomfortable emotions. And we should collaborate with students in ways that allow us to continually assess our expectations of ourselves and our students and make adaptations in real time that allow our classrooms to adapt to changing dynamics.

The qualities associated with “good enough” teaching are certainly not new to the field of education. But Winnicott’s work provides a helpful reminder about the need for patient and reflective practice — and the dangers to ourselves and our students inherent in our attempt to be “perfect professors” when, in fact, perfection is not even possible.