Before strict rules, compassion first

July 1, 2020 -- Living City

Before strict rules, compassion first
A passionate math professor sets aside methods he had relied on for 36

Mathematics has been my passion since high school, and I enjoy sharing this passion with others. For the past 36 years, I have been teaching mathematics in a university in Upstate New York.

I could walk into a classroom and teach the subject without notes, with only a whiteboard marker and eraser in hand. Occasionally, I would bring the textbook or laptop to calculate something quickly or to help a student solve a particular problem.

Then the coronavirus appeared, and schools were ordered closed for the rest of the semester! How was I supposed to teach when I couldn’t be in the classroom? Midweek before spring break, we were told that we may have to deliver all instruction online for the remainder of the semester. That Friday, we had to submit a plan on how we were to accomplish this and a list of resources we needed to do our job.

I never believed completely in online teaching and always wondered about the quality of learning in such an environment. How could I gauge if students understood what I was saying if I couldn’t see their facial expression? More importantly, how could I evaluate objectively what each student learned if the integrity of my assessments could be compromised so easily since I didn’t have control of the situation? For a moment, there was panic and a feeling of helplessness.

But I remembered that in doing the will of God, he gives us a special grace so that we can accomplish what is needed. I had to trust that my students would do their work honestly and that their desire to learn the material would be more important than that of obtaining a higher grade through dishonest means.

First I thought that I could make the exams harder so that they could not easily look things up in the computer or ask help. I could enforce stricter time limits regarding electronic submission of work and not allow late submissions.

But I knew that this pandemic was affecting everyone, my students, their families, their friends, and everyone needed a little more compassion and understanding. My students were already worried about a family member getting sick or laid off, and I felt that I shouldn’t cause additional stress and burden.

Moreover, what if the internet broke down and students couldn’t access the exam or submit it on time? They were living in different time zones; those farthest couldn’t be expected to take an exam at 3am. Some students didn’t have scanners or printers, and the list of unforeseen obstacles went on.

So I basically had to give up some of the strict rules about student work that I had followed for more than 35 years. I found myself answering a lot more emails with requests for extensions, resubmissions due to corrupted transmissions, clarifications on questions and other problems. I had to be more patient, generous and forgiving in dealing with them.

After assuming this new attitude, I still had no materials to teach online, no handouts, and certainly no videos of myself talking to a blackboard while writing equations. For the next several weeks, I had to write notes and scan them into the university learning system, create slides, scrounge the internet for useful videos on partial differential equations and learn Zoom so I could “meet” my three classes virtually.

This has all become the will of God for me in this particular period. I had to do these things to help my students.

My wife was on furlough, and we were suddenly together 24 hours for several weeks. It was a glimpse of retirement, except I was in my home office all day preparing or teaching class. She kept busy sewing facemasks for us and preparing meals. Unity was sometimes hard, but when we tried to stay in this new will of God, he was always present.

I look forward to seeing my students again and traveling with my wife to visit our children. I believe it will happen in God’s time.

- Mao Bautista, New York


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