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High costs to learners

As costs are rising across every facet of life, I wanted to take a moment to consider how this is affecting our students and how we can address the issue with compassion.

It’s well known how poverty affects learners at every stage in their life: detrimentally. When students can’t afford nutritious food, their concentration dips. High energy costs lead to a plethora of behaviours, such as choosing to eat or heat during winter, or clamouring for warm spaces on a crowded campus. Many spend longer in their small student room rather than spend more money on transport to campus, which also socially isolates them. High costs may also drive many to drop out. Some behaviours are visible and some are hidden agonies that no one else can see.

As teachers, there is very little we can personally do to alleviate these pressures. There are some steps we can take to show support to our students, through signposting and compassion, knowing that small kindnesses can lift the spirits of those around us when they need it most.

Signposting – emergency and hardship support

It can be helpful to read through the webpages covering emergency funding and support that is available to students experiencing hardship. The range of support includes IT equipment, urgent financial needs, overall annual income needs, and summer vacation support.

There are also resources covering money advice that may be helpful to many. Likewise, the Students Union have resources listed on their pages.

Compassion – norms and expectations

The things we say in passing are heard just as much as the things we purposefully intend to communicate.

I was always amazed at the differences in norms and expectations of different social groups in my own teaching during seminar discussions, largely shaped by class differences and social dynamics in the room (and as a foreigner, the UK class system is a strange beast to me!). I was fortunate that my subject matter, archaeology and anthropology, leant itself to self-reflection of personal bias and cultural context, so that conversations that fell into socially-challenging areas could be handled with nuance. Not all subjects marry so well. But it may be enough to set expectations and boundaries clear from the start of the year in a way that makes sense for your own subject.

Compassion – avoiding drop out

Most educators are heartbroken when students leave their studies and attrition rates caused by poverty are certainly a high-risk area. Outside of the cost-of-living crisis, there are many reasons why students leave degree programmes and the compound affect of many factors pushes students to make that difficult decision. A recent study from South Africa noted some interesting rationale that included frustration with the administration, little self-confidence, failing grades, and difficulty learning new terminology and engagement with the discipline. Another interesting factor was the lack of induction that gave the students a firm grounding in the discipline, resulting in a lack of confidence at the start of the programme, meaning they felt they had fallen behind immediately. These issues are thorny and difficult to target, but much can be done locally if they emerge as problems – and keeping an eye out for them alone may make a huge difference.

Compassion – responses

It’s also helpful to think about how we respond with compassion to students not conforming to what we want from them. For example, a student who is working well through digital platforms but not showing up to class in person may be doing so because the cost of transport is too much for them. In that situation, expressing our frustrations will only impinge on the student negatively and do nothing to resolve the core issue. Not assuming the student is being difficult or lazy will help start resolution conversations with compassion. The weight of emotional maturity lands with the teacher to lead by example, and demonstrate that the student can trust the teacher to be actively compassionate. For many students, flexibility through compassion can get them through short-term life obstacles so that they can thrive in the long-term.

Next steps

These are just a few ideas to respond to the issues we can see right now and are certainly not exhaustive. Our team would love to hear more from you on this topic. You can comment below, or write to us at bilt-info@bristol.ac.uk. Please also join us for the Compassionate Conference next week.

The Compassionate Conference, 28th June, 10am – 4:10pm.

The BILT annual conference will explore how in difficult times we can take hopeful and compassionate approaches to teaching and assessment for transformational learning, both in person and on-line. The programme includes guest keynote speakers Sally Brown and Kay Sambell – Hear the latest from the sector on compassionate approaches to assessment design that support both staff and students View the full schedule and book here.

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