Camille Brayshaw/Fourth Estate

“This is new to all of us, so have patience as we navigate this semester together.”

Every student has heard this line or something like it this year, as education continues to be reformed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, this sentiment is appreciated by students. The formal boundaries between instructor and student have eroded as we increasingly view each other as humans first. No one knows how to navigate this new world, so we persevere as a society, equalized in our uncertainty. 

Although this dynamic shift is driven by tragic necessity, it is a welcome change — and long overdue. Mental health for all age groups has been on the forefront this year, but the mental health crisis among young people has been raging for years. Now that older generations are in crisis as well, it is easier to extend compassion to the young. Students who have been sacrificing their mental health for years in the name of academic achievement have finally been met with the understanding and support they have sorely needed every year prior.

In light of this, it is clear that this shift in educational culture should not reverse with the arrival of a vaccine. The pandemic has forced society to learn compassion, understanding and the value of genuine human connection. These virtues do not cease to be relevant when the case counts begin to fall. 

Why would we reinstate strict regulations, deadlines and classroom atmospheres that are stressful? In the past, it was thought that being too lenient as an instructor would incentivize students to be lazy and avoid learning; students need to learn to obey hard deadlines to be successful in the workplace.

In practice, we have seen that students still choose to learn even in a relatively lenient online classroom. Deadline extensions are used when there is real need, but out of respect for the compassionate professor, students tend to abide by the recommended due dates. Furthermore, success in the modern workplace is not exclusively a function of an employee’s ability to meet a strict deadline at all costs. Pretending otherwise fails to adequately prepare students for the real world.

The image of a stern, exalted professor lecturing to a hall of students attentively clinging to his every word is a familiar one. This model may have worked for generations past, but the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that it is not the only possible way. In fact, it has shown that this method of teaching is incompatible with the challenges of modern life.

Rather than reverting to the old, we should continue to develop this new, collaborative style of education that is responsive to individual needs and volatile circumstances. Mutual compassion in a classroom allows for growth. Teachers can cater their curriculum to the reality of student experience, and students reciprocate this by engaging with their professors as fellow human beings.

Cultivating an atmosphere of compassion will have ripple effects, as graduating students will enter the workforce as more flexible, understanding and self-motivated employees. Rather than looking to their bosses to fill the role of seemingly all-knowing instructor, they will be practiced in the art of adaptation and collaboration. They will be comfortable completing work in a timely manner even without a firm deadline, which will reduce the need for managers to impose these deadlines on their employees. 

The mental health benefits of a compassionate classroom can be reasonably assumed to apply to the workplace as well. Students and professors have shown that compassion is not incompatible with productivity through their continued commitment to education despite the challenges of the pandemic; this should apply to life outside of a university as well.

Eventually, we will be in classrooms again and we will not be in a state of global emergency. We have a responsibility to ensure that the social progress we have made in responding to pandemic informs and improves the society of our future.