June 14, 2018

The powerful impact of educators who care

Senior biology lecturers Kevin Lam and Mala Chandani Fernando (centre) were deeply affected by Monique Gray Smith's keynote address at the 2018 Festival of Learning. Fernando said she was moved to tears. Credit: BCcampus

The theme of this year’s BCcampus 2018 Festival of Learning (May 28–30) was “Higher Education: Handle with Care.” For SFU senior biology lecturer Kevin Lam, a talk by keynote speaker Monique Gray Smith on how educators can care for students by creating community was particularly powerful.

Gray Smith is a mixed-heritage woman of Cree, Lakota and Scottish ancestry, a former Justice Institute of BC instructor and the author of several books on Indigenous education and reconciliation. She emphasized the positive and impactful role educators can play in the lives of their students—specifically through their capacity to recognize and nurture students’ gifts: “Educators can be a force for success ... Your words can be medicine for students.”  

The impact of a single phrase

Gray Smith shared a moment from her past to illustrate how the utterance of even a single phrase can change the trajectory of someone’s life, describing how a comment from a woman she barely knew—“I look forward to reading your book one day”—spurred her to author Tilly, a novel that received the 2014 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature. 

Gray Smith encouraged educators to consciously cultivate community within their classes through activities that bring warmth into the classroom—emotionally or physically: “I encourage you all as educators to serve traditional tea from the nation whose land you are gathered on during class ... because there is something that happens ... when you share food that creates relationships and enhances learning.”

An instructor reflects

For Kevin Lam, Gray Smith’s words about the influence instructors can have and the importance of helping students connect with each other resonated deeply. 

“Students struggle a lot in my first-year genetics class. Most of them are used to learning by memorization, but that doesn’t work in this course, where it’s all about problem solving. Morale is always pretty good until the first mid-term, but then so many of them get low marks—from trying to memorize their way through their exam preparations—that the mood drops for several weeks following that exam. The experience of studying hard but getting low grades is so devastating that some students never fully recover their confidence, it seems. Monique’s talk made me realize that I can, and should, do something to change students’ sense of belonging and care in my classrooms. She helped me realize that building a supportive community within the classroom is needed if I want my students to feel safe enough to explore a whole new way of learning, and to learn through their mistakes boldly and with resilience.”

Considering how to respond

Lam noted that while he might not be able to build meaningful relationships with every student in a class of 480 (or serve them all tea), the talk prompted him to think about ways to create space for informal conversations among his students, so that they can connect with each other.

“I am still mulling this around, but one thing I think I could do is use the five minutes before each lecture to do some quick activities modelled on Monique’s approach that can build relationships and turn the classroom into a community. I really appreciated how, during her talk, she invited the audience to take four mindful breaths and asked us to introduce ourselves to a stranger by sharing three things that we are grateful for.”

Lam added that he is also considering offering a few bonus marks to encourage students to come talk to him during office hours. 

Supporting students at SFU

As demonstrated in recent studies, many post-secondary students in Canada are feeling overwhelmed, alone and unequipped to cope with the demands of academia—with sometimes dire consequences for their mental health. The question is: what can educational institutions do about it? 

SFU Health Promotion and the Teaching and Learning Centre have produced a booklet on Creating Conditions for Well-Being in Learning Environments. Here are some suggestions from that publication:

  •  Encourage students to participate in study groups.
  •  Design lecture assignments that require students to collectively work on study questions and participate in small-group discussions.
  •  Ask students to take down the name and number of at least one of their peers so that they can connect should they miss a lecture or want to form a study group.
  • Suggest opportunities for students to interact outside of class time (if you have time to join them, that is even better).
  • Work with your teaching assistants to create opportunities for social connection and teamwork in tutorials or labs.
  •  Offer mini breaks in class and encourage students to take this time to get to know one another.
  • If possible, move tables and chairs into small groups to facilitate discussion (just be sure to return them after class).
  • Whenever possible, let students know you care about them and their success.
  • Demystify your role by sharing an anecdote, joke, or sharing something about yourself. 
  • Be learner-centred: “Be interested in learners instead of trying to be an interesting teacher.”
  • Consider alternative forms of office hours (for example, Skype, web conferencing, group office hours or Canvas chat) and let students know what to expect from office hours.
  • Personally invite small groups of students to attend office hours.